“How do you handle listening to people’s problems all day?” – questions to your therapist from Buzzfeed. Answer: I don’t!
Buzzfeed.co.uk had a page about therapy for Mental Health week, “19 Questions You’ve Definitely Wanted To Ask Your Therapist.” Silly yes, but they have enough sense, I thought I’d answer a few. (Also: Buzzfeed, you are so wrong about therapy.)
Question #17 is “How do you handle listening to people’s problems all day?” And the answer is … I just don’t do it! Listening to problems is draining. Pain, however, is different. Meeting authentic pain is inspiring. Indeed it is an honour. Let me explain the difference.
Click here for all “pop songs with truth” posts ♦ Click here for all relationship and couples posts ♦ Click here for all radical meditation postsPeople’s problems – what’s wrong, how depressed they feel, how stupid they perceive themselves to be, how worthless they feel; broadly, I don’t ask. It is not useful to focus at length on what is wrong . Mostly, this kind of negative inner voice leads nowhere at high speed. It is very, very draining to listen to; you can’t pay this particular therapist enough to sit and listen to someone being depressed. It doesn’t help the person.
I mostly say to people that in my experience the time is best spent working on how to make things better right from the first minute of the first meeting. And if they clearly need to have negative things heard, then I suggest they propose a time, 5 minutes or an hour or whatever, to allot to this. And for that time I listen with respect and interest, because I know there is a valid need to be heard underneath it. Some people really need that.
Underneath all the hurt of negative life experiences, everyone is brilliant. And the best way to start to get rid of the effects of the negative experiences is to connect directly with the brilliance. It’s not “First I’ll make myself OK, then only I’ll like myself.” Rather, you connect with (maybe beginning to start to) like yourself despite everything – despite everything – and the OK-ness grows on its own. That is always one key facet of the work: focus on the positive no matter how small, and it will begin to grow very big. Self-love are self-respect are the galvanic energy that starts therapy off, not a distant and unattainable goal. Some people find that hard to believe, but it is so.
Vital though a positive focus is, to have only a positive focus is unreal. In fact if there is only a positive focus, in a strange way clients feel unsafe, because they think the therapist is afraid of the depth of their distress. And sometimes a person’s life does contain dark and terrible places. But it’s like this. There are “problems,” and there is “pain.” Problems are depressing, but the depressed, negative voice is most often draining and useless to engage with. At the core of the life-wide problems [obviously not more minor issues] is a root of real, true and sometimes agonising pain. Commonly deeply buried buried because it was originally so frightening and overwhelming, this authentic pain can feel almost life-threatening to talk about. But, approached in the right way and at the right time (that is EXTREMELY important), it is healing to meet this pain; profoundly, deeply healing. This is a part of what I refer to as “radical meditation”.
And far from being draining to listen to, this pain has a depth and a beauty and a power and strength. It is an honour to be allowed to meet and to help with someone’s core pain. For me as a therapist, while it can be very touching indeed, it is not harrowing. And it is for sure not depressing, on the contrary it is inspiring and uplifting to see how the human spirit triumphs and emerges from the dark places.
It’s worth repeating the essential proviso, that you meet this core hurt in the right time and the right way. Otherwise of course it could be an awful experience. You first have to build up a solid basis of safety and self-trust.
I’ve never, ever had the feeling that people who open to there vulnerability in this way are lacking, inadequate, despicable, weak, powerless or no good. The vulnerability always inspires respect. Always in the exact moment of the vulnerability I have the feeling of” Yes, people really ARE brilliant and once again this proves it.” It takes real trust in life and yourself and courage to go to these places. So the simple answer to Buzzfeed’s question is “Problems? I don’t listen to problems!”. Most of my day is spent listening to people being brilliant or daring to believe they are brilliant. I don’t listen much to negativity. But authentic pain, in those situations when it needs to be met, that is another matter altogether. It is a privilege to be allowed to accompany these courageous explorers as they meet and overcome the dragons in the depths.