The stereotypes would have us believe that those who see a therapist are broken, crazy, weak, incapable or lesser-than. My experience has been the opposite. Those I work with are quite strong in many ways, not least in their willingness to face the pain and suffering that comes with change. They have more than the usual ability to be vulnerable, and by owning their brokenness, show forth the glory of humanity. (More on that here) They have often given me the gift of seeing the world through their eyes, and it can be a beautiful view. Today I celebrate those shared moments by sharing some of the images or metaphors with which they have described their experience. *
Suffering and Sadness as Stairs to Freedom
One day I was sitting with a man as he embraced emotional pain for the first time. As he allowed himself to feel sadness, anger, guilt, and the pain that went with them, he experienced a huge sense of relief and lightening, as if a burden had been lifted. As we made sense of his experience later, he shared this image. “I felt like I was all alone, trapped in a basement, bound in by walls that were made out of bricks called Shame, Guilt, Anger, Sadness, Doubt, Loneliness. When I touched the walls, I felt those things, and they hurt. So eventually I just sat in the middle of the floor, not moving. But today I walked toward the wall, and found that I could touch the bricks and tolerate the pain. And as I did, the bricks became stairs that led me out of the box and toward what I value. To climb out, I have to touch each of those stairs, contact them, and experience Shame, Guilt, Anger, Sadness, Doubt, and Loneliness. But if I am willing, each contact raises me toward my goal. Touching those feelings one by one lifts me up, and gives me back my freedom.”
I only hope that God grants me the grace to contact my own painful steps, and continue moving towards the man I want to be.
Riding a Motorcycle in the Rain
A client once told me a story about a friend of his. He described his friend as a biker who loved his motorcycle, riding wherever he needed to go, regardless of the weather. One day the rain was coming down in particularly large drops, which made travel on the bike like being pelted by an unrelenting stream of jelly beans thrown at 60mph. Nevertheless, he got off the bike and greeted his friend with a smile. When asked why he traveled via bike in that weather, he said it was exhilarating. “It stings, but I have never felt more alive.” It was clear to me that this was the meaning my client made out of the pain of his own change. It HURT, but it was a “good pain,” one that left him feeling more vibrant and vital, more fully alive.
I know I will remember this. I can think of my own times of vibrant suffering. It helps me remember that both joy and pain are a part of life, and when we embrace them, both can wake us up and show us a moment beyond.
The Cost of Being Superman
Another client shared a different style of interacting with pain. He had rarely ever showed me a weakness, instead emphasizing his achievements. At one point, however, he stated that he felt like Superman. When I expressed curiosity, he simply said “I am so tired.” Seeing the surprise on my face, he stated that he was always the strong one, always competent and capable, never said no to a request for help. He felt his help was always needed, but that he could never let his guard down for a moment, never stop, or relax. And it seemed that no one was ever there to assist him, or notice if he needed help. Being Superman was lonely and exhausting.
I found myself saying to him that it is hard to connect with a man with no needs, that paradoxically, it is our weaknesses that invite others into our lives. As I said it, I realized I might as well have been talking to myself.
As a man in American culture, I have often heard the same messages. Be strong, capable, independent. Do not need anyone, provide for everyone. Be a superhero. DON’T LISTEN! It never works! Not even with strong suspension of disbelief can we stomach heroes without weaknesses, protagonists who do not struggle. Every Achilles has his heel. Without it, there would be no story to tell, no way to connect our lives to the drama on the screen. We need each other, and the only way to real connection is to share authentically, strengths and weaknesses.
Gently Holding a Cactus
Picture this: You finally stop fighting, unclench your balled fists, and turn your hands upward in a receptive gesture. A feather lands in your hand. It is soft, smooth and light. It is pleasant to touch and you can hold it gently. You leave your hands open in a receptive gesture. At another time a cactus is placed in your hands. It is thorny, sharp. It is uncomfortable to have, AND you can hold it gently. You leave your hands open in a receptive gesture.
Can you imagine what it would be like not to hold the cactus gently? To forcefully shove it away? To close your hands against receiving it? Ouch! That pain is the place in which most of my clients enter therapy. Their gift to me has been inviting me to participate with them as they learn to hold their suffering gently, and leave their hands open to receive all that comes.
What metaphors guide your life? What images help you to make sense of your own mission? Feel free to share here and enlighten the life of another! If you want to receive future posts via email, just visit this page to subscribe, or click the links in the sidebar to follow us.
*Names are not used and the details are altered as a way of protecting the confidentiality of these brave individuals.