Updated: Jan 13, 2021
I wish I had known to say this out loud when I was a younger therapist in the beginning of sessions. I do now. Actually, I find myself saying something like that throughout the session, interweaving the statement, or ones like it, almost constantly.
Our eyes only look outward. Everything we experience in our lives tricks us into thinking it exists on the outside of us, that we take it in, that it happens to us, that we are in a state of receptivity to our world. And yes, of course much of that is the case.
I see the robin's nest in our maple tree. It is outside of me. I can watch it year after year whether the birds come back to use it again or not. I can attempt to manipulate the environment, to encourage it, try to manage other wildlife, create an inviting tree as best as possible and on and on. All of that is useful and influences my world, and therefore, my experience of it. I want the robins back. As much as possible, I am going to try to get them to come to my yard. It matters to me for a whole bunch of reasons. But those reasons and those feelings and the mattering is all on the inside of me. Those robins cause me to feel something (yes they do, the science of interconnectivity is for another post). But the aspect of the feeling that exists on the inside of me is mine. It is the inner-world experience that I have, and it is unique to me. It only exists in my internal world, and I have the ability to shape and reshape that experience. And thank god that is true, because those birds did not come this year.
It impacted me, and the impact came from the outside, but the experience is within. And so, when I get out on that deck, I have one foot in regret and despair (that they may never come back and I will watch that nest decay over the years and might I have caused them to not want to be here?) ....and the other foot in anticipation and excitement (that this year is the year, spring can't come fast enough, I am sure they will return because conditions are just right).
Recognizing, monitoring, nurturing, creating, deconstructing and reconstructing all of the regret, anticipation and the associated thoughts and beliefs is our task in therapy. It is not to manage the birds or the nest. Now of course, when you come in to see me, I am going to help explore all the external-world issues and look at what we can do differently to change and adjust everything on the outside. That may even take up most of our time some days. But it is in the face of the lack of ability to control our outer world that we are doing our real therapeutic work.
The landscape of our psychic terrain is the only place where we have true freedom to create who we are. Sure, our actions define us as well, but those emanate from our internal worlds. To be able to experience the most distressing events, relationships and circumstances with peace, wisdom and grace…or with fortitude, confrontation and constructiveness if that is more authentic to you…happens on the inside. This is where your therapist should be taking you and assisting you.
I usually get to this discussion when my clients are in their moments of most extreme despair. Life-threatening illness, loss of a child or spouse, experiencing an acute trauma, all of which are often beyond our control as much of life is. And when my client is in that moment of the most acute despair, they always ask the same question...what do I do?
You must first decide how you will be. The doing is effortless after that.
Regardless of the struggles you encounter in life, or the reasons that take you to therapy, ask your therapist if they can define for you...what is the point of therapy with them? What are they trying to achieve for you? Your therapist cannot give you a handbook for living or a list of choices and behaviours that will certainly resolve your distress. But they can help you design an internal world that is resilient, joyful, graceful, wise, peaceful, excited, curious.... whomever it is that you want to be. In our field this is called “process work”…If you are not getting that in the room, ask for it.
Britta Regan West MA, RCC, TITC/CT-CFST Clinical Counsellor, Clinical Traumatologist, Compassion Fatigue Specialist