When will this be over? When will I stop dealing with this? Why does this keep happening to me? When will I finally be happy?”
These are some of the questions I am most frequently asked as people begin working with me. For those of us who have experienced loss, grief, and other forms of trauma, these questions may feel especially salient. And when we have engaged in multiple courses of therapy, our desire for final resolution may feel even more powerful.
It seems reasonable to want our pain to resolve—and certainly seems reasonable to desire happiness. We would not engage in therapy if we didn’t believe the process would provide answers to our questions and provide us with the skills we need to manage the challenges in our lives. To feel effective as therapists, we believe that our job is to help resolve problems in order for our clients to live more happily. In fact, we are trained in multiple methods and techniques to help others overcome life’s problems.
Happiness as a Goal
When I am meeting with people for the first time and we explore motivations for therapy, many report happiness as the goal. Life has included so much pain and sadness, with only glimpses of happiness, that the hope for therapy is a life of continuous joy. I try to listen very carefully. I try to validate and affirm the pain. And I try to understand how each moment or period of pain has potential to feel and look differently at different stages of our lives. I also consider how a painful or traumatic event experienced and processed at one age might find its way into another time of our life–looking and feeling both similar and different to how it did originally. I know I can’t answer the questions that were first posed to me in our first sessions, though I am fairly certain we can improve quality of life and foster a greater sense of satisfaction.
And while I don’t say this initially, I also consider how and when I can invite us to consider that life without pain is unreasonable; that each moment or period of suffering has the potential to ripple through our lives and look differently later than it does when it first happens. Of course wanting periods of happiness is reasonable, but the idea of having a life that is always happy can be an elusive goal and all too often, a disappointing one.
The Past Recycles
After several years of therapy and gradual but steady progress, one woman came to a session feeling much like she did when we first began our work together. “I can’t believe I feel this way,” she said. “Shouldn’t I be over this”? The “this” she referred to were the residual effects from a history of childhood sexual abuse. When she started therapy she had nightmares, struggled in her relationship with her partner, and believed she could not parent her children because of the way she was parented. After several years of therapy, her nightmares had stopped. Her relationship with her partner had deepened, and she felt proud of the way she had launched both children from home to college.
Seeing her last child leave for college ignited fears of loneliness and isolation. The bustle of her home was replaced by a slower but less predictable routine with her partner. The quiet was unsettling and reminded her of her childhood when quiet was never safe and was almost always followed by abuse. As we continued to understand her current anxiety, she became aware of how it connected with her past and why it was arising in the present. It wasn’t that she hadn’t dealt with her past. Of course she had—to the extent that she could, given her life space at the time. Her current life circumstances and associated feelings created an opportunity to understand how past experiences and themes were arising for her now. And because of the skills she had developed in therapy, she had a greater ability to understand and manage these old feelings as they pierced the present.
And for all of us, our themes accompany us throughout our lives. At different points of our journey, our past also becomes somehow “different”. The actual events of the past don’t change, but our understanding of them and the meaning we derive from them might shift and change as we grow and change. And it is at these junctures that we can answer questions like those posed initially.
Finding Greater Happiness
When will this be over? When will I stop dealing with this? Why does this keep happening to me?” When will I finally be happy?
This may never be over but it may hurt less and less or, in situations like my client’s, it may be “over” at one point in life but may come back when circumstances change. We will never stop dealing with “it” but the “it” may change over time, and may arise less frequently and with less intensity. And because of skills we develop through life experience and other forms of self-care (including therapy), we’re able to manage more effectively the varied ways the past may emerge in the present. And happiness will come and go, though the frequency and duration with which we experience it can increase dramatically over time.
It’s not unreasonable to desire happiness. But it may be unreasonable to expect that our lives will always be happy. Through some of our most trying times, we gain strength, self-awareness, determination, and pride. And during our happier times, we are reminded that we have grown and changed, that happiness is possible, and that we have the capacity to weather life’s storms with a knowledge that we may emerge stronger and with a more open heart.
“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
Written by Jeff Levy, LCSW, CTRS