One of the reasons I entered the field of psychotherapy is because I have long believed wellness awaits each of us once we define and heal our own emotional pain. We choose the time.
Although I am well aware that there are countless individuals who suffer from incurable diseases, chronic disorders, severe mental illness and/or physical disabilities, and there are innocent victims of varying sorts of trauma who are unable to escape their unsafe environments, I am constantly amazed at the resiliency of the human spirit and how individuals overcome insurmountable obstacles. At the same time, many of us are frustrated and saddened as we witness capable individuals who remain stuck in their unhealthy ways of living and who struggle daily with unnecessary hardships.
If wellness awaits each of us, why is it that only some people choose it?
Because there have been countless articles and books written on this very topic, we am going to explore three insights based not only from my professional experience as a Marriage and Family Therapist, but also in my personal life as well. Let’s get started.
- Emotional Pain
You might have heard or experienced the sayings – “Well, she hit her bottom”; “For him, there was nowhere else to go but up”; or “They finally figured out that what they were doing wasn’t working.” These are all sound explanations for motivating individuals towards wellness. However, they camouflage an underlying truth – the emotional pain being experienced is no longer tolerable.
Whether it is an alcoholic who has lost his family, job, and self-respect; a codependent who has rescued the uncontrollable for the 100th time depleting all her resources; a teen girl who has threatened to break it off with her controlling boyfriend again; or whether it is a narcissistic demanding parent who has alienated his children one more time, in each situation the individual experiences tremendous pain. The individual experiences a new truth and all are experiencing emotional pain.
When the emotional pain outweighs the behaviour that sustains it, choosing wellness becomes the only option.
Whenever I think back to choosing my different recovering journeys, each time I credit the pain for propelling me towards wellness. Years ago, I was horribly betrayed by a family member. For a long time, I felt confused, worthless, and powerless over the betrayal. In my pain, I remember feeling so angry and incredibly resentful. Every time I had contact with this person, I was re-injured. Eventually, I finally reached my breaking point. I’d had enough.
I realized the emotional pain of being in the relationship no longer controlled me; instead, the pain empowered me to do the hard work of detaching from it.
I grabbed hold of the recovery tools I needed. I began setting boundaries and shoring up old ones. I divested myself in multiple ways from the relationship. And over time, I let go of the bitterness that was holding me hostage. Pain brought me to wellness’ door. I chose to open it and walk through.
It is interesting that when we are injured physically or become ill, we don’t usually think twice about doing whatever it is that our physician has requested of us. We go through a series of tests or lab work. We have surgeries and we take medications. Some patients spend days, weeks, and even months going through excruciating physical therapy. If we want to lose weight or just embrace a healthier lifestyle, we, again, adopt the mindset of a long-term regime or routine of exercise and/or diet. However, why is it that when it comes to choosing psychological, emotional, and relational wellness, we are often not as willing to apply that same mindset to our recovery work? Why do we expect a quick fix? When I think of individuals who have not only chosen wellness but who have sustained it, they welcome in a new insight.
They adopt the perspective that they are willing to do the hard work for as long as it takes.
A number of years ago, a young couple came in to see me. I will call them James and Jasmine. Although they were in their late twenties (meeting in high school and married right after), they marriage had endured many traumas. Separated by military duty, multiple affairs, a history of past sexual abuse, and chronic stress from toxic in-laws, James and Jasmine were like two broken puppets hanging from a thin piece of thread when they entered therapy. At the end of our hour and pulling my notes together from the intake , I was feeling a little bleak about their future together. Knowing the long road this couple had ahead of them, I didn’t mince my words when I explained their treatment plan: individual sessions for both, couple’s sessions, written and verbal exercises; homework…lots of homework, and follow-up sessions with referrals and support groups, etc.
I remember closing with these words, “You didn’t get here overnight and it’s going to take a while to get to where you want to be. Are you willing to do the hard work?”
I will never forget their response, “We will do whatever it takes.”
James and Jasmine did exactly that and more. I’ve never known a couple who worked any harder than they did.
Their pain brought them into my office.
Their perspective about their recovery work carried them through it.
In preparation for today’s conversation, I have spent hours reflecting on friends, family members, and former clients who have chosen wellness. From those with more minor struggles to those who endured the most horrific injuries and injustices, I vividly recall that these brave souls – at some time in sharing their narratives – had a clear purpose in choosing wellness. Yes, it was to live a healthier, happier, and more whole life. But, it was also reflected in comments such as these:
- I don’t want to repeat the same mistakes of my parents.
- I want to be a better mother for my daughter.
- I want to set an example for my children and for others.
- I want my life to mean something.
- I want to be able to give back.
- It is so important for me to make a difference in my family and with others.
Individuals who choose wellness know that they first must take care of themselves. Yes, they must put the focus inward and do their hard work. At the same time, these same individuals are keenly aware of the impact and influence their wellness (or lack of) has on those who love them and care for them. Their purpose is two-fold:
Healing themselves leaves a legacy of healing.
I never like to admit that over the years I had a few favorite clients, but to be honest that does happen! I will always remember a successful male client in his late 40’s, married three times, and a father of two grown young men and one little girl (from his last marriage). I will call him Richard. Richard came in to see me after his second marriage fell apart and then again after his third marriage didn’t last. Richard struggled with depression and was also extremely codependent. He was somewhat estranged from his adult sons, and along with working on his presenting issues, he was committed to being a good father to his little girl.
One day in session, Richard broke down, “Holli, I want to do it differently this time. I don’t want my daughter to hate me, like my sons. I need to do this right. I want to get healthy for myself, but for her too. I don’t want to keep repeating the same patterns of failure. I want to be a good dad.”
Over the next year, Richard faithfully attended our sessions. He worked harder on his recovery than he ever had in the past. And over the next several years, Richard came in for his “10,000 mile check- up”, as he called it. Richard was an extraordinary father. It brings tears to my eyes just thinking about all the ways he gave to his daughter: father-daughter night, coaching her soccer team, teaching her how to ride a bike, taking her camping, brushing her hair and his frustration in trying to put in a ponytail, teaching her to cook when he struggled with it himself, holding her as they watched movies together, and loving her. Mostly, as he shared with me, he gave her the gift of a healthy father.
Richard entered therapy as a bundle of pain.
His hard work was evidenced in his recovering perspective.
His purpose was reflected in his self-care and in his love for a little girl.
Part 2: Wellness awaits each of us. Why is it that some people don’t choose it? Get ready for three intriguing insights!
Publisher’s Note: Holli Kenley is an American Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the author of “ Daughters Betrayed By Their Mothers: Moving from Brokenness to Wholeness” and “Power Down & Parent Up!: Cyber Bullying, Screen Dependence & Raising Tech-Healthy Children”