What Are My Issues?
Ever gone to a new therapist and been asked, "so what brought you here," only to have your mind go blank? Even wonder why this happens to us? Is it that we get intimidated by this question? Worried what we'll sound like? Or is it something deeper? In this episode of Plain Talk about Talk Therapy, we'll explore why we go to therapy. The thing most people call their "issues." We'll also look at whether "issues" even exist or not. Do you think they do? You might be surprised. Let's find out.
Consulting the OED?
What the heck is the "OED?"
The OED is the word lover's nickname for the world's largest dictionary of English. The Oxford English Dictionary. Currently it's in its second edition. Twenty thick blue original volumes plus three somewhat meager 300 plus page additions. The cost? Leather bound and discounted. $6000. Or in the economical hard cover version. About $1500. For a dictionary. Imagine!
So what does my old friend the OED have to say about the word, "issues?"
Start with that what it says takes up a whole lot of space on some very big pages. Which means what? Which means the word "issues" has a whole lot of meanings. No surprise here. What is interesting though is that if you digress through the word's etymology (it's life-as-a-word history), you eventually arrive at a single Latin word. The word, "exire." Which in English, roughly means "to go out."
"To go out?" What the heck does "to go out" have to do with the issues people work on in therapy? Moreover, is this what therapists mean when they ask, "so what brought you here?"
Actually. Yes. This is exactly what they mean. Albeit, most therapists would probably not recognize this phrase as the true meaning of the word, "issues." Unless, of course, they took the time to consult the OED.
Have I lost you? Sorry. It's just that, similar to how I love to explore the lives of people, I love to explore the lives of words. The back to the beginning, seminal, often mysterious original meanings. For me, these meanings explain a whole lot about the people who made up these words; their lives and times. They also explain what these words could and should mean to us here in the present. Their true meanings. What they meant before we digressed them through a world class version of the game, "telephone."
What then does the phrase "to go out" have to do with your issues? And why am I making such a big deal out of this phrase?
The truth? (Big breath now.) Because there are no "issues." Issues simply do not exist. At least, not as something we can actually heal. Which means what exactly? Which means that when a therapist asks you to tell her your issues, she is asking you to do something which, at first, may make you feel better, but in the long run, will make you feel worse.
Worse? Are you kidding? How does this happen?
First the feel better part. When you name an issue, you feel better. Temporarily anyway. Why? Because you now have a name for the thing that has been hurting you. A name which the therapist has knowledge of.
This then leads you to have hope. After all, if she's seen this before and she's still in business, she must have some way to make this problem go away. Or at least, some way in which to make it better.
Unfortunately, the real reason these names make people feel better is that they depersonalize peoples' suffering. Translation. Technical words distance us from our pain. In effect, we get to be educated watchers of our suffering as opposed to being suffering sufferers of our suffering.
So yes, when we name an issue, we do feel better. At least, at first. However, because these words lead us away from the source of our suffering, they actually decrease our chances of feeling better. How? By masking the real problem with depersonalized words like, "issues."
Confused? If so, before you toss me off and leap shrug faced from your reading chair, please allow me a moment to state my case.
Issues. Let's take a real one. An issue people once discussed a whole lot more. The issue? "Codependency." Arrrgh, what a mouthful of mealy mouthed mush this word is. So does "codependency" actually exist? Not really. And to see this for yourself, watch this. Watch how a typical issue like codependency could and should evaporate from the therapy.
Talk Therapy at Level One : I have always had issues with men who drink, but at least now I know I am a co-dependent.
This is the place at which a decent talk therapy begins. At a vague generalization for the person's suffering. What makes it so vague? For one thing the length of time the client references. I have always had? Really. You have always had. Still, this always is often a good place to begin the therapy nonetheless.
Talk Therapy at Level Two: Even when I was a little girl, I always felt like I was the one who had to protect everyone from my father's alcoholism.
This is the place a decent talk therapy would then progress to. Eventually. Over time. Carefully and respectfully. Arriving here might even be called an "insight," although what is being referenced here does not reach very deeply into the person's mind. Or heart. Moreover, true insights amaze the person. Level Two "insights" simply amaze the therapist.
Talk Therapy at Level Three: When I was very small I used to get scared a lot on Sundays, when my father would drink and get angry and I would have to run to my room.
This is the place to which good talk therapists bring their clients whenever their clients ask for more.
What makes clients ask for more? Perhaps the therapy is stalled. Not moving. Perhaps the therapist is bored. Or boring. Perhaps the therapist recently grew as a person, meaning, she now has more to give. Perhaps a painful world event just shook up both the therapist and client and life has once again become precious.
Whatever the case, going to Level Three in talk therapy is always a good thing.
Talk Therapy at Level Four: I can see a scene at the Sunday dinner table where my father was drunk and he was beating my mother.
This is the place a really good talk therapy gets to when the therapist finds the courage to provoke the client's pain. Admittedly, this provoking thing is hard to do, especially since doing it causes open hearted therapists to suffer along with their clients. Not exactly what the cold head-with-feet (all mind - no body) therapy schools tell therapists they should be doing. Nor what the heart-on-wheels (all body - no mind) therapy schools want clients to experience. Nonetheless, this place is where the real healing begins. And yes. I said, "begins."
Talk Therapy at Level Five: I can see my fathers' eyes staring right through me and I can hear him saying, if you don't stop crying I'll beat you too.
Here the therapist has the client right on the verge of a healing moment. Right on the verge? You mean this is not a healing moment? Actually, no. It's not. However, the therapist does have the client right on the verge of a real healing moment though. Mere seconds away, in fact. Which means, if you, as the therapist, know what to do next, your client will heal this wound. If not, then you'll stop here and your client will miss healing by an instant.
What a shame. And it's so unnecessary really. Especially since it's so easy for therapists (and clients) to learn what to do in these moments. Including how to know you are at this point and how to go past it.
What would a healing moment look like then? Before we go there, I'd like to ask you to try something first. See if you can picture these five statements in succession from one to five. Not just mentally, mind you. But visually. In your mind.
Can you do it? Can you picture someone telling you these five statements in succession, including what they look like through the client's eyes?
- I have always had issues with men who drink, but at least now I know I am a co-dependent.
- Even when I was a little girl, I always felt like I was the one who had to protect everyone from my father's alcoholism.
- When I was very small I used to get scared a lot on Sundays, when my father would drink and get angry and I would have to run to my room.
- I can see a scene at the Sunday dinner table where my father was drunk and he was beating my mother.
- I can see my fathers' eyes staring right through me and I can hear him saying, if you don't stop crying I'll beat you too.
As you pictured these five scenes then, did you notice how the therapy became more and more focused as you moved through the levels from the "issue" to the wounding scene? Did you also notice how quickly the "issue" disappeared? And did you also notice you increasingly became able to visualize this woman's life as you progressed from Level One to Level Five. As well as becoming more able to feel her suffering right along with her?
Why have I asked you to picture all this? Because talk therapy happens only when new pictures emerge in the mind. New logic is never enough. Moreover, this idea; that visualization is the only route to genuine healing will be one of the main themes we'll explore in coming episodes.
For now, know that simply visualizing these five statements in sequence has the power to awaken in you one of the core skills necessary for a truly powerful talk therapy; knowing where the wound exists. Moreover, because these kinds of personally meaningful experiences have the power to expand your mind, once learned, this knowledge is permanent.
Would you like to know, with confidence, where wounds exist? If so, then know the first step toward learning this skill is to see how issues differ from wounds.
As for what healing looks like, we're getting to it. I promise. Before we do though, we need to first take a deeper look at how these five statements moved from the issue to the wounding scene.
How Talk Therapy Moves the Person into Position to Heal
Knowing how therapy moves people into position to heal requires you understand what lies beneath these five statements. And how to guide this unfolding process. With this in mind, let's take a deeper look at this sequence. The etymology of this human story. The heartfelt journey part of the therapy.
To do this, I'll need to introduce you to the theoretical perspective which underlies these ideas. Emergence Personality Theory. Moreover, because the story is the main focus here and not the theory, I'll need to ask you to hold your questions for now regarding this theory and simply do your best to follow along.
I have always had issues with men who drink, but at least now I know I am a co-dependent.
In Emergence Personality Theory, we use several metaphors for personality. One of them, the onion you see in this diagram, represents personality as a ten layer onion. Using this metaphor then, we call what happens in this statement moving from personality Layer One (the outer most layer of the ten nested layers of personality) to personality Layer Two (the next to outer most layer of the ten nested layers of personality).
More descriptively, we say this means the person has changed their state of being from a state of personal non existence (the dead brown outer layer of the onion) to a state in which explanations, excuses, and civilized blame dominate (one step removed from this brown dead layer). Know we'll go into these ideas in more depth in later episodes. For now, please just try to sense what this change of state would feel like.
"I don't exist."
"I have always had issues."
Big difference, yes? Still, not a very heartfelt description of the person's injury yet. Nor very personal. Even so, this second sentence does fit nicely into a therapist's chart notes. Or into a client's daily diary, which, by the way, always makes me wonder why they don't call what clients write in their diaries, "diarrhea." I have always had issues. Sounds like verbal diarrhea to me.
Even when I was a little girl, I always felt like I was the one who had to protect everyone from my father's alcoholism.
Here the client has moved from the technically stylized notation of a professional talk therapist's chart notes to the more emotion laden words of a vulnerable little girl. A significant improvement in the therapy, no doubt. Which by the way, Emergence Personality Theory would call moving from Layer 2 (permanent excuses and explanations) to Layer Three (temporary excuses and explanations.)
To what do we attribute this change of state to? Basically to one thing. The length of time about which we are talking has shortened again. From the woman's whole life to a part of her childhood. And not even to all of her childhood, mind you. Nor to all of her babyhood or latency age or her teenage years. We're just looking at her little girlhood now.
Amazing how this simple shift in the range of time has changed the whole story here. Can you feel it?
Can you also sense how differently you might react to hearing these two statements. In the first, a woman describes how she dates alcoholics. In the second, she describes how, as a little girl, she felt obligated to manage her father's alcoholism.
Next she narrows her focus even more.
When I was very small, I used to get scared a lot on Sundays, when father would drink and get angry and I would have to run to my room.
Now the woman has shifted her state of being into Emergence Personality Theory's Layer Seven; into the "pure symptoms" layer. Which, while it may seem to focus more on the father than on the little girl, actually more describes what the little girl saw. Her visual viewpoint. What she witnessed of her father's anger.
In addition, she's also narrowed both her chronological age and the amount of time she's referencing. From all of little girlhood to on Sundays during very little girlhood. The point? Less time. More focus. As well as more feeling.
At this point she narrows her focus to a single event.
I can see a scene at the Sunday dinner table where my father was drunk and he was beating my mother.
At this point, we're approaching the actual wounding scene. The origin of this woman's painful life pattern with alcoholic men. And while this scene may, in fact, be only an approximation of the actual wounding scene, none the less, it qualifies as that she has stepped up onto a stage on which she may experience healing. If she keeps moving forward.
We also get a pretty good insight into what her romances may have been like. Even from these few words then we can already infer that her alcoholic romances involve scary angry men who barely control their physical tempers and who threaten her. Especially at meal times. And especially on weekends.
The time frame of this narrative? Narrowed even more. Now we're looking at a small part of a single day. A single Sunday dinner scene.
What is also important to notice here is that in this scene, the client has disappeared as a girl and has become an observing narrator. A sure sign abuse was happening. She, in fact, makes no mention of herself at all, other than what we might infer if we put ourselves in her place.
Can you picture this little girl stiffly poised in silence, fearfully looking for an opening?
Finally she narrows her focus to an exact instant in time. The onset of the wounding moment.
I can see my father's eyes staring right through me and I hear him saying, if you don't stop crying, I'll beat you too.
Here the client is finally in position to heal her injury. She can see her father's eyes staring right through her head and she can hear him saying, if you don't stop crying, I'll beat you too.
This, in fact, refers to an exact moment in this single Sunday dinner scene. A few seconds long glance at best. Very focused now.
So why isn't this realization the healing moment? Simple. Healing moments always center on two things. Time flows through and past this startling moment and the person feels amazed. You see, one of the things which makes our psychological wounds hurt us so badly is that we stall poised on the edge of a psychological abyss. We feel stuck in a kind of emotional mid air and fully expect to fall into an abyss in the next instant.
Do we fall?
We never know.
Because the essence of being injured is that our minds go blank. Which means we never do see how these scenes ended up. We literally never witness the instants which follow our wounding moments. And this is true even if we spend years in therapy trying to review these scenes.
So when does the healing occur? It occurs in the instant following this instant. And only in this next instant. However, because the nature of being wounded includes that our minds go blank, we never realize how close we come to healing these wounds. Why? Because the shock of the empty mind prevents us from seeing what happened next.
What would this woman's healing moment look like?
Perhaps, the woman would see her father's eyes well up with tears, as he saw her scared little face and felt overwhelmed with shame. This, in fact, might have been the actual mechanism whereby she became the designated protector of her mother and siblings. Seeing the effect her scared face had on her father. Which in this kind of scene might make a little girl feel responsible. So much so, in fact, she might even become a talk therapist.
What else might she see in the healing instant? She might see her mother abruptly bark at her father to get out of the room. That he was scaring the children.
Here again, the little girl's scared face could have been the impetus for her mother's outburst. Having never consciously witnessed her mother's actions though, this woman may have been filling in the blanks, all her life, with what she logically assumed happened; that she was the only one who spoke up to her father.
What about if she was the only one who spoke up to her father?
Even here, visually witnessing an end to this dreadful event would permanently alter her mental choices. How? By allowing her to imagine these scenes as temporary and brief, rather than permanent and never ending.
Whatever the real story turned out to be, the thing to see is the same. The idea that visually witnessing the few seconds following a startling instant completes the wounding event in the client's mind. Consciously and forever. Which means that any and all similar scenes would also heal. Including scenes which may have occurred to her later in her life.
What do we call these healing moments then, the instants in which we suddenly see the few seconds past the painful moment?
Sometimes we call them an aha. Sometimes, we call them a eureka. Spiritual folks often call them moments of true insight. And therapists often call them breakthroughs.
In Emergence Personality Theory, they are simply called what the mathematicians and physicists would call them. Emergences. Which in our story simply means a beautiful pattern suddenly emerges from the chaos of human suffering. A healing moment. A life changing event. An end to the person's suffering.
This Episode's Session Notes
Yes, I know. What I've just described has probably created more questions than it has answered. For now though, just try asking yourself this. If any of what I just described is true, why would a respected institution like the Mayo clinic site say that talk therapy sessions can help you to:
- Learn about the causes of your condition so you can better understand it.
- Learn how to identify and change behaviors or thoughts that adversely affect your life.
- Explore relationships and experiences.
- Find better ways to cope and solve problems.
- Learn to set realistic goals for your life.
Why would they say all this? Perhaps because it all sounds so clean, neat, and logical. Or perhaps because it all sounds like it would feel pretty good. And it probably would, wouldn't it? Unfortunately, most of these things have more to do with what we assume should happen in talk therapy than with what actually happens in talk therapy. And this holds true for pretty much all talk therapies.
What about these wonderful goals though? For instance, shouldn't we learn about what causes our "conditions" so we can better understand them?
My answer? Yes. But only if this learning focuses on our nature as human beings. Our natural selves so to speak. If not, then all we are doing is wasting time on what I see as the Emperor's New Clothes of talk therapy; seeking the "cause" of our conditions; looking for the reasons why we did things.
Know there is much underlying these ideas. Thus throughout the book we'll be returning to this topic; why looking for reasons for our suffering fails to help most of the time. And sometimes makes things worse.
How about "learning how to identify and change behaviors or thoughts that adversely affect your life." Surely, this is a good thing. Yes?
Vaguely, perhaps. And certainly, there is a lot of good to be had in consciously identifying where we'd like to go in life. But life goals as the focus of talk therapy? Not really. This is like trying to become happy by learning to be happy. Circular logic at its insidious best.
In truth then, we cannot even learn to predict where our next sentence will lead us let alone how what is in our minds will affect our future behavior. Fortunately, though, there is a wonderful alternative. Something at the ground level of the nature of healing.
Know the idea that we can predict our mistakes and by doing so prevent recurrences underlies some of the most vapid talk therapy done on the planet. Thus we'll return to this idea again and again throughout the book as well.
As for "exploring relationships and experiences," isn't this a wonderful thing to do? Yes. It truly is. And in fact, this is probably the heart and soul of any authentic talk therapy. Unfortunately, these talks, with few exceptions, generally avoid the most important of all relationships to talk about. At least in talk therapy. Which one? The one going on between the therapist and the client.
We'll return many times to this idea as well throughout the book.
"Find better ways to cope and solve problems?"
This one too sounds good doesn't it? Unfortunately, this jargon is one of the most useless and pejorative of all talk therapy practices. A horror story to say the least. Why? Because a healthy person does not need to have anyone tell them their choices. They can picture myriad ways to solve problems all on their own. This, in fact, is one of the best ways in which to know you are healthy. You have access, internally, not just on paper, to a vast warehouse of healthy choices. In real time. As you live life.
The thing is, no human being can do anything like this. At least, not and be themselves being personally involved. This then is another topic we'll discuss again and again. What makes doing this in an authentic way impossible. And what could we be trying to do instead.
And the "learn to set realistic goals for your life" goal? Isn't this one good?
Again, yes it is. Unfortunately, the goals most therapies set are usually cast from some cross between what society thinks and what insurance companies want to hear. Personal choices? Lost in the hide-the-symptoms shuffle. Creativity? A dark memory in the annals of personal time. In fact, talk therapy rarely addresses the idea of reality at all, except in cases wherein people are psychotic and spend time hallucinating.
We'll talk more about this idea in the final episode wherein we discuss how reality plays out in talk therapy.
Finally, before we go, I need to address an "issue." I need to tell you what the phrase "to go out" has to do with issues. And it's simple, really. In lieu of having a real way to define wounds, most talk therapy defers to what they can see. Your symptoms. Which is, after all, what is issuing forth from your painful condition.
Thus, "to go out" is what symptoms do with regard to suffering. Symptoms are what "go out of" wounds. And while they are not the wound itself, they are indeed what comes out of the wound.
So what is the actual wound?
Until the next episode then.
I hope you are well,