“No pain, no gain.”
It’s a trite saying, and perhaps a bit cruel, but it’s true in many situations, especially in psychotherapy.
The purpose of psychotherapy is to help people make some needed changes in their lives. But changing is not an easy thing to do. Change can be frightening and painful. It usually involves a plunge into the unknown in which there is no guarantee of success.
Because change can be so difficult, people understandably resist it. We change only because we must. And it is the pain of unresolved problems or unmitigated stress which forces us to make the changes we would rather avoid.
Although unpleasant in the short-run, emotional pain can be beneficial in the long-run. It is the therapist’s ally in the struggle to bring about change. Just as physical pain tells us something is wrong with our bodies which should be checked, so emotional pain tells us something is wrong in our lives which needs to be changed.
Emotional pain not only forces us to change, it also accompanies the process of change. While usually exciting, learning new ways to think and behave can also be scary and uncomfortable. The old ways of living die hard, under the spur of emotional pain, while new patterns of thought and behavior are born in discomfort and anxiety.
What I regret is when people, because of fear or embarrassment, wait until the last possible moment to seek mental health consultation. Sometimes it is too late to make constructive changes.
Let me cite some specific examples to illustrate my points:
- The misbehavior of a child can be a signal to his parents that something is missing in their relationship with him. Although their discomfort can motivate them to find out what is wrong, if they wait until their child is much older, it may be too late to do anything about it.
- Anger in a marriage may mean the spouses’ emotional needs are not being met. The pain of that anger may spur them to work out their differences, but if their pain is too prolonged, they may never be able to overcome it in an act of reconciliation.
- The agony of depression proclaims that something may be missing in a man’s life and may force him to re-examine his needs, values and goals in a search for relief.
- The pain of alienation and meaninglessness may start a person on a spiritual journey that can result in a closer relationship to God.
“Suffering,” wrote Ludwig Von Beethoven, “is God’s greatest gift to man.” Perhaps what he meant is that emotional pain can make us stronger, healthier, wiser and more compassionate individuals.
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