Psychotherapy: The Quest for Meaning

It is my view that psychotherapy is fundamentally about the search for meaning. There are some qualities of human experience that truly define us, that make us human. We are inherently social creatures – we live and grow among others and our growth throughout the lifespan is contingent on human interaction. Our intelligence, the size of our brains, and capacity to think also helps define us.

But I think our continued quest for meaning is what most sets us apart from other living creature. We seek meaning and we thrive when we fine it. At the same time, when stymied and frustrated in our attempts to understand, we feel a sense of bewildering stasis.

The question “why?” is one of the foremost of human utterances. We want to know. Particularly in times of crisis and loss, we seek to understand and knowing can bring some comfort. After some tragedy on a national scale, there often follows an invigorated investigation. And while such research is aimed at helping to prevent the tragedy from reoccurring, trying to obtain the answers as to why the tragedy occurred in the first place is an essential step in the healing process. When the tragedy is personal the investigation, often in terms of agonized soul searching, proceeds. Of course, some occurrences are incomprehensible: in such cases we might resort to various explanations to give some meaning to the event or we have to tolerate the agony of not knowing.

Clients come into psychotherapy seeking answers to their “why” questions. They too are searching for meaning. Often clients may be searching for the meaning to their existence, to obtain help answering questions about why they are here, what direction and purpose is theirs to follow. Sometimes a client comes to psychotherapy because of a crippling sense of depression, a painful sense of missing something vital in his or her life. Or a client may seek answers to how to break the stranglehold of some addictive behavior.

Regardless of the change that someone seeks to make in their life, obtaining answers to their perplexing questions is a fundamental first step. And obtaining meaning often opens up previously closed vistas and offers the possibility of choice. Without understanding much of our lives is governed by unconscious forces. We repeat patterns of behavior, thought and belief. Through the course of psychotherapy, it often becomes clear that these patterns – perhaps intended originally to bring some relief or protection to one’s life — contribute to a sense of stagnancy and lifelessness. To a life not lived.

It is from having answers that people then gain the opportunity for choice. A client who understands that he distances himself from others, from intimacy, to protect himself, can then ask if he wants to continue that form of protection or find other ways that allow for more contact, thus less loneliness, with others. A client who comes to understand the factors underlying his drinking can ask himself if he wishes to engage in the behavior and if there aren’t better ways to obtain the desired effect (be it relief from pressures, escape, or finding some “high” in his life).

And sometimes it is just in obtaining a sense of meaning that a person feels invigorated, uplifted. Recently a client had such an experience with me. In obtaining a better sense of how he operates in the world, what some of his core assumptions and beliefs are about himself and others, he felt a sense of renewed energy and liberation. He felt that he could better set the course of his life, rather than simply being buffeted by life. While some very concrete changes are often needed in a person’s life, the first steps are to be found through understanding.

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April 04, 2011
It’s Not According to the Golden Rule

My clients, particularly the couples I work with, are often surprised when I speak about the Golden Rule. I will often say – with apologies to anyone whose religious convictions may be upset by what I am about to say – that it is not living according to the Golden Rule that is the way people often want to live. It is not about treating someone how you want to be treated. Rather, it is about treating others how they want to be treated.

At the heart of many relational problems is just that: treating others how you want to be treated. An acknowledgement of difference is key here. People are in fact different and want to be treated differently. One couple I worked with illustrates this. The man liked to be told by his wife what she had done in terms of making improvements in their relationship. In particular, he was more bothered by messes and clutter in their home than she was. So he liked to hear at the end of the day that she had straightened up before he got home. She, however, did not. She did not want to hear what he was doing in the name of harmony. She was particularly bothered by instances where he would express aggravation. She often found these expressions to be critical. So while she could appreciate efforts he was making to censor such expressions, she didn’t necessarily want to know about it.

In the above example, the woman wanted to be treated as she wanted to be treated. In this way, it wasn’t so much about the Golden Rule. It was about – what should we call it? — The Human Rule: Treating someone like they want to be treated. Again, without any disrespect to people whose religious convictions may embrace the Golden Rule, I have found that this modification can make a world of difference in the world of relationships.

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