People come to therapists wanting answers. How do I feel better? How do I make this situation, this feeling, this pain go away? Many therapists will respond with a question: "What's worked in the past?"
It may sound like a dodge. You're paying the therapist to be the expert. But you are the expert in what works for you.
I worked for about four years in a 28-day crisis residential facility in California. Most clients came to the house directly following psychiatric hospitalization. A number of those clients reported hearing voices all day, with or without medication. Different people heard different things, but the large majority had voices that picked on them relentlessly: "You're good for nothing, you'll never amount to anything, you're worthless, you don't deserve to live." It's no wonder many got to feeling suicidal and found their way to psych hospitals again and again.
How to help these clients feel better? How to help dial down the voices and get on with life? Clients already knew worked for them: "I listen to music." "I snap a rubber band on my wrist." "I draw." "I tell the voices to hush up." "I stay sober." Our "Coping with Voices Workbook" didn't have much to tell them. They'd lived, they'd tried everything, they knew what worked.
You may not hear voices--most people don't. But everyone has stress, and from time to time, that stress gets overwhelming. Which means we've all had practice coping with stress, you included. You've faced what seemed like impossible challenges, and you've made it through. No one knows better than you how you did it. And so, the therapist's question to you, the expert: "What's worked in the past?"
The key to getting through whatever you're going through now may be revisiting a long-lost coping strategy: "I used to keep a journal." "I used to jog." "I used to take baths." "I used to eat better." Whatever it was that worked, you probably weren't doing it just because someone told you to (except maybe at first). You did it because it worked. Scan your past for answers about how best to cope today.
You're also an expert on what won't work for you ("I wish I could __________ right now, but...I know how that ends up"). When you're struggling or in crisis, it's just as important to remember what doesn't work as what does.
Finally, remember that however you try to cope, despite all your well-chosen behaviors and best intentions, sometimes you just keep feeling awful. Then time passes, and hopefully the awfulness slowly begins to fade. This too shall pass--another hard-earned lesson from the past.
R is "Remember Past Coping" in an ongoing series, Crisis Coping from A to Z.
Will Baum, LCSW is a therapist in Los Angeles. Write him at email@example.com.