Just as a flower naturally turns toward the sun, so too do people naturally strive toward greater mental health. There is an innate desire to become increasingly independent, to feel more agency, and to develop reliable and safe attachments to our caregivers and, later, to other loved ones. People intrinsically move toward health.
We sometimes hear people say “so-and-so wants to stay depressed” or “he or she is attached to their suffering.” Therapists sometimes say that their clients “resist” getting better. Such psychological speculations are invariably wrong. People are always doing the best they can do, striving to be as happy as possible, but they do so within constraints that outsiders cannot see.
When I say “constraints” I mean inhibitions. Each of us grows up acquiring certain beliefs about ourselves and about how the world works, that define what is normal and what is possible. If I grew up in a family with grim unhappy parents, then I will likely develop the belief that I’m not supposed to be happy myself, that certain forms of mental suffering are just “the way things are” and “the way they’re fated to always be.”
No one actively creates or seeks a depressing life, nor does anyone need to be in disappointing relationships. People simply live their lives the way they believe they’re supposed to live them. If people have the (usually unconscious) conviction that they’re not supposed to be happy, they may actively avoid or ruin happy situations, but such unfortunate outcomes are not what they consciously seek. They want to be happy; our brains are wired to seek out love, attachments, and security. People are constrained by beliefs acquired during a childhood in which they were—as all children are--helpless and dependent on parents who had an awesome and all-powerful ability to define their reality. Like many children, they may suffer as a result, but they don’t seek suffering. Suffering just seems normal, the way things are and the way they’re supposed to be.
People who are in psychological distress come into therapy wanting to feel better. They want what everyone wants—happiness and security. The problem is that, for most of us, the path to happiness is not always one that feels safe. The shadows of our childhood beliefs are long. We often fear the thing we most want because our history has taught us that if we pursue the love, mutuality, and success we intrinsically desire, we might fail and be rejected and abandoned. We may feel guilty for having more than our loved ones, or we might hurt and threaten important attachments. Because of these fears, we often settle for crumbs in our love and work lives.
Too often, we live according to an unspoken or unconscious logic that tells us that a little bit of a good thing is better than nothing at all, and that those are the only two options.
These fears inhibit us; they hold back our natural strivings toward health. Therapy involves a process of compassionately examining these fears in order to see more clearly that, while they might have been rational in our childhoods, they no longer are accurate and adaptive in our adult lives. By gradually lifting these inhibitions, our innate strivings toward health can be freed up.
Patients want their therapies to work because they fundamentally want to get better. They—all of us—do not want to repeat painful patterns but, instead, want to overcome the beliefs that hold these patterns in place. They do the best they can to lead happier and more fulfilling lives, but they do so in the context of beliefs about themselves and the world which often lead them to settle for less than they truly want and deserve.