Why Psychotherapy Can’t, and Shouldn’t, Make You Happy

“While the daimonic (your dark emotions and impulses) cannot be said to be evil in itself, it confronts us with the troublesome dilemma of whether it is to be used with awareness, a sense of responsibility and the significance of life, or blindly and rashly. When… repressed, it tends to erupt in some form…” -Rollo May

People often enter psychological treatment wondering how to quell, or extinguish, their negative emotions. Their desires are founded in the conception that a good life is a happy one, if not completely, then mostly so. Thus, as you can imagine, some of my clients ask me to teach them how to be happy or resist treatment, believing that I’m trying to talk them out of their feelings, which I’m guilty of doing sometimes.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, although seemingly utilized for emotional suppression, is comprised of tools used for emotional management and behavioral direction. If our negative emotions, the ones we dislike and don’t want to feel, are excessive, we tend to react in ways that harm ourselves and/or others. If we’re depressed, we tend to isolate and disappear, making others feel unloved. If we’re enraged, we often retaliate and become vicious toward those whom we believed harmed us. And, if we’re terrified, we can avoid problems and scenarios we would be better off facing. In excess, these emotions can engender positive outcomes in certain contexts, like if we run away from physical danger when in a state of fear. But, more often than not, negative emotional excess leads to diminished well-being in the long-term.

Thus, therapy’s goal is to mitigate, not eliminate, negative emotions and to foster the ability to listen to them. If I’m enraged, I may do something I would later regret, like yell at my boss or my spouse, but if I’m angry, or just frustrated, I can act on my anger in a constructive way, informing my partner about it and asking him to act differently next time. In themselves, emotions are there for significant reasons, and aren’t “overreactions” in the common sense, meaning that, while they may not make sense in one context, they do so in another.

A common example of rage is ‘road rage’, where a driver is cut-off by another, fueling an uncontrollable sense of anger. In that context, the anger is perceived as excessive because the action isn’t personal (the other driver doesn’t know you and isn’t being inconsiderate of [insert name here]), but from the perspective of one’s past, wherein one was consistently made to feel insignificant, the only rational response is the one noted above. And, just because one is in a different context doesn’t mean that they can just shift their beliefs about themselves and expectations of the world.

Shifting perspectives, and core beliefs, is a daunting task. From a clinical perspective, judging an individual on an invalid perspective (by labeling it an overreaction) usually causes them to feel even more inferior than they already do. It’s akin to saying, you’re stupid for feeling what you’re feeling, or you’re dumb for thinking the way you do. Therefore, if therapy ever sought to eliminate emotions, it would imply that those emotions are somehow wrong and it’s always only up to their possessor to shut them off. Returning to the example of road rage, the hyper-arousal can’t simply be turned off; we are our core beliefs, which aren’t changed overnight, and, thus, our emotional responses.

I don’t doubt that there are some therapists who try to change their clients’ perspectives without empathy, even criticizing them when they can’t. But, the good ones understand how difficult change is. Rather than discounting my overreactions, I would prefer it if someone tried to understand why I had them. Most people don’t want to feel like shit about themselves and don’t want to take things personally. Our psyches are prone to distorted thinking, and those with traumatic pasts are more prone to it than most. Sadly, we are often the products of our childhood environments.

Even if our emotions are on overdrive, they’re still trying to inform us. By listening to them, we learn about our contexts and ourselves. In a state of rage, our anger is telling us that we feel insignificant and that we’ve been treated unfairly. Chances are that your rage will fuel a toxic reaction, but if you can empathize with yourself, accepting that it’s mostly based on an outdated estimation of yourself as unimportant, then you can use your remaining anger (you should be frustrated by being wronged) to motivate yourself to act constructively, such as speaking out against reckless driving.

In itself, therapy isn’t meant to make you feel completely differently than you do; its purpose is to mitigate your suffering. And, sometimes, it can only help you to simply sit with it until it passes. In some sense, we are who we are because of our past, but we’re also molded through our present. Time, however, is a necessary competent because we can’t just turn off our inner chatter. And, for that, we are not to blame.

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