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How psychotherapy frees you up to make changes
by psychotherapist and life coach Liz White, 1932 - 1914

Liz White was a leader in psychotherapy in Toronto

"Why do I keep doing it again and again....? Why can't I just...."

Change is the one certainty in life and it is stressful. Whether we want it or not, we are different and our world is different now than it was a year ago, a week ago, an hour ago. Change is natural and an amazing source of pleasure and delight, challenge and mastery and a personal identity that continues to surprise us!

The gradual erosion of choice

As children we grow visibly in size and in ability to maneuver our world, from lying to sitting to standing to walking. The change is clear. As we grow others take an active part in shaping our life changes. We are born with a full range of possible roles, a full deck, if you will. By the time we hit adolescence, some cards have been shuffled to the bottom. We must play with the ones left in our hand. Certain things are encouraged (helping with your baby brother, excelling in sports or school or both) and others are energetically discouraged (throwing things, yelling, expressing anger, crying, being “lazy” or “selfish”). We arrive at a first definition of who we are and are not. “Sally is the pretty one, always smiling, John is the smart one, always a brave leader” As we leave our families these abilities, if they are healthy, can be help us to find a place in the world. Unfortunately sometimes these messages are crippling. (“Peter is a loser, he’ll never amount to anything. Andy is the winner, sensitive to his mother’s needs and always helpful”) These can set us on our path with important omissions. This conditioning takes the form of an inner dialogue with ourselves. We believe that others see us as our parents saw and defined us and the roles that we play in our relationships reinforce our image of ourselves. A “loser” finds himself on the outside of groups and the centres of power and advancement and encouragement. A “born leader,” bigger than life, finds herself carrying responsibility for every person and group that she encounters. There is no freedom of choice , no spontaneity, in the face of the “I always…. I never….” belief system.

At some point the limitations that we carry bring us to a halt. We become aware of missing some crucial cards that we need for the game. Sometimes gradually, and sometimes with brutal awakening.

A Life Story

Anne comes to my office feeling depressed “for no reason”. At home and at work she has learned to be an accommodator and to manage affairs so that things go smoothly. She spends her days responding to customer complaints, and in the family does the worrying about the future. Her voice is not heard in either place and so she tries harder. She has hit a crisis point, crying and looking as miserable as she feels. (She sought help not because she was unhappy but because people were asking if she was Ok and she didn’t want her unhappiness to affect others. Our first clue!! ) She believes that she is the whole problem and doesn’t see how she can ever solve it.

Anne is at the beginning the arc of change. It is the time when we are most distressed about the status quo, we know we have to change our pattern, and we can’t imagine how to do it. It will require us to act in ways that we do not in any way identify with. It is the point of desperation and often depression.

It requires that we make room for what David Whyte describes as “The Sleeping Giant”. This refers to the power and importance of the cards that were shuffled to the bottom long ago. Our anger, our power, our sense of being beautiful, smart, lovable, our permission to sometimes disappoint others who ask too much of us, our authenticity. These challenge our beliefs and definitions of ourselves.

This is the challenge to change. To give birth to the wholeness that our life is calling us to.

This is a difficult journey, not for the faint of heart. Often it requires time and reflection and wisdom and support to identify our stuck places, to recognize the obstacles that others and our self-talk place before us, to imagine new responses to old situations, and to find the support and the courage to try something new.

Once we figure out the change that we want to make, it is tempting to leap into a new role without adequate preparation. “I have always withheld my opinions. Now I’m going to let ‘em have it. Blow them out of the water!” The backlash can send us reeling back even more strongly to the “having no opinion” safe defence.

Where does the therapist fit in?

S/he helps clarify whatever it is that is causing you stress and concern. Together you imagine what would be a satisfying outcome as a result of the therapy. Name the problem. Imagine the solutions.

S/he offers support and understanding about the dilemma that you are facing, without any urgency that you change before you are ready. S/he mirrors back to you appreciation for your coping skills that have brought you this far, even if they seem at times out of place. S/he helps celebrate the shifts in belief and behaviour that seem small to you but are in fact indicators of real internal change. S/he helps to identify defenses, unfinished grief for losses, the need for a network of supportive friends, imagined new roles and strategies for safe experimenting with them.

One mistake to be avoided is the expectation on the part of the changer that those around them who have been used to interacting with the old roles will suddenly welcome the new ones. When Mary decides she is not going to be the servant in the family of six, and makes dinner only every other night, there is bound to be a palace revolt! She must be prepared to expect it, to be ready to accept that they don’t like it, and to still maintain her new decision with equanimity, finding her support outside this household. To weather the storm. For this she needs models of others who have made this shift, (and to learn from their mistakes!) and a few people, including the therapist, who help her to be firm in her journey maintaining respect for herself and for others.

Change presents itself to us. We have a choice, sometimes, as to whether to fight it tooth and nail, (and to lose the battle and the tooth and nail!) or to find ways to grow within it. As the seasons of our life turn, we can find the help we need to be true to ourselves and to be a part of changing a world sadly in need of transformation.


Parting words:

Psychotherapy as an agent of change

Transform stress into success

Change stress into energy

Change resentment into action and change

Anger is the energy to change things we don't like. If we can't figure out how to use the energy productively and spin our wheels instead, we get bummed out and bogged down.

Elizabeth White, M.Ed.,T.E.P., clinical member, Ontario Society of Psychotherapists, was a psychotherapist in independent practice for thirty years. She was a certified Trainer, Educator, Practitioner by the American Board of Examiners in Psychodrama, Sociometry and Group Psychotherapy. Liz was a trainer, therapist, supervisor and group therapist working with several ongoing therapy groups for women. She mafr regular visits to work in Saskatchewan and the UK. She has led workshops in Cambodia, Bangladesh, Switzerland, Guernsey, Scotland, Israel and Turkey.

She was also a weaver of workshops, and presents one day experiences in Life Management. (for example Befriending our Defences, and “If Only….” Action Methods and the Seasons of Mourning. ) She offered staff development workshops and had a particular interest in palliative care.

She will be missed.

Copyright © 2010 Liz White

See also: Learning how to deal with conflict by West End counsellor Daryl Landau

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