Want to Know Why, First Discover the Who
My daughter and I frequently listen to The Beatles together. She's 11 now. Over the weekend, I found and purchased for 95 cents The John Lennon Collection. It was a great find. Anyway, my daughter asked me if The Beatles were still alive, and I got to telling her about how Paul and Ringo are but John and George aren't. I also told her about John being killed, but I couldn't remember the name of who did it or exactly why. So, I decided to Google it and taught my daughter a bit about searching the internet too, since she's 11 and doesn't have a lot of experience with Google searches yet. See, I knew that if we just searched "Who shot Lennon?" (it was Mark Chapman, btw) we would also very easily get to the "Why" (as Chapman put it, because Lennon was very famous and Chapman just wanted "self glory"). This little nugget - finding the why by discovering the who - inspired some deeper thinking that led to to this blog post. You see this is not just true of a murder investigation, it also applies to motivational investigations for (nearly) any human, and it's especially relevant in psychotherapy and personal growth. If you want to know why you do something, it's almost always best to start by discovering your Self more deeply - that is, by getting to know why you really are.
I was also watching an episode of Schitt's Creek recently, where one of the main characters (Alexis), following a breakup, is challenged to spend some time alone. The character is depicted as someone who is, though likable, vapid, self-absorbed and who maintains strictly shallow relationships with others, not based on who she is but instead based on what each provides for each other. So, this particular episode was about Alexis's journey to actually get to know her self. In fact, she comments to her brother about her (now ex-) boyfriend that, "He changed me. I feel like he really knew me," and then she is challenged by another sort-of friend to spend some time alone and see what happens. She does, and though we don't see exactly what she does with this alone time, we do, perhaps for the first time in the series, see that she does something thoughtful and unselfish. In other words, in order for Alexis to understand "why" she couldn't bear to be alone and why she struggled in relationships with others, she had to first understand who she is. I like to think that at least part of her "epiphany" in discovering herself was that she really had no strong sense of self. She didn't know herself at all, and that was the problem. Now that she is getting to know herself, she can start to solve some of her problems.
As humans we do this less often than is probably ideal. Especially with the ubiquity of social media, we are always a screen away from being in touch with someone other than ourselves. Don't get me wrong, this isn't a blog about how social media has destroyed us or anything like that. I just mean to say that getting some real alone time - some real, dedicated time devoted strictly to getting to know ourselves - is just harder to come by today than it was in the past. We have to work a bit harder now, and have to do it on purpose, to be alone with our thoughts.
In psychotherapy, I'm often working with people to discover who they are. In fact, I'd say that's actually the major point of my particular approach to psychotherapy, clinical change through Self change. Now the ways I go about trying to facilitate that change are well-beyond the scope of this blog post, and it would take me years to write them all down. But I will let you all in on one little "secret" of my trade - my patients that get better work harder than I do. My "best" patients don't need me to do much more than to be a sounding board and a reflective mirror, someone to listen with interest and compassion as they work to discover themself, and to then just reflect that back to them. For any therapist, that reflective process is easier with some patients than with others, and there are a lot of specialized techniques and theories that influence what makes a therapist a "good" reflective mirror versus one that isn't. Still, in a nutshell, that's the goal.
For patients, I think one of the hardest parts of that process is honesty. It's hard to be honest with oneself about who you really are. On top of that, even those who are willing to be honest are capable of ignorance - just missing something in their self-analysis. That's why it's helpful to have another person (a therapist, in this analogy, but friends and family will do too) who can give honest feedback about what they're observing. Still, if you can take a wide enough view to truly see yourself AND you can then be honest about what you see, you can then start to understand yourself enough to explore why you do the things you do, and, better yet, whether or not you want to continue doing them.
So I guess that's really the point of this particular blog post. If you are thinking about going to therapy, are already in therapy, or even if you just want to make some changes in yourself without therapy, the best advice I can give is to be prepared to take a step back and actually look at yourself - really look at yourself - so that you can get the most of of the experience. It's important to approach the process with compassion though. If you aren't familiar with the work of Dr. Kristin Neff on self-compassion, I highly recommend reviewing that too. Remember, self-compassion is not the same thing as self-indulgence. Self-indulgence ignores negative outcomes, while self-compassion allows you to challenge yourself toward growth through kindness and as an act of kindness. Transitions can be a radical act of self-love - we don't have to hate ourselves or hate something about ourselves to change. In fact, if you find yourself being critical toward yourself or saying you hate something about yourself, that is a red flag that you need to work more on your self-compassion. Instead, if you can look at yourself through kind eyes and just say, "You know, I can be better at _____ if I try," then I suppose you are at least starting on the right foot.