I often hear different statements made by many clients. A few I frequently hear “I just deal with it” and “I’ve done it these way my whole life” and “I’ve tried everything.” These are usually said defensively, meaning the client doesn’t want to do anything differently. Either because they “know the right way to do it” or “the situation is hopeless.” But that’s the beauty of therapy. Most often therapy isn’t about fixing a “flawed” or “damaged” person. It is about teaching new skills and tools to deal with new challenges in new ways.
Life is really a continual flow of challenges. Some are small and we don’t really think about them. Others are larger or more important – managing relationships, raising children, dealing with death and loss, how to achieve happiness, how to feel fulfilled….the list is endless. But from one perspective our day is filled with the small decisions that affect the larger challenges.
And we all deal with those decisions and challenges differently. And for good reason. For those clients that utter those quotes above I explain it like this. Life is a set of challenges. And you have a toolbox of tools to deal with them. Where did we get this toolbox? Mostly we learned them from our family of origin. This is not a “blame the parents” moment. But what is true is that we learn how to interact with people and how to resolve problems and how to handle life in general from the people around us as we grow up. We learn from seeing and being part of a system of people – our family, even if it wasn’t a traditional biological family.
So what happens is we put tools in our toolbox as we learn them. The catch is that we are only really exposed to a limited set of tools, particularly during our developmental years. And that becomes our go to set of tools. Those tools may have worked great in the original system. Or, the truth is they may have been less than effective even then. Either way, they are what we have to work with. And the problem is, life changes. As we progress though life we don’t interact in the same systems, we don’t face the same types of challenges. Yet we keep trying to use the same set of tools.
In other words you may have grown up needing to pound in nails, so you were taught how to use a hammer. Suddenly, later in life, you need to put in a screw. And since you weren’t given a screwdriver in your toolbox you go to your standard tool – the hammer. And no matter how many times you hit the screw, no matter how hard you hit it, it isn’t getting the job done. You may even have pulled out a saw or a wrench because your family used those sometimes, too. Those don’t work either. But now you’ve “tried everything” and the screw is just a mess.
That’s where therapy comes in. So often therapy comes down to this. It is teaching that this is a screw and not a nail and because of that it requires a different tool. It is about teaching you how to use that new tool. You get new perspective, new understanding and new tools with the skill to use them. Viewed in this way therapy isn’t about what is wrong with the tools you have, but figuring out what tools you need and how to use them. Just like a trip to the tool store…