When I begin talking with a new client, I am keen to find out what they want from therapy.
This is useful for two reasons.
It focuses our minds on how they’d like life to be.
It also tells us when the client is ready to stop coming. Without knowing what they want, we could keep meeting forever.
I’ll ask how they’ll know that our talking together has been useful.
They’ll say that they want to be happy, or live a fulfilled life, or to be confident in social situations. Or a range of other things.
That gives a general sense of direction.
But I’m keen to know what they want from what they want.
I want them to flesh out how this would make life different for them.
I want to hear what would be happening when they reach that goal.
Not only does it make the destination tangible and exciting. It provides clues in advance so they can recognise the milestones. It is motivational too.
Often, it opens new realisations. Things that seemed far, far away now become within touching distance.
Some things are already happening for them, but they hadn’t realised.
Strategies that seemed essential no longer seem relevant to what they really want.
This is particularly the case when people seek one change to get other ones.
When they lead with a strategy rather than an outcome.
“I want my mother to behave different.”
“I want to change my job.”
“I want to be wealthy.”
I like to hear the client go into detail about what life will be like when these things have happened.
That helps the person understand what difference it would bring for them.
With that understanding, something magical often happens.
They realise that they don’t need to wait until they are rich, or in a different job, or until their mother changes.
They can have many of those things right now.
“Hang on. What am I needing her to change for? I can have these things now!!”
They realise too that there are other, quicker routes to getting them.
We can sometimes lock ourselves into a tragic bargain. “I vow to be miserable until x happens.”
It is particularly tragic when we decide to be unhappy until someone else changes.
We have so little influence over others, it is a strategy for a despairing life.
By digging into what we would get from that change happening, we see what is already available to us. We notice different ways of getting there. We see things we missed that are already here.
We break the tragic vow of staying miserable until something outside of us changes.
We can often still change things outside of us. We can still get that new job. We could still take actions that would lead to us becoming financially comfortable. Or whatever it is that we’d like to happen.
But we are no longer waiting on them to break the spell of unhappiness.
The spell is broken.
Even if we still want those things to happen, we live happily now until they do.
When we say “if only this happens, we would be happy”, it’s just another way of vowing to be miserable until it does.
What is the vow of misery you have made with yourself? And are you ready to break the spell?Alun Parry is Director of The Liverpool Psychotherapy Practice