When Therapy Clients say: "It Doesn’t Work" "I’ve Tried Everything"

As we know, people come for therapy because they’re struggling with some or many aspects of their life.  Sometimes, the level of their suffering exceeds their ability to cope and a sense of desperation comes about.  I’ve seen this mostly in people who have been suffering for longer periods of time and continue to experience their problems.  As I begin working with a new client, I like to understand what they’ve done and what they’re currently doing to help themselves.  It’s at this point that they sometimes say, like I heard this week, “I’ve tried everything,” or, “it doesn’t work.”  These phrases are a flag that tell me that I need to look into.  Generally speaking, I’ve found that what these phrases are pointing to is a combination of things going on in the person.  So let’s go ahead and cover them.

1) A Lack of Patience “I just want…” – This part of the combination is probably the most straight-forward.  We all know what being patient or impatient looks like.  In this context, impatience rears its head when the individual is so focused upon getting to the end point or grasping after the result that they hurry through the process.  They aren’t very willing to tolerate discomfort and so they hurry to the end, toward what they think will bring them relief.  In this way, we’re sprinting toward the positive feeling or what is really, the absence of our pain.  We’re not so concerned about the process that gets us there and in fact, it’s often view as an annoying distraction.  Our vision is narrowed and all we can see is the small point in front of us that we’re completely fixated on.  The process of getting there is generally viewed as annoying and this is when the person may say, “I just want…”
2) Belief That I Should Feel Good – Some people have a very low tolerance for experiencing thoughts and feelings that they don’t like and don’t want.  This is often accompanied by a belief that most people do feel good and that they, as an individual, should experience “good” feelings most of the time too.  Many clients will say, “I want to be normal like everyone else.”  This is often code for, “Everyone else is happy, why am I so miserable?  What’s wrong with me?”  Well, everyone else APPEARS to be happy but deep down, they have many doubts, fears, anxieties, regrets, resentments, doubts, etc. about themselves, their future, and their world.  This is typical for all of us and only vary by degrees.  But, because the dominant U.S. culture is addicted to “good,” we don’t talk about these things as regularly as we should.  If we did, they would become accepted  as a part of life and would see them as healthy and normal.  Things like Facebook trick us into thinking that people are representing themselves accurately but the reality is that most people don’t.  The reality is that we all feel ALL emotions many times each day.
3) External Locus of Control “You made me feel…” – This is a technical term used by therapists.  Simply put, this means that a person’s internal experiences (thoughts and emotions) and behaviors are determined by everything outside of them.  But what’s important about this is that the person not only functions in this way, but they believe that this is how life works.  When a person functions in this way, they’re actually GIVING their own control over to the rest of the world and now the world, unknowingly, is supposed to be responsible for them.  Unfortunately, this way of relating to ourselves and the world is so common that phrases such as, “you made me feel,” go unnoticed.  But this statement is a lie.  The truth of the matter is represented by the statements, “I felt ___ when you,” or, “When you did ____ I take it to mean ___.”  It takes more words and a little more thought to say these things but it’s vital to make a distinction in our language as to who owns our emotions.  Do they or do we?  That answer: We always own our emotions.
After deepening our understanding of these points, the client needs to observe these thoughts, beliefs, and subsequent actions as they go about their day.  This is what I mean when I say to clients, “get to know yourself.”  As they start to see how these things come up in the moment, they can begin to reflect on the reality of things.  Changing what we believe about the world and ourselves takes time and effort.  The client might have tried something but if their motivations have focused on controlling the world and hurrying to the end point (aka, feeling good), it won’t ever work.  Change, especially change that lasts, takes time because it’s all about forming new habits.  At the core, the new habit is embracing our own control and owning what we feel, think, and do.  As we do this, we then have to develop the habit of solving our own problems, creatively, as they arise.  Otherwise if we stay with the original combination, we ensure that we’ll always be victims of the world.  It’s advised that such changes be done with a therapist because they can help you see different aspects of yourself that you might have missed, and we all miss things.

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