Symptoms and Struggles

Symptoms and struggles often have a relational origin. Take, for example, a person who continues to be taken advantage of because they feel they must give and give in order to be valued and loved. Like all of us, this person was not born with a built-in, ready to go sense of worth and security; it had to be developed over a period of time and was based upon interactions with significant others. During this developmental period, we come to know ourselves (what we feel we are worth, what we feel we deserve or don’t deserve, what we feel is right or wrong with us, what we feel we must do to be wanted or tolerated, what we feel we can get away with, etc.) through our interactions with the important people in our lives who tell/show us about ourselves in a variety of ways.

Some of these ways are explicitly and obviously problematic (ex: physical abuse or verbal abuse), while other ways are more subtly or implicitly impactful (ex: emotional abuse or wounding that is more hidden and/or insidious). Whatever the case may be, we have come to know ourselves and form our identities in the context and presence of those around us who provided feedback during our formative years. These seminal interpersonal interactions form the building blocks of our sense of self and provide us with our blueprints for relating (our unique, individual schemas for who we are, how we relate to others, and how others relate to us) for years to come.

With this in mind, I have found that labels and symptom tags (ex: it’s my depression; it’s my anxiety, it’s my OCD) run the risk of oversimplifying a person’s experience and limit further understanding/growth. Treating the symptom rather than the person experiencing that symptom, does little for lasting relief and lasting change. Therefore, I find it of upmost importance to treat the individual as a person who is struggling rather than as a label they were given. Whether it is depression, anxiety, or something else, such “symptoms” are embedded within relational frameworks that maintain or sustain them for reasons that therapy will seek to identify, understand, and adaptively change as new ways of relating become possible.

Coping with Today

Safety, Security, Stability - essentials for healthy living and functioning. We function best when both our internal as well as external environments are safe, secure, and stable. When the world around us is facing tension and unrest, the effects are felt on individual, societal, and global levels. For those dealing with traumatic histories, in particular, certain changes in the external or social environment can trigger significant psychological distress.

How do we often cope during times of stress? It is quite commonplace to utilize externalized methods of coping, such as: self-medicating (with drugs, alcohol, sex, or food) or distraction-seeking (like being glued to the phone or engaging in activity after activity). Overreliance on externalized methods of coping can lead to a dependency on things outside of ourselves to somehow manage things on the inside. However, when we continually distract ourselves from ourselves, we overlook or even neglect our inner world of experience – our sense of self and its needs, conflicts, worries, struggles, and vulnerabilities.

How can therapy help? Therapy provides an opportunity to develop internal coping mechanisms that provide reliable, adaptive, and healthy ways of managing stress and distress. I liken this to a process of “going green with yourself” – a growth process that helps you develop self-renewable and self-sustainable internal resources that allow you to regulate, manage, and tolerate your inner environment, even when the world/weather outside is unpredictable or threatening.

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