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Pausing at Suffering

Therapy is about many things. And it is often about suffering.

…People loving each other but suffering because they can’t seem to make their relationships work better.

…People knowing what they want but suffering because they keep encountering obstacles, sometimes the same ones over and over and over.

…People not knowing what they want but suffering because they’re sure there’s something “better than this.”

…People suffering because their actions and choices have hurt others and yet they’re hurt themselves, by those same people, and there’s no clear way out.

…People suffering because there’s too much risk, too much vulnerability between where they are and where they want to be.

My usual focus for this blog is to share some of the ways hope and new possibilities arise from suffering. But for now, for this blog, I wanted to write a reminder to myself of the presence of suffering: not to worship at its altar or to imply that therapy is always or only about suffering. But to acknowledge that suffering is often the territory of therapy: real people in real dilemmas who see their hopes and dreams vanishing.

I realize that this talk of suffering may evoke a big “of course” for you (You: “not a surprise, really, that people are in pain when they show up to therapy”). And your imagined response has made me wonder if this entry is worth writing. But here’s my dilemma: In writing from a narrative perspective about the practical and hope-giving solutions people develop, I don’t want to give the impression that people’s lives and the painful experiences they share with me in therapy are merely fodder for my blog, nor that I have simple, formulaic answers for them. For me the truth is quite the opposite.

People’s pain and fears, and the complexity of their problems can be daunting for my clients and for me. Ironically, perhaps, it is probably this sense of feeling daunted that most draws me to my work as a therapist. To be let in to people’s lives when they are truly in pain, and to be asked to help, is to experience a special, privileged kind of connection with them. Words fail to accurately capture the feeling of it, but I’ve heard many therapists talk of this experience as “sacred.” That feels about right to me.

I’m also drawn to the challenge of helping people find a new way, a solution, when they’ve already tried everything. The things I write about in this blog, the practical solutions inspired by a narrative perspective, usually begin in the territory of low spirits, fading hopes, and no apparent solutions. My clients and I venture forth by seeking to name and feel and understand their pain and suffering. And we let their pain and suffering lead us to their hopes and dreams.

My blog exists because I love how narrative ideas and practices help me and my clients move from suffering to solutions. But in the effort to express the joy, excitement, and practicality of what people are able to accomplish, I don’t want to diminish the fact that their beginning places, and their paths, are complex and challenging: and those paths often begin or lead through suffering.