By Mary E. M. Scruggs, LMFT-C
We’re on the right track. Mental health continues to be more understood and respected in our society, but not without challenge. Between different theories, styles, and approaches it can often be overwhelming on what to trust is the “right” answer to life’s problems. The real question to ask yourself, though, is what is the healthiest choice for me? Your clinician’s job is to help guide you in making decisions – not to give you advice or tell you what to do with your life. I know this isn’t easy, though, because if it was then I wouldn’t have a job.
Therapists are also scientists. In working with a therapist, individuals will create plans to meet specific goals. Something important to keep in mind is that each step of the way is an experiment. If I make this step, do I like the outcome here? If I make that step, do I like the outcome there? Does it get me where I want to be? Does it help us meet our family goals? Is it hurting others? Is it hurting me? Ideally you will process the hopes, fears, pros, and cons associated with each decision made. Healthy choices are not always easy.
Why is it so hard to be where I want to be? As you continue to make new choices, set boundaries, speak assertively, and make progress you might be shocked to learn that people won’t always be cheering you on. Humans are creatures of habit and whether we know something is good or not, we often don’t like the change associated with it. When you become healthy, people will not always be happy. Changes in your life can be seen by others and since this is something different or unfamiliar, they might react in ways that can be surprising. Such reactions may not be with mal intent, but rather a human desire to bring back what they know.
As a systemic therapist, I usually chalk this up to individuals and/or groups seeking homeostasis. For example, if a woman attends therapy and challenges herself to say “no” more often, then her husband and children might see her as suddenly being upset, angry, or mean because she rarely said “no” before. Or if a couple decides to spend more time together, which means spending less time out at the bars with their friends every weekend, then they could be seen as suddenly shutting people out. Sometimes I have asked people in my office, “will you let [them] make the changes you’re saying you want”?
Time really does help heal wounds. As people consistently make the new and healthy choices they’ve decided on, others around them will (hopefully) eventually learn and adapt accordingly. Ideally boundaries will eventually be respected, voices will be heard more often, and so on. The process of getting there can be really challenging, though, because of people’s surprising reactions; or your surprising reactions.
I’m my own worst enemy. Another challenge with developing new habits is letting ourselves accept the changes. When I first saw my therapist several years ago, I remember being so proud of myself for “graduating” and taking a break. The week after I ended treatment, though, I had a scenario pop up where I was left thinking “oh my gosh I should not have stopped therapy”. Then I stopped myself and said “wait, I have the tools and I just need to use them”. I almost missed the familiarity of responding in a less healthy manner and going to my therapist to tell her about it, but the reality was that treatment was working because I was aware of what needed to happen and could do it.
It’s not all rainbows and butterflies. Being mentally healthy is certainly not always filled with good feelings of happiness, but rather tough decisions to do what is best for us. Sure, I should exercise several times a week, but I don’t always enjoy it. I exercise for the ongoing assistance to my health. Unfortunately, it’s not a “one and done” fix. Every day is a new day full of confrontations with choices. Ideally, we become confident enough in ourselves to trust that, while uncomfortable, healthy choices will lead to healthy lifestyles – even if in the moment we or others are not fans.
“I must be willing to give up what I am in order to become what I will be.” – Albert Einstein
At least I’m asking. What’s the point in making changes if people aren’t going to like you for it? Do you like yourself for it? What are your goals? Do you want to feel more at peace? Do you want to feel less stress around a particular topic? Are you trapped in a life that you hate? While we’re at it – what is the meaning of life? I think in life we will always have questions and our answers will NOT always be the same. If I asked myself these questions when I was 13, the answers would have looked a lot different at 23 and 33 and that’s okay. At least I’m asking the questions. At least you’re asking the questions and I hope you always do.
About the Author: Mary E. Mawdsley Scruggs is a Marriage and Family Therapist working toward licensure in Oklahoma City at Family Solutions Counseling. She works with individuals, couples, and families dealing with issues such as anxiety, trauma, betrayal trauma, relational issues, and more.