We all get caught up in situations of desperation with circumstances and a sense of powerlessness to break through the impasse that our lives sometimes seem to be. The first recourse is often psychotherapy, but it is important to know that the psychotherapist is there to help us change the circumstances, or our reactions to events in our lives, and not to impart a magical solution through what is sometimes seductively called ‘positive attitude’ or ‘positive energy’. Psychotherapy should lead to the making of decisions that will change our circumstances and allow us to flourish. More often than not, the ‘objective’ factors that appear to limit us in our aspirations and desire for happiness are just that — objective factors. They cannot be ‘explained away’ as though they did no exist; instead psychotherapy should seek to help us mobilize our internal power to address and change the circumstances that militate against our drive to achieve our personal goals.
The first lesson to be learned in this context is that, by approaching a psychotherapist, we seek to devise internal tools to make objective changes. Without such changes, the relief that psychotherapy typically leads to after a few sessions is likely to be short-lived. Thus, psychotherapy is a process leading to constructive and productive decision-making where such ability is impaired by various factors.
Sometimes (quite often actually) the bodily reactions (twitches, discomfort felt in the stomach, nausea, or tensions of the muscles) are not takes seriously enough as parts of our psychological makeup. There is a long standing ‘rationalist’ tradition in the modern Western culture (perhaps most closely associated with Kant’s ethics), which assumes that ‘the mind’ is different from the body, that it is considerably independent of it, and that ‘the right frame of mind’ will automatically lead to the correction of various issues with ‘psychosomatic’ issues. In fact, the situation of the body is an integral part of our psychic processes: bodily reactions often tell us more about how we really feel than our conscious processes are able to.
One of the leading pragmatist philosophers and psychologists, William James, went so far as to say that what traditional philosophers and psychologists have termed ‘thinking’ is in fact nothing more than breathing. The continuous process of breathing is what gives us a sense of bodily continuity of our identity and mental existence: thus the emphasis on conscious breathing by many mindfulness- and meditation-oriented therapeutic practices. According to James consciousness ‘is only a careless name for what, when scrutinized, reveals itself to consist chiefly of the stream of (…) breathing. The “I think” which Kant said must be able to accompany all my objects, is the “I breathe” which actually does accompany them’.
Similar observations can be made about our physical existence in space. People who have experienced trauma typically feel physical discomfort when they later come to the same place, even though any causes of the trauma have been credibly removed, thus a repetition of the same events is impossible. Sometimes just entering a room where one used to experience unpleasant things will lead to physical issues, such as tension in the muscles, headaches or trembling. One might not be aware that one’s breath is shortened and one’s hart rate accelerated, that one’s hands are shaking and one’s shoulders have risen in a pose of tension. However, when we pay attention to our bodies often we will find a clear diagnostic tool to determine how we really feel.
The same is the case with the company we keep. I once underwent therapy in the course of my own becoming a counselor, and the topics were the feelings of anxiety and discomfort that I kept having in the presence of a particular person, although I was trying to use all of my personal resources to eliminate the feeling. My counselor then said to me: ‘undergoing therapy while remaining in the company that causes bad feelings is the same as getting treatment for a contagious disease while returning, every night, to the island populated by those suffering from the same contagion’. Changing the company and the circumstances that cause bad feelings is imperative for the success of therapy. Richard Shusterman, the initiator of modern ‘somaesthetics’ — a branch of philosophy which traces the physical correlates of mental processes and uses them to increase ‘somatic awareness’ as a therapeutic tool for self-help in improving one’s lifestyle and fundamental choices one makes in one’s life — writes about the stress he experiences each time he entered his departmental chair’s office years after he was no longer the department chair. The office, where he had experienced many unpleasant departmental meetings, conducted job interviews and did other stressful ‘executive’ things, immediately induced in him bad physical reactions even when he entered it just to have a conversation with a friend. He writes about the experience: ‘It was pathological to be suddenly thrust into a state of breathless tension (and without even explicitly recognizing it) just by entering that place (…) After somatic training improved my somathic awareness, I was able to identify my pathological reaction and then treat it by explicitly applying various strategies of breathing and muscle relaxation.’
There is nothing wrong with avoiding the people and the places which cause physical reactions in us that show us our hidden negative feelings, just as it is highly recommended to keep the company of people who enthuse us with affirmative thoughts and hope for the future. This highlights the need to treat physical change as a potent tool to address our mental difficulties: sometimes it is difficult to break up a troubling relationship, because it has grown into us so much that it largely determines who we are. However, it is sometimes less difficult to leave one’s permanent place of leaving, putting distance between oneself and the relationship for a little while. This precious time may (though not always) prove sufficient to allow us to re-evaluate the relationship itself. The same applies to jobs, houses or friends. Leaving the permanent place of living for a while is a rich source of opportunities to view the seemingly ‘indispensable’ elements of our daily lives in different light and make decisions we would have considered ourselves utterly unable to make otherwise.
Everything we do in an effort to change our lives for the better requires resources: our time, energy and money. The same is the case with making important decisions: thus it makes sense to invest in a little trip before important decisions are made. Such a small change may greatly improve the chances of psychotherapy to empower us to act in our interest more decisively and more quickly.