Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Yesterday, I told my “process group” that I was quitting. I joined the group about 3 ½ years ago at the suggestion of my individual therapist, who I then stopped seeing. She thought – and I agreed – that a group might help me gain some skills in communicating and connecting with others that I’d been feeling were lacking.

The group helped me immensely (here’s the facilitators website, if you live in the SF Bay Area and are interested in doing group work. I’d highly recommend her groups and other activities.) I learned how to ask for feedback, explore my own reactions to other people, take responsibility for my own experiences, ask for what I need, and learned what it feels like to really connect on a deeper lever to another person. As someone who has always been shy and distrusting of people in general, it’s been extremely helpful to me.

But, over the last few weeks, I’ve just decided it’s time for me to try something else. It’s not necessarily anything that is wrong with the group, it’s something about me, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what that something is.

Over the past month, a realization I’ve had for awhile has somehow ‘gelled’ for me. This realization is I am never going to be a different person than I am. Who I am will not change no matter how long I seek therapy or read self-help books. It’s not that these things aren’t helpful – I do believe people can get better at handling life, and can gain skills to make their lives and relationships healthier – but in my core, I won’t change.

I think a lot of people – and I include myself – initially seek therapy because at some level they want to be someone they’re not. They want to be a positive, happy, person with excellent coping skills who has wonderful friends, an appreciative partner, happy children, and a productive, fulfilling job. These are all worthy goals, I suppose, but in reality, we are who we are, and our lives will never be perfect. Therapy won’t change that. Research even suggests that people have a basic happiness level that doesn’t appreciably change no matter what happens. They may temporarily be happier or less happy based on life events, but their level of happiness soon returns to its normal level, which is different for everyone. Though I have a problem with the whole concept of happiness in the first place, this research is interesting to me because it suggests there is no ideal way to be. We just are who we are, no matter what.

I think I finally realized in my gut that I am simply not someone who will ever be one of those shiny, happy people who are forever dancing around in their lives spreading good cheer and homemade cookies. It’s just not me. I’m the person, instead, who is usually content to quietly watch the world around me, thinks deeply about things, pays attention to my inner life and can help others gain insight into their own, who can be supportive and compassionate to people in their struggles, and someone who instinctively rejects false platitudes and simple answers. As such, I’ll sometimes be melancholic and withdrawn, sometimes outgoing and laughing. Yes, I can learn to look at my moods and not react to them or take them out on others; I can explore what makes me hold back sometimes, and want to avoid difficult situations or conversations; I can practice getting better at connecting to others in a deep way. But no matter how much I talk about my fears, explore my childhood, study my self-talk, or read books about how to be happy, I will always struggle with the same issues. I might get better at identifying what tends to hold me back, but in my core, I won’t become a different person. And finally, I think I can say that it’s okay for me to be me. Whew! What a relief!

I work in self-help, so it’s ironic that I’m such a questioner of most basic self-help tenets. Think positively. Be happy. Don’t concentrate on the negative, or you’ll attract more of the same. Control your emotions. Be mindful. There are so many self-proclaimed experts out there on how to be happy, better, different that you are. But what I don’t hear anyone saying is: we will always remain the people that we are. No amount of happy thinking, cognitive restructuring, sitting with your thoughts, or manifesting our secret desires will make us different people. And that’s what I believe most people want from self-help and therapy: to be different at their core. To stop the hurt that life brings. To discover the “secret” of happiness.

I’m not saying that self-help techniques can’t help at all. I do believe mindfulness, meditation, breathwork, cognitive restructuring, and therapy can help change some of the behaviors and thoughts that can make life so difficult. These things have all helped me. But in the end, I’m still me, and you’re still you. We will still struggle. And maybe realizing this truth and having compassion for both our own and others’ struggles is really the basic (and only) rule for being psychologically healthy.

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