Starting therapy is a beautiful thing. It is inherently an act of self-care, the beginning of an intimate relationship and a process of introspection. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is how it feels for most of my clients when they arrive for their first session. Rather than being hopeful, many feel scared, ashamed and as if they have already failed. Most have spent the previous months or years trying to get a handle on something that hasn’t gone away, and therapy is now an act of resignation.
Regardless of the explicit reasons someone reaches out to start therapy- lack of joy, unrelenting depression, harsh inner critic, nagging anxiety- the first session of therapy often boils down to one, simple sentiment: I want to feel better. The way that I am feeling is not okay, and it needs to change.
Speaking from the perspective of a therapist, I deeply wish for my clients to feel better. Their struggles taps in to my empathy, desire to heal and some of the personal reasons that brought me to this field. It’s really difficult to watch someone in pain.
However, by co-signing the “feel better” goal with my clients, I would be inadvertently colluding with of one our most damaging narratives as a society: You should be feeling good. If you’re feeling bad, something is wrong and you need to fix it.
This narrative, perpetuated by large-scale marketing, cultural memes and social medial (among other things) has created a giant gaslighting experience that is wreaking havoc on our mental wellness. I’m the only one who feels this way. There’s something wrong with me. Everyone else has figured it out.
As therapists, the consequences of buying in to the “feel better” paradigm and reinforcing it for our clients cannot be overstated. At minimum, it fortifies the loneliness and isolation that touches most of us as humans. It also sets us all up for a lifetime of unneeded suffering as we scramble to find ways to feel better, each effort likely more extreme or harmful than the last. When each attempt to feel better fails, the self-loathing seeps in and compounds our suffering. This is guaranteed.
Why? Because there is no “feeling better.” At least not in the way we like to believe there is.
Life is just plain hard. There is loss and tragedy, disease and humiliation, rejection and fear. These experiences are all included in the price of admission. To deny these experiences is to deny our human nature. And yet many of us do mental gymnastics to avoid confronting them.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT, offers another framework. ACT is a mindfulness-based therapy founded on behavioral research that rocks much of the foundation of Western psychology. Rather than using therapy to fuel the hamster wheel of changing and fixing, challenging and reframing, ACT directs us to not only accept but feel how difficult it is to move through this life and use this experience to connect with others.
Rather than trying to feel better, ACT pushes us to live better.
Living better means showing up to life regardless of how we are feeling. This means making decisions based on our deepest values, not what will hurt less. Most importantly, it means recognizing that our attempts to avoid, compartmentalize or numb our emotions is a no-win game.
Our feelings are not problems to be solved. They cannot be tamed, controlled or managed. We cannot effectively cherry-pick which ones we are willing to feel and which ones we are not. Paradoxically, it’s our very attempts to do just this that end up prolonging the very feeling that we’re tyring to get away from.
Hundreds of studies now demonstrate that ACT’s approach to emotional acceptance actually reduces symptoms like anxiety and depression just as quickly as other techniques. Not only that, it also leads to increased benefits such as overall quality of life and sense of purpose.
Emotions are temporary, free-flowing experiential states that sometimes provide us really important information. If we listen to our emotions, they will probably tell us is that navigating this life is difficult and we need support.
How would things be different if we were all honest about this truth? How would you treat other people? How would you treat yourself? How much more connected would we all feel to the people around us, each going through their own hardships alone?
My goal in the first session of therapy is that each client begins to consider the possibility that there is nothing wrong with them. That they are not broken or messed up. That they are okay just as they are. If anything, maybe just a little stuck.