How Therapy Fosters Courage

mountain-climber2

You came to the therapy session. Courage was required. You admitted things were too messy, desperate, painful. A brave step was needed. Despite hesitation you took the road less traveled.

The therapist was not a monster. He invited you into his office. Your courage was reinforced.

Now you find he hears your words, watches without blinking. The attention is encouraging. Few ever took you seriously, showed patience, gave you their time — listened with quiet intensity.

You discover the contact has value — the relationship is worth something. Again, the effort didn’t meet with the disaster you expect as a matter of routine. The reinforcement makes future risks more likely. You begin to wonder if perhaps you previously fulfilled some of your own dire prophecies.

The counselor is reliable. At first you think he is a unique example of dependability in an undependable world. What luck! Later you recognize the truth: others as good, or close to it, might exist if only you raise your eyes to look. An intrepid search begins for those who are also decent and caring.

Issues too deep for words are exposed in session. You surprise yourself with your openness. Your vow never to make yourself vulnerable again is set aside. Courage grows.

Perhaps you begin to recognize grit is not always a matter of physical bravery. Indeed, you identify its presence when you look in the mirror. Especially if you face your short comings in the reflection. Change takes more bravery than what is demonstrated on the football field. Your moral muscle increases in size. Your heart becomes toned. You develop something called “therapeutic integrity:” to stick with treatment despite the punishment it inflicts. Your head is held higher. Avoidance is less often your first choice.

Yes, the rose of life is full of thorns, but the scent and beauty are worth an occasional prick. Your bravery makes this revelation possible. You learn to survive such pricks and avoid them when you can. Especially the human kind.

You voice strong opinions to your counselor and the world does not end. He applauds the growth to which he is witness. You begin to internalize his approval and the strength in you he identifies. More and more you come to lead the process — more evidence of therapeutic integrity.

The things you never thought possible — the behaviors others could enact but you didn’t — are done. You explain this not by some sort of therapeutic magic, but by the virtuous qualities inside you of which you had no awareness.

More chances are taken. You learn to say no, to travel alone, speak your mind, grieve, enjoy a restaurant dinner solo, date again (or perhaps, for the first time), recognize the toxic takers, act in spite of fear, dust yourself off when you’re down and come back for more. Your pulse quickens not with fear, but a lust for life.

Your intrepidity manifests itself in “baby steps” at first. Later they are well-placed strides. Eventually you run with joy, recognizing life is in the running, not always the winning of the race. You have discovered you can “take a licking and keep on ticking.” The scars you were ashamed of become badges of honor. The lines in your face are earned. They enhance your beauty to those who recognize the richness in you, not just your sausage casing.

Lord Byron wrote in Prometheus Unbound:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change nor falter nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire and Victory.

“Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free …”

Blame and lament are past. Fear is no longer a constant companion.

You are your own self, the maker of your life in so far as we are ever able. Take up your chisel and approach the marble — create the art that is your life.

You’ve learned the sculptor’s hand is never finished with you; and that fate is but one sculptor.

You are the other.

Courage made it possible.

13 thoughts on “How Therapy Fosters Courage

  1. Hi Gerald this post is a good reminder for me of how much I have accomplished. At the moment I seem to have forgotten that as I’m in the third week of a four week break that my therapist is having at the moment. The last few days its like I’ve buckled and lost that courage and just want to curl up in a ball and hide from the world until he comes back. I don’t know why that happens, probably there is still more work to be done yet, but for now your post is a good reminder that my courage is in me, not my therapist, and that i can access it now without waiting until he comes back. Your posts continue to give me so much reassurance as I travel my therapeutic journey, thank you very much for them.

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    • I’m pleased if my reassurance helped, Claire, and thanks for saying so. Re: courage in treatment, it’s a bit like Sleeping Beauty and the Prince: bravery is always there, it just needs the right touch to awaken it. His action looks more impressive than it is.

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  2. Writing like a pro, Dr. Stein. Especially like the following statement:
    “Yes, the rose of life is full of thorns, but the scent and beauty are worth an occasional prick.” No love without pain.

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  3. Another great Blog I have to print off and take to my Therapist. You say it so well – how difficult it is to be brave sometimes but how worthwhile, not worthless, we feel afterwards when we have beaten the fear. So sorry you retired…it wouldn’t have been THAT bad a commute from Upstate New York for appointments, right???? Thanks. Have a nice weekend.

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    • Thanks, Judy. I think the commute might work, but I imagine the fee might be out of your reach! Just guessing of course. 😉

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  4. “Later you recognize the truth: others as good, or close to it, might exist if only you raise your eyes to look.”

    This is where I get stuck. My therapist’s job is to be dependable, reliable, a rock. His own needs don’t come into play in our relationship. I can say anything to him without fear of repercussion.

    For me, it’s a huge leap to go from trusting him to trusting people who don’t necessarily, by code of ethics and even law, have my best interests at heart and have their own set of needs that must be balanced and to which they must, quite rightly, attend.

    I have gotten better at letting others in and opening up and it’s never been quite the disaster I’ve predicted it would be, but the trajectory you outline seems something of a pipe dream for me.

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    • I’m glad you raised this question, Jenny. It is not the first time I’ve heard this kind of concern. First, while a therapist is “supposed” to follow an ethical code, not all do so. Beyond sexual misconduct, there is the potential for overbilling and to extend treatment longer than it is needed in order to benefit from the payment provided by the patient and/or insurance company. Thus, a counselor has some incentives to use you. At bottom I don’t disagree with your worry about the nature and goodness of people outside of the therapist’s office. We are all flawed and have all done injury to others, intentional or not. I can tell you, however, that the profession of psychotherapy has no monopoly on humanity’s goodness and I’ve seen folks with heartbreaking abuse histories go into the world (eventually) and find contentment. Sometimes the treatment takes a very long time and certainly much courage is involved. Until it happens and reliable friends are found, such an outcome is unimaginable. It sounds like you have taken some gutsy steps, so perhaps the pipe dream will become reality, after all. I hope so. Thank you for commenting.

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    • Thank you so much for this exchange – which raises exactly the concern that I continue to have….and answers it in I think the only way it really _can_ be answered……many thanks to both!

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  5. Thank you for another great post – which I meant to thank you for earlier, save that this has been a week in which therapy has really kicked my butt as it were (sorry!) but in an ultimately helpful and very productive way. It required a petulant and defiant sort of courage to turn up to therapy on Tuesday in a long (but still a bit short) jumper, bright violet tights and high heeled boots, and a rather different (and more adult) sort of courage to then talk about it and everything I was angry and defiant about, in the subsequent two sessions…..! Courage made it possible, though one of the underlying factors to the whole incident had, I think, been fear over the courage previously shown (and the baby steps made) and fear over expectations of future steps and demonstrations of courage. As another reader has also stated, I absolutely love your two lines: “Yes, the rose of life is full of thorns, but the scent and beauty are worth an occasional prick. Your bravery makes this revelation possible. You learn to survive such pricks and avoid them when you can. Especially the human kind.” Thank you again…..

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    • Your are welcome. To stay with the metaphor, your butt will heal! I think we need to be beaten up (metaphorically speaking) by the routine indignities of life about 10,000 times before we realize that 1) almost all of the individual indignities are temporary and 2) life goes on. Keep up the good work!

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  6. […] tea in sight, for it wouldn’t survive those rolling seas. And as is beautifully described in this post by Dr Gerald Stein, what you reap is what you sow – therapy doesn’t just take courage, it fosters it. It […]

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