Dealing with People Who Say Therapy is a Crutch

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It is so easy to judge. Legions of “friends” and acquaintances evaluate your decision to enter treatment. Some signal thumbs up and applaud your courage. Others gesture thumbs down and render disapproval:

It’s not as bad as he thinks.
He needs to suck it up.
I’ve been through worse.

While many people are understanding, critical voices say you betray weakness by reaching for this “crutch.” Surprisingly, those who have experienced a similar problem are often less empathetic than the rest. If your friend also got over a traumatic accident like yours, research says he is probably less sympathetic than people who were lucky enough not to have had that piece of bad luck. The closer your experience is to one the other person triumphed over, the more likely he is to think your adversity is manageable. A pity, because when you reach out to the buddy you expect to be most soothing, you might discover he comforts you not.

Sometimes we must give up on such “friends.”

Nature fashioned us to survive. Like athletes trained to forget their failures quickly, we are more content if we get past the pain of remembrance. Thus, our own photo-shopped recollection of triumphing over the bad breaks of life can make us less sensitive to fellow-men when those traumas are akin to ones we once endured. Arm-chair chest-thumping is like the braggadocio of a political office-seeker who tells us how easily he would fix a national problem if only he were in office — condemning the effort of those who now grapple with the job. The sideline of life is a place where judgment produces cheap and imaginary victories rarely duplicated once the judge steps out of his robes and into the game himself.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes (up) short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat (Theodore Roosevelt, 1910).

Adding to our misfortune is the tendency to condemn ourselves. History offers examples of people who triumphed in extreme situations. We get the sense such folks are plentiful because they are the objects of story and song — as numerous as the apples on a fruit tree. If we buy-into the ease with which people survive and thrive we compound our already miserable state by observing the contrast with our own plodding struggle.

From the therapist’s chair, survival and persistence are, by themselves, heroic. Perhaps not the heroism of a Shakespearean tragic figure like Coriolanus, but admirable nonetheless.

I treated just such people in my therapy practice. For a time, sometimes for months or years, they were immobilized by the hammer blows of fate. Signs of resilience and the will to fight slowly emerged. Not always, but often.

The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s … it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets which are sudden and unexpected.” (Marcus Aurelius, VII, 61).

Like the athlete thrown to the floor, in time you must get up.

512px-Wikipe-tan_Fight_back!_(cropped_version)

The moment of resurrection is different for each of us. On the wrestling platform of life no referee demands a speedy rise. Ah, some in the audience will criticize, but they do not writhe in your anguish or see the torn sinews beneath your skin.

The effort to stand again is not over until you say so. Those who judge are unaware (or have forgotten) how they would react in a similar situation. Some resort to a kind of cheap self-flattery to quell anxiety at the possibility of themselves experiencing your adversity. “Oh, I would have been able to handle that” is soothing to say and makes them believe they are resilient and brave, but is lots easier from the grandstand than on the field.

Your misfortune is also a cruel opportunity, but an opportunity nonetheless: to triumph over fate. Sometimes victory is just persevering.

When Shakespeare’s flawed hero Coriolanus was banished from Rome, his mother lamented his departure. He attempted to console her with words she taught him. The perspective he learned from her was that a crisis was a chance to distinguish himself as better — more heroic — than the average person:

Where is your ancient courage? you … used

to say extremity was the trier of spirits;

That common chances common men could bear;

That when the sea was calm all boats alike

Show’d mastership in floating …

In other words, it is easy for us to sail along without concern when the water is smooth.

You who are in pain would give up the suffering if only you could. Now, however, you will find out who you really are. The rest of us are waiting for whatever challenge drops on us for the chance at such knowledge. I am not suggesting we seek it. Yet, once fate arrives, do battle in whatever form you can however weak you feel. Even if taking a breath is, for now, all you can muster.

For those of you in the fight of your lives, I salute you.

The Wikipedia “Fight Back!” logo is the work of Kasuga-commonswiki.

25 thoughts on “Dealing with People Who Say Therapy is a Crutch

  1. In my case, its more of a “you’re STILL in therapy?” As if all things can be healed in 6 to 12 sessions. Its always easy to judge…but the old adage “don’t judge til you walk a mile in their shoes” still stands the test of time. The more compassionate and kind we can be to our fellow earthly travellers I believe is all for the better. Great post. Thank you. I’m sure there are lots of individuals who face negativity and judgement from others.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Superb point, Jenny. I treated patients for relatively brief periods and some for years. Your advice re: kindness is just right; and hold back judging ’til you’ve spent some time in the other’s place. Thanks for your praise and your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Gerald, I always look forward to your posts ( on Sunday mornings where I am) and this is another good one. I tend to agree with you that you’re less likely to get sympathy from someone who has bee through similar not just because it’s happened to me, but also because that has been my reaction to. I try not to be that judgemental anymore. In thinking about why that is a human response to fellow humans or why I have responded that way is for several reasons. In trying to understand others we want the answers to be simplistic as to why people do what they do, but people and life are just not simple there is no quick and easy way of dealing with life. Also maybe out of a sense of helplessness and wanting the person to triumph we loose empathy and patience with them because we are left with feeling discomfort from seeing another person in pain and we want a way to stop our own discomfort. There is such a sense of helplessness when you realise that you can’t endure someone elses pain for them, all you can do is just be there for them or sometimes not even that, just wait for them to return to you when and if they get through it. Its even more painful to watch when its someone you really love, it can be scary to face that you might loose them to the pain and there is nothing you can do about it because the effort has to come from them. Having empathy requires remembering your suffering and understanding that it’s happening to someone else now and you can’t stop it for them, they will have to go through it just as you did and its not what you want for them. I know I wouldn’t wish my experiences on my worst enemy. I think to that in dealing with pain there is elements of it that go beyond the capacity of being with people. People can become a distraction on the focus required to face it, you can only go through it alone-just you and the pain. I’ve also experienced having to much sympathy and empathy can lead to too much self pity when what is needed is self disciplined courage. Empathy doesnt always provide the direction or guidance about whats needed to push through the pain. I suppose thats why athletes have coaches, not to sympathise with the pain but someone to direct and push you through it so as to achieve the victory. In the end the battle is yours and yours alone.
    By the way the weather here reached 105 F or 41C yesterday its cooled down to 38C or 100.4 F and thats been a battle in itself 🌞

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thank you, Claire. I think you understand the complexity of our human experiment very well. And, as you say, there are many thing in life where one is a soloist, like it or not. With respect to the question of whether those who have had comparable experiences are sympathetic, you might wish to take a look at the link (see the word “adversity” in the third paragraph) to research on this phenomenon. I’m glad you are enjoying the posts and appreciate your saying so. As to the climate, here is an unusually informative piece on what was good and not so good about the recent international climate accord: http://theleap.thischangeseverything.org/why-most-of-what-you-think-you-know-about-the-paris-climate-deal-is-wrong-an-annotated-news-story-2/

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This post feels like a hug – thank you so much for writing it…….

    Liked by 2 people

  5. A very timely post. I won’t say why, but thank you.

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  6. Glad it fits, for whatever reason. Thanks for saying so.

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  7. Thanks for another thought-provoking topic, Dr. Stein.

    “Sometimes victory is just persevering.”
    ~ In the face of overwhelming odds, perseverance is all that remains. This is so applicable when considering the innumerable challenges we as citizens face in life: racism, inequality in all its forms, money corrupting our democratic processes, endless wars, climate change denial…

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you, Rosaliene. Life offers us, I think, two sets of things at odds with us. You’ve mentioned one set. The other is simply the human condition: mortality, disease, accident, infirmity; and even without climate change, the force of mother nature to do harm. Challenges all around or, as Coriolanus might view it, much opportunity for heroism and triumph. Here’s to the potential for greatness of soul in all of us.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. lovedeferredisnotlost

    Beautifully written.

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  10. As one who has been blessed with a fantastic therapist who has helped me walk through (though not yet “from”) deep pain, I can honestly attest that therapy is a crutch. I love my time with my therapist. I look forward to my weekly visit and how he helps me deal with situations, emotions and challenges that I would have otherwise been mired within. I find that my weeks are a series of peaks (my sessions) and valleys (the days between). I see how people like me can rely entirely on these caregivers and place the responsibility upon them to lift our spirits. I find myself lying awake at night taking notes of what challenges I faced during that particular day and bringing my list to my therapist. While he is working to get me to see that I am already helping myself, the emotional lift that I get just sitting in his office is what sustains me.

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    • I’m happy to hear you are getting a need lift. Therapists usually are wise enough not to argue with success. Sounds like the trajectory is a good one. Take care and thanks for commenting.

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      • Thank you, Dr. Stein. I need to spend less time online – which is something that I have given myself way too much latitude to do in these past several months. However, discovering your blog has been nice for me (I read countless posts of yours over the course of this week, sacrificing a bit too much of my time that should have been spent with my daughters. Oh well. It is all in the name of their father’s health.

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      • There is no greater compliment that to give someone your time, so many thanks. I’m sure you will make it up to your kids. As a father of two (now adult) daughters, I always felt I was the luckiest guy on earth. Now I have a grandson and feel lucky about him, too.

        Liked by 1 person

      • There is hope in that, to imagine one day being a grandparent. Seeing my kids nearing their age of departure will be bittersweet.

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      • For sure. When I drove my eldest to college, I shed several tears on the ride home.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Sent from my Verizon Wireless 4G LTE smartphone

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  11. *please (pardon the typo!)

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  12. I appreciate your blog. I will say I think this really also depends on the therapists. Many therapists haven’t done their own work and use clients for their emotional stability. I have not had a great experience finding healthy therapists and most recently, agreed to work with someone long-term to see what we could work through. It became an entangled mess and I felt betrayed by her need for me to continue therapy when I told her it was an unhealthy relationship. She kept contacting me for months afterward and as someone who was dealing with deep and traumatic abandonment issues, left me feeling worse than I started. One thing I’ve learned is ‘therapy’ is a broad term with no real standard. I’ve now tried several therapists over the years and found it can be very difficult to find a healthy one. For those who do, I’m certain it’s a true gift, for the rest of us, it can leave us with very deep scars.

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    • drgeraldstein

      Thank you, J. I can’t disagree with what you’ve said, particularly the absence of one accepted set of standards and the presence of a number of people who shouldn’t be in the field. You have my sympathy for the pain therapy has brought you; certainly the individual describe and her pursuit of you is more than lamentable. I hope the future holds something better for you.

      Like

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