The idea of “happily ever after” can make reality seem disappointing. Retirement is a great example. The classic retirement story is about “sailing off into the sunset.” With your life’s work complete, you are free to do whatever you like, without all those worries that dogged you for so many years. The truth is that retirement is usually a really hard transition for people to make—made even harder by the assumption that it’s all great and easy.
Therapy also suffers from the idea of “happily ever after.” We believe that if you have a mental health problem, a therapist can fix it and send you on your merry way. The only problem is that mental health does not work like this. Dental work does, to some extent. Even primary physical care. Both those types of medicine focus on fixing your problems and returning you to your normal mode of life. But let’s take a look at why this doesn’t work in therapy.
Say one day you suddenly experience a toothache. You take some medicine and hope that it will go away. The next day you wake up and the pain is even worse. By noon, you decide you can’t deal with it. You can’t do anything else until the pain is gone. So you schedule an appointment with your dentist, who fixes the problem, and then you go back to living your life.
You will probably never think about your toothache again. A toothache isn’t on your mind except when it’s happening. It says almost nothing about who you are, and it has little to do with your past and your future. In other words, when a toothache is fixed, it is pretty much gone.
By contrast, how could a therapist remove your childhood? How can you do away with your relationship with your parents? What’s the quick fix to enduring discrimination on the basis of your age, race, or orientation?
Instead, let me suggest a better way to think about these issues. They will always be a part of who you are, and they will always go through your mind. However, try thinking of them as something you can one day have a better relationship with. Therapy offers the opportunity to bring these relationships—with your parents, your boss, or your ambition—into the here and now. By talking about them with your therapist, you can start relating to them in a way that is not only more manageable, but also more meaningful.