Ah, Autumn. It’s clearly the very best season – all crisp and cool and tweed-y. And come on, we all know that all of the best of food and fashion emerges in October.
It’s also the season when, in the therapy room, a distinct tone of nihilism starts to emerge in client conversations. The dipping sun, the cooler temperatures, the receding levels of vitamin D – they all lend themselves heartily to a growing sense of doom and depression. To many of us, things feel less shiny, and less exciting. Up here in New Hampshire, we know the loooong New England Winter is on its way. It can feel as though things matter a little less. Sometimes it feels as though things don’t matter at all.
Obviously, this thought can be a little depressing.
Decades ago, when I was first starting out as a young clinician, I was very into the practice of positive psychology. I fawned over the work of Martin Seligman (whom I still admire quite a bit), who pioneered the positive psychology movement and explored how to change negative thinking patterns and mood states by focusing in on our already-existing strong and positive attributes, and capitalizing on them. Seligman is a self-proclaimed pessimist, and dedicates his life’s work to working with this in himself. I find this, and his resulting work, inspiring and highly respectable.
In my mid-twenties, I found Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Bright-Sided. Ehrenreich is a sociologist turned emotion-explorer when diagnosed with breast cancer. Reading it, I felt like I was holding a fundamental missing piece of therapeutic work. In the book, Ehrenreich explores the way that emotional states and experiences (like grief, for example) that are meant to be walked through in their entirety and are inherently valuable in their depth are short-changed by well-meaning blasts of positivity. This frequently comes from one’s support network, which often includes one’s therapeutic providers. Ehrenreich posits that Hard life experiences hold immense opportunity for growth and self-understanding. It follows that a well-meaning suggestion by a therapist to “focus on the good things” or “be grateful” can rob an individual of the crucial, healing, insight work that they really need out of therapy.
Good or bad, there’s often value in the Dark stuff. Can we dare to let it just be? Can we even get curious about what it can to teach us?
Listen. There’s a lot of positivity-pushing that goes on in the therapy space, and I completely get it. I, too, want my clients to skip away from every session feeling revitalized, whole, and happy, because I care about them as people. But (and)… that’s not the therapist that I ultimately wish to be. I want to trust my clients; to give them the time and the room to take good care of the different Parts of themselves – even the Depressive Parts, and even the Nihilistic ones. I believe that it is my role to help facilitate their healing, not momentarily pull them out of the dumps every week.
This is my privilege as therapist – and something I need to be intentional about, always.
So. Walking into Autumn, can we make room for some of the Dark stuff that might be coming up in us? Can we get curious about it, withhold judgments about it, maybe give it space to breathe?
What happens when we welcome all of the Parts of ourselves into the therapy room?