Psychotherapy and the Fundamentals of Life
As a young person, I hated math. By the time I made it into 1st grade, I began to sense a connection between those drills, 100 problems in 90 seconds, and my own flimsy mortality. I decided early on that numbers were created for no other purpose than to torture the pure of heart and, thus, summarily dismissed them. My negligence was revealed, however, when I brought home my first (and last!) “C” in 6th grade.
My father looked at my report card and then regarded me with disappointment.
“Tiffany,” he said, his voice grave. “In order to be successful, you must understand the foundations. Each concept you learn in math builds upon the one that came before it. If you do not focus now, if you miss the fundamentals, you will not be able to catch up.”
I felt ashamed, exposed. Though I pulled my act together, forever more maintaining A’s & B’s, I was painfully aware of the fact that I never quite grasped these godly foundational elements. I was always waiting to be discovered as the fraud that I was – terrified, sweating and overwhelmed every time I came upon another formula, the answer to which lied in those blasted building blocks that I didn’t get in my formative years.
My dad’s comment haunted me. Even though his intention was to instill a work ethic, I knew that it was already too late. There was some thing I was missing, some basic understanding that eluded me.
Just as there are mathematical fundamentals that continue to build upon themselves in increasingly complex ways, so too, do our understandings of ourselves, the world and the people around us begin with basic psychical and emotional elements that become increasingly complex.
Many of us have a vague – or crushingly stark – feeling that we’re missing some fundamental understanding about our behavior or the behavior of others. This lack continually leads us into frustrating, stressful and painful situations.
These can show up in a variety of ways:
- Feeling vaguely uncomfortable with friends you’ve known for years,
- Continually finding yourself surrounded by “stupid people”,
- Being repeatedly surprised and confused by the actions of those around you,
- Knowing what you “should” do, but then finding yourself doing just the opposite.
The truth is, though our parental teachers did their best, for a lot of us, there were some basic emotional, intellectual, or psychic elements that we missed out on. These missing elements continue to haunt our relationships and professional endeavors, keeping us feeling stuck, stressed out and dissatisfied.
Take Claudia. Throughout her life, she had a sense that she was missing something – that old math feeling – that pervaded all of her experiences, from new friendships, to romantic relationships to artistic and professional goals. Though she read all the self-help books she could get her hands on and looked to behavioral therapists who could give her tools, she still felt uneasy.
She did get temporary relief from direct advice and strategies, but these tips felt similar to the “tricks” one might use to get through math tests. Though she was able to patch together enough understanding to pass each test, as life got increasingly complicated she got increasingly freaked out. With each new life experience, she had to grab a book and get some advice because she lacked the knowledge that would allow her to understand the problem from the inside out.
Until, that is, she tried psychoanalytic psychotherapy. It turns out that psychoanalysis (yep-you can still find it by name!) is the Mama of almost any psychotherapy that we know today including CBT, Mindfulness, EFT and Control-Mastery.
As an adult, it dawned on me that math was everywhere. I wanted to do custom design work on my website – math! I became excited about String Theory and Space – math! I wanted to simply get my financial state in order to run a rocking psychotherapy practice – Agh, more math! I continued to encounter that old anxiety whenever I sat down to approach a new experience that involved math. It got in the way of all the creative freedom that could’ve been there had I just took the time to learn the basics.
Short-term, behaviorally oriented therapies are akin to creating strategies to make it through the exam. These work just fine in a pinch and, truth be told, allow a lot of people to make it through their entire lives. Every so often, one can go to the self-help section or stop in for a brief therapy tune-up and go back out into the world.
As we all know, though finding tricks to get through a math test is perilous, patching together the holes when trying to live one’s life is a much riskier endeavor. Through psychoanalytic psychotherapy, Claudia began to move beyond a systematic approach to her life. She stopped looking to her therapist to give her the right answer. Instead, she began to build a foundation of insight that allowed her to look within herself for the answers in an integrated way. Through learning the fundamentals, she was able to create meaningful friendships and actually take the steps necessary to create a business that she was passionate about and that inspired her in her life.
And though I wish I could say that I went back and learned the math basics, married Neil DeGrasse Tyson and lived happily ever after, I cannot. I often regret that I didn’t attend more closely to my mathematical foundations.
Fortunately for all of us, there is hope when it comes to our life experience. You don’t have to live exam to exam, desperately hoping that you’ll be allowed to have at least one page of notes. You do have the option to invest in a therapeutic relationship that will allow you to gain the knowledge that you missed out on in your early years, allowing you to unlock the mysteries of the awesome psychological space/time continuum that is, well, you.