Courage, Vulnerability, and Strength: How Therapy Empowers Us

By Manuel A. Manotas, PsyDMindfulness-Based/Contemplative Approaches Topic Expert Contributor

Psychotherapy can be about more than treating symptoms; it can be a path to living a more fulfilling life.

People often begin therapy to alleviate symptoms—a worthy goal, to be sure. But perhaps even more compelling is the ability of psychotherapy to help us counter our tendencies to stay in our comfort zones, and to challenge us to open ourselves to the aliveness and dynamism of the ever-evolving now. It can help us tap into our potential and live happier, more meaningful lives.

Yet it’s not uncommon to hear people say that therapy is like using a crutch, or that therapy makes people dependent on their therapists. In some cases, such claims may indeed be true. However, good therapy is meant to empower us, to help us mature, to stand on our two feet and face whatever comes our way.

Furthermore, therapy is not an easy process. If your therapist is doing his or her job, you will feel uncomfortable at times as you examine uncomfortable feelings and the reasons they exist. Whoever thinks that therapy is a crutch or an easy process clearly has not gone to therapy.

Therapy Takes Courage

Engaging in the process of therapy is a courageous endeavor that is not for the faint of heart. Successful therapy demands that you see what you do not want to see within yourself. We all have parts that we don’t want to see, parts that scare us and that we have carefully hidden deep inside.

Good therapy is meant to help us uncover those parts. Even in the safety of a strong therapeutic relationship, that is no walk in the park. It requires commitment, emotional stamina, capacity to tolerate difficult emotions, capacity to shift attention to different aspects of ourselves at the right moments, and compassion—lots and lots of compassion. It requires dedication and a willingness to be in (inner) places that we haven’t been before, a willingness to be vulnerable.

Vulnerability Is True Strength

Allowing ourselves to be touched and open to experience in a non-defensive way is a very vulnerable thing to do. The idea that this is a weakness is a delusion; nothing takes more courage than to meet the parts of us that are scared and hidden. As long as we try to force our way into seeing our depths, we will not have access; the way in is through vulnerability and allowing our experience be exactly what is.

Allowing ourselves to be touched and open to experience in a non-defensive way is a very vulnerable thing to do. The idea that this is a weakness is a delusion; nothing takes more courage than to meet the parts of us that are scared and hidden.

This is no easy task. Our culture advances a belief that we need to “pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps,” but that belief is based in unconscious fear that dominates our experience—in fact, it is an act of violence toward ourselves.

If instead of beating ourselves into action we learned to invite the shaky, scared parts of us to show up, and we hold them with openness and let ourselves directly feel all of their uncomfortable sensations, we are being as courageous as we can possibly be. We are willing to meet ourselves without hesitation.

If we allow ourselves to feel the sense of deficiency (or whatever we are resisting), without defending against it, in time we can begin to experience a palpable sense of strength, courage, and determination that is not based on ideas of what should be, but are actual, felt experiences. Good therapy can help us with this.

Real Therapy Has Results Beyond the Reduction of Symptoms

There are real, tangible benefits to engaging in this process, including an increased sense of freedom. By understanding and unwinding the inner structures we have hidden inside, we are also recovering a great deal of previously frozen aliveness. By learning to see through our emotional and mental defenses, we also gain openness, awareness, and responsiveness. We become more finely attuned to what we need and to what is needed at any given moment.

A simple way to measure psychological well-being is by how responsive we are to the immediate environment without our old filters getting in the way as much. Neither reactive nor passive, we become able to appropriately act in a way that supports our continuous development.

This is not a mental exercise; it includes all of our being. It includes awareness of our mental, emotional, and somatic(physical) states. It requires uncovering our past beliefs and ideas about reality. It also requires getting to know our limitations and our capacities. And it requires us to not be defended—or at least not extremely defended. In a way, therapy can be an adventure into our inner landscapes, a process in which we are willing to be transformed by self-discovery.

By becoming aware of the parts of us that we didn’t know existed, we can begin to know ourselves in a more intimate way. In turn, our satisfaction in life increases, because our actions, emotions, and thoughts come into greater alignment. Furthermore, by understanding our unconscious inner conflicts and relational patterning, we begin to lessen their impact on our well-being and our capacity to respond appropriately to life.

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