The Cost of Avoiding Painful Realities

By Spencer Overgaard, Copyright 2014

When I worked as a therapist at a Toronto community college, I was surprised that very few students came to use the therapy services for more than one or two visits. This was despite the fact that it was free and available to all students. Of the ones who sought out therapy at all, most were female, despite the fact the campus student population was overwhelmingly male because of the types of programs available there.

But most confounding of all was that the most troubled students - the ones that could most benefit from on-going therapy- rarely returned for additional appointments. Their first and only appointment was often accompanied with great drama - lots of tears and fretting. But they very rarely came for a second session. This would be the case even if the students were subsequently approached by their teachers, the department chairs and other administrative staff recommending continued therapy.

To refuse to address their troubles beyond a first session seemed to be an odd choice. In the first session, they would unpack their lives: explain how their lives were falling apart: relationships (with boyfriends, girlfriends, friends, parents, siblings) were in grave conflict; or they were so depressed and/or anxious, that they couldn't focus on their studies. You would think students such as these would jump at the chance to continue to get help until they sorted out their lives. But strangely very few would take advantage of the service. Of the ones that did, most came regularly for weeks and sometimes months. They told me over and over again how grateful they were that there was someone who would listen to them and that having the therapy was making a significant positive effect on their lives. For them the service was helpful, often in critical ways, but the vast majority avoided coming.

Many adults, like these students, have trouble coming to grips with reality - facing emotional and psychological difficulties. We will do almost anything to avoid them. We will turn to the doctor to find a medical reason for our distress. We will blame our troubles on others, saying ``If only I didn`t have to live with that person or work with so-and-so, my life would be so much better.`` Or we will deny we have any difficulty at all, and leave it for others to point out there really is some behaviour or emotion that is getting us into trouble. This is especially true when others are negatively affected.

A famous psychotherapy case of someone refusing to come to grips with reality is that of Elizabeth Von R. She was a young woman who was at odds with herself because of her socially forbidden attraction to her sister's husband. At the start she was unaware of her attraction and later she was not at ease with accepting these very strong feelings. Instead of grappling with her feelings by putting herself in the position to meet an available man and thereby experiencing and accepting her feelings of sexual attraction, she distracts herself with caring for her sickly father.

But this refusal to accept her internal psychological conflict comes at a cost in the form of a physical symptom. A symptom is a sign of an unacknowledged and unresolved psychological conflict. In this case, Elizabeth can`t live with the notion that she is sexually attracted to her sister`s husband. She denies it because to admit it would have been unacceptable according to the social standards of her day. The symptom - a sore leg- emerges. It`s a painful compromise, but an acceptable one as well.

Being caught in an internal psychological conflict can be easier to sort out if we are fully aware of it. I remember my son at about four years of age displayed this when we were leaving our home for a summer holiday destination. He said, 'Daddy, I don't want to leave (home), and I can't wait to get there!' At his age, it was intensely exciting to go away for several days on an adventure, but he also enjoyed life at home and knew that being away would mean life could be unpredictable, unlike home life where he felt secure. This statement expressed some distress, but at least he was well aware of the tension and could choose what to do about it.

At first Elizabeth Von R. doesn`t have the advantage of awareness of her conflict that my son had (not to equate his dilemma to hers). But she gets insight by working with a therapist (Freud) who carefully follows the dots between her complaint about her legs, her choice to care for her father and her avoidance of confronting her sexual desires. (This is a dramatic case study and you can read about it in Freud`s writings.)

At the college I saw a remarkable difference between students who were prepared to grapple with their painful emotional and psychological realities and those who couldn`t be bothered. Their lives were richer in many ways, not least of all in how they were able to access their passion for living.