Eons ago, my classmates and I were playing football, and I was in the wide receiver position. My best friend, the quarterback, threw me a pass as I was coming across the middle. After catching the ball, someone tagged me from behind. With all the momentum I had, I tripped forward and cut my knee…badly. (Our school’s “field” was actually a gravel parking lot.) I had to go to the doctor to get stitches for it, and after he finished, he told me that I would not be able to play any sports for at least a month since the stitches could easily tear with any slight bending of my knee.
Of course, this was the worst news I could possibly receive because playing sports was what gave me meaning in my teen years. Deep down, I knew I would not be able to wait that long. So after a week or two, I was back on the field playing “less strenuous” games like kickball. Even though I was as careful as I could be, it only took one kick for the stitches on my knee to tear. I realized at that moment that if I really wanted to get back on the field to play anything, I was going to have to wait and let my knee heal properly. There needed to be a temporary sacrifice, and this was not only a physical sacrifice, but also a mental and emotional one. I had to deal with the reality that I could not make the wound heal faster by wanting it to and there were no shortcuts I could take to speed up the process, so I had to suffer through it. I was forced to wait.
Why Do We Seek Ease and Comfort?
Humans have an innate desire to create and seek out anything that can make life quick, easy, and/or comfortable. The question is, is this good or bad? More importantly, why do we seek ease and comfort? As I pondered this, I remembered Freud’s pleasure principle, in which he posits that humans are naturally inclined to seek pleasure and avoid pain.
If I see a ball coming my way, I duck. If I know there is traffic on one of the main streets, I take a different route. If I can get abs by buying that new machine you can attach to your stomach and get the same results as if I were to do 100 crunches a day, then I choose the former. The reality is, we all try to find easier, more convenient ways to mitigate physical, emotional, mental, and relational expenses. However, in counseling, we often find ourselves in the midst of pain, or we experience it ourselves as we help our clients. We find ourselves asking, is it possible for something good to come from allowing our clients to experience this enduring pain?
Pain and Discomfort Are Essential to Growth
I pondered this question and realized that there are many things in our lives that require pain and discomfort in order to obtain a reward in the end. To lose weight and gain muscle, we need to eat right and exercise. To learn a new skill, we must spend time practicing over and over to master it. To obtain a degree, we must sacrifice time we would have doing things we enjoy for time studying. Everything that is worth doing requires pain and discomfort.
Everything that is worth doing requires pain and discomfort.
Ferris Jabr writes on how difficult the process is for a caterpillar to become a butterfly. He writes that a caterpillar must first digest itself by releasing enzymes to dissolve its tissues. The enzymes turns its insides into an oozy soup which will eventually turn into eyes, wings, antennae and other adult structures. Though the process is difficult to watch, it is necessary because disturbing a caterpillar inside its cocoon or chrysalis actually risks botching the transformation (Scientific American, 2012).
In observing this change, we understand that part of the caterpillar’s journey is to experience struggle and extreme discomfort. This is simply part of the process for its transformation. At no point can the caterpillar stop the process, and say, “There has to be another way to become a butterfly. This is too difficult and painful, and it is not worth it.” To become beautiful, it must first be broken.
Though much pain is involved in seeing a client experience the raw emotion that comes with their distressing and heartbreaking circumstances, we must ultimately understand that we are not there to take away their pain. Healing can only come through the process of experiencing the pain together, making meaning of it, and then moving forward together to meet the goals set by the client. It is a process; basically, there are no shortcuts to healing.
“…there are no shortcuts to healing.”
Walking With Our Clients
This was one of the most difficult things for me to learn early on in counseling, because when my clients were in pain, I wanted to take it away or minimize it immediately. Often times, I tried, but to no avail. What I ended up learning is that maybe I’m not supposed to remove the pain. Maybe, I’m just supposed to be quiet, listen, and experience it with them.
If we want to help our clients heal, we have to understand that there are no “shortcuts” to the process, and we must demonstrate that we will be walking alongside them through the process. Healing takes time and, because it takes time, we must be present with them as they experience their pain. In due time, healing will come.
Sam Landa is a counselor who is passionate about working with young adults. He teaches as a psychology instructor for Liberty University, and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision. His research interests include attachment theory, religious doubt, and religious coping, and the effects each of these factors have on marriage, parenthood, and overall health.