This is one of the last blog posts I wrote for my website as a psychotherapist. I think of this post as a transition to the work I do now, as a life coach.
Several times lately, in mid therapy session, I’ve suddenly realized that my client’s biggest problem may be that there’s nothing wrong with them.
No, I don’t mean the problems are “just in their head.” And I don’t mean they don’t have problems. But they’re struggling to figure out “what’s wrong with me” – what diagnosis, what deep-seated flaw, what horrible defect needs to be cured – because if they could just figure that out, then they’d know what medication, what therapy, what correct course of action would fix them.
But – what if they don’t actually need to be fixed? What if there’s not actually anything dreadfully wrong with them? What if the real problem is that they believe there’s something dreadfully wrong with them, and they’re putting their energy into trying to figure out what it is? What if that’s the wrong question?
There are a dozen ways I can talk about this from a clinical perspective. I can talk about schemas and core beliefs. I can talk about negative self-talk. I can talk about mindfulness and moving toward radical acceptance. I can talk about the just world theory and the existential challenge of answering the question “Why do bad things happen to me? And all those things apply. But what if we can make it simpler. Consider this.
If I believe that the problems I’m having and the anxiety and depression I feel are because there’s something inherently wrong with me, then of course I want to know what it is. But in looking for the answer, every uncomfortable feeling and every painful event become just more evidence of my failings.
My husband said something mean to me. It’s my fault because I should set limits with him. My first husband was like that too – I just attract the wrong people. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. My 14 year old daughter feels like she doesn’t fit in. I never felt like I fit in, it’s probably my fault she doesn’t either. If I knew how to fit in, I could help her. My boss said something the other day and I think it means she thinks this new guy is doing a better job than I am. I’ve been there 10 years, why doesn’t she respect me more? I must be awful. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.
And then the person tortures themselves, trying to figure out “what’s wrong with me.” What if that’s the wrong question? What if the husband is having an existential life crisis and just feeling irritable? And what if the daughter doesn’t “fit in” because she’s super creative and bright? What if “fitting in” isn’t actually the goal? What if it’s ok for the boss to praise someone else and it doesn’t mean anything about her other employees?
What if “What’s Wrong With Me?” is just the wrong question?