Whether it’s have a good weekend, have a good holiday, enjoy your day, have a lovely afternoon, enjoy the evening, have a good Tuesday, enjoy the film, etc, etc. These well intended good wishes are used all the time these days. There is usually no doubt that the well-wisher genuinely hopes these things for person they are saying them to. However, I wonder if sometimes they might be received as an instruction rather than a wish. How differently “have a nice day” might be experienced if it is perceived as an instruction, rather than a wish.
My wondering was triggered by my work with a client over the last few months. My client explored in their session how much pressure they felt under to be happy. My client explained how they felt that being “sad or negative” is just not accepted, he went on to say that “no one wants to be around a sad person who is full of negativity”. This is of course his perception and this assumption is clearly based on introjects and conditions of worth. However, it got me thinking that with such an abundance of well-intended wishes (or instructions) might it put people under more pressure to be happy, or to have a good whatever. Does it convey a message that good is better and anything less than good, happy or enjoyable is just not welcome?
Of course, in the therapy room, we welcome whatever a client might bring, whether that be their sadness or their joy. However, I think it may be worth considering the pressure that clients (and indeed we) may feel under, to be happy. I felt that I needed to communicate to my client that, with me, he need not feel under pressure to be anything other than what he was feeling and experiencing in the moment. I let him know that sadness and negativity is as welcome as happiness. This intervention opened the door for a different experience to emerge for him. Slowly, we made space for his sadness. When he arrived and my enquiry about how his week had been, was met with “fine” I felt that I had to check what this meant, bearing in mind how reluctant he was to inflict his negative sadness onto the world and possibly me. Gradually, he could be more open and congruent in his sharing, when it had been a tough week, he could share this with me.
The work towards him becoming more congruent with himself, his experience and in our relationship seemed to be a valuable part of our work.
I find in my practice that before we can move on to what we might want to or to how we might want to experience life, we first need to stand firmly in the place of where we are. From this place, healing and growth can occur. For example, with this client who was experiencing deep sadness, it seemed helpful to encourage him to stay with his sadness, to own it, to accept it. I encouraged him to admit that he was sad and to experience it, more fully. Naturally, his preference was to avoid his sadness and try to be happy, but through gentle questioning about the nature of his sadness and by inviting him to describe it, give it an identity, get to know it, where it came from and what it needed, he could stand in the place of sadness and honour this feeling and experience, rather than trying to avoid it.
I think of it in the terms of someone who is an alcoholic, maybe the first step in their recovery, is to admit “I am an alcoholic”, they may not want to be one and this may not be how they want to live their life, but before they can move on, they must stand firmly in the place of accepting and owning that right now, this is their experience. For my client, his tendency to avoid sadness and fake happiness, was wearing him out. Living such an incongruent life was causing him as much distress as the sadness itself. By standing with him in the place of sadness he had a witness to his true experience and knew that there was at least one person in the world who did not wish for him to have a good day. Rather, he had the experience of being supported by someone who was with him in whatever day he was having.
Might we as therapists, I wonder, sometimes be too quick to try and help clients to feel better. Might we seek techniques, solutions or ways of helping our client to go from sad to happy, angry to calm or lonely to connected. Could we unwittingly in our well
-intentioned interventions and desire to help our clients, deny them the experience of being with whatever their here and now experience might be and if so, what might the impact of this be on their experience and growth?
I wonder also how different it might be if instead of “have a good day” we said “be with whatever you feel today” or “may your evening be whatever it will be” might these wishes remove some of the pressure to be happy, have a good time and enjoy themselves and instead give permission to be with whatever is.