Our current healthcare system is focused on quick symptom reduction. Name an ailment and I’ll show you a remedy, pill, or treatment targeted at quick pain reduction, no questions asked about why the pain is present in the first place. Especially for people who’ve been suffering or struggling for a long time, this seems like a no-brainer: why on earth would anyone pick living in physical or emotional pain when there’s a seemingly simple solution that promises to ease, perhaps even eliminate it? Take the pill and problem solved.
Holistic psychotherapists have a different viewpoint on symptoms. We acknowledge they can be overwhelming and sit somewhere on a spectrum from mildly unpleasant to severely devastating. There’s also truth in that if someone is drowning in symptoms to the point they can’t function or access any internal or external resources, it can be necessary to have a short-term focus on alleviating those symptoms so the person can meet their basic needs (ain’t no self-actualization happening if you haven’t slept in three days or are so depressed you can’t leave your bedroom). That being said, we don’t actually see symptoms as the problem. We see them as a signal.
What if those racing thoughts, that chronic sense of unease or dread, the internal heaviness you can’t seem to shake, the persistent irritability, or (insert your favorite symptom here) is actually the wisdom of your own heart, body, and mind signaling to you that you’re not living in alignment with your values?
That you’re not setting meaningful boundaries in your work and social relationships or honoring your own basic needs?
That you’re letting the thoughts and opinions of others define your personal worth?
That all the loneliness you had to figure out how to endure as a kid still sits within you unresolved and unseen?
That you’ve never really given yourself permission to mourn that loss and your body can’t bear the weight of unacknowledged grief anymore?
What if you invited yourself to meet your symptoms with curiosity, and even compassion, and asked them what they might be trying to alert you to? To see if perhaps they’re trying to herald to you that there is an untold story living within you dying for a voice and a witness?
I’ll be the first person to acknowledge this is challenging work that isn’t for the faint at heart.
“You mean you want me to lean into this thing that hurts like hell?! Why on earth would you ask me to do that? It seems so…unnecessary and counterproductive.”
Let me share this as a metaphorical counterpart to what I’m talking about: If you’ve ever sustained a physical injury to the point where you had to go to physical therapy (also not for the faint of heart…my God) then you know the physical therapist doesn’t simply load you up with pain killers and tell you it’s all better now because you can’t feel the pain anymore. They have you lean into the tender spots, they push against your body in a way that activates the wounded parts and it hurts like hell and makes you question every life decision you’ve made that got you to this point in this rowing machine with this particular sadist physical therapist. But you know what’s on the other side of that pain?
Over time this process heals the injury from the inside out. While that shoulder might always be just a little bit more tender than it used to be, you’ve done work that’s allowed your muscles and joints to strengthen and repair. You’ve not just numbed the symptom of pain while the joints and tissues continue to erode undetected (that is until you can’t NOT detect it anymore and your shoulder either breaks down completely or the scar tissue becomes so calcified you’ve lost the ability to move it), but acknowledged, tended to, and healed the source of the pain.
It’s’ a similar process with our emotional, relational, mental, and spiritual woundings. The more we ignore the tender spots out of fear of pain, the more they break us down from the inside out or calcify (and we lose our full range of e-motion). Our bodies and minds will come up with all kinds of creative ways to signal to us there’s erosion happening due to those unseen injuries. If we’re willing to listen and practice radical, compassionate curiosity, we can learn important information about ourselves, our needs, and our values that will allow us to stop merely coping and start really living.