by Ryan Hovis, MA, LPC
I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have heard these words uttered in my office. As I sit and listen to the stories people share with me about the struggles and the hardships, my heart hurts for the pain that these individuals have endured. What agony that has brought them to see someone for help, a stranger who knows nothing about them. What hardship has driven them to see someone with a bunch of credentials and letters behind their name? What force in their life pushes them to bear their soul to an outsider in search of an answer, understanding or meaning? The pain and suffering that many individuals experience cannot be ignored, and sharing these difficulties seems to be the only way towards some form of a solution.
And yet … “I’m good.”
We all have a desire to feel that regardless of what is happening to us, what we are experiencing, we seem to desire to be “good.” Although this word can have many different connotations for many people, the general theme that runs with all variations of “good” appears to stem from a central desire for a sense of mastery and stability within our own lives. Also, there appears to be a component that others are aware of our capability to survive our experience, emotions, and relationships without becoming overwhelmed, regardless of any factors that might indicate otherwise. Both our sense of efficacy and other’s perceptions of us drive us to tell ourselves and others that we are “good.”
But, are we really good?
I have yet to meet any individual who could say without hesitation that they were completely good. Regardless of who you are, all of us could not say honestly that we are truly good. All of us face challenges in our lives that drain us. All of us experience emotions that seem to wash over us to the point we are terrified we may not recover. All of us can point to areas of weakness that we would rather keep hidden in the dark recesses of our lives, but have a nasty habit of appearing when we least want them to. All of us struggle, all of us have moments of weakness, and all of us desperately need the love and support of others in our lives.
This idea of not being good might be a difficult concept to fully grasp and even harder one to accept. Further, it seems counterintuitive to say that by admitting that we are not in a good place would somehow lead us towards the answers we seek. However, as we continue to come to grasp our circumstances, we see that not every aspect of our life is good.
Does this mean we or our lives are bad?
Certainly we can point to aspects where live is flourishing, where we are strong, where joy is abundant, where we do have a sense of mastery. To be sure, there are moments where we can point to experiencing joy, satisfaction, and contentment. And for many individuals, there are milestones in our lives that point to the many blessings that have been bestowed. Not every moment in our experience has been utter torture, and even in the darkest moments, there are still glimmers of hope that shine through that remind us life is still worth living.
Where does this leave us?
Up to this point I have been highlighting a rather dualistic approach to this type of thinking. Most of us look at circumstances in our lives and believe there are only two options; the right option and the wrong option. Things are good or bad, right or wrong, up or down, left or right, etc. Pick your polar opposite and insert into this situation. And certain circumstances there are choices that fall along clear and undisputable lines. However, when looking at our own lives, we cannot say that our lives are either all “good” or all “bad.” Our experience is far more complex than that. Our circumstances, relationships, and emotions are far more complicated than can be categorized into a simple binary system of “good” and “bad.” The joys of a job promotion can also entail anxiety of new pressures to succeed. A family gathering can be a joyful reunion, but also a reminder of past wounds and unmet expectations. Almost all our experiences come with some level of complexity that can be understood at times or at times shock us into a state of confusion, frustration, and perhaps, even pain and suffering.
By approaching life from this simplistic system of attribution of “goodness” or “badness,” we miss the opportunity to embrace the complexity of our experiences. We all wrestle with addressing joys and pains in our lives, and at times, the balance between those experiences can sway drastically. Instead of measuring to see which side has more, addressing how we manage the process of balancing becomes vital, and what we do when we feel out of balance becomes the process of therapy.
If there ever was a secret about therapy that I wish everyone knew before going, it is this: Mental health is not merely trying to rebalance the good/bad scale; it is about working towards a new way of responding to emotions, life and relationships with the understanding that the good/bad scale may not change. External circumstances that fall outside of our control and our wrestling with life become the only thing we can control. How do we handle new joys, stressors and transitions? How do we respond when our emotions seem uncontrollable? In what way can we change the way we approach and/or respond to someone in relationship, even if the other person does not change? The process of addressing tensions and our approach more than the circumstances themselves determines how “good” or “bad” we truly are doing.
The next time someone asks you how you are doing, take a minute to push past the good/bad evaluation. Ask yourself, what processes are at work in your life that you utilize to address the joys and pains. Look deeper and how you are responding to external factors, and what you might do differently, or the same. Acknowledge and hold the tensions in your life, and note how those tensions are influencing your responses.
Life will always have a struggle, but it is about how we struggle that matters.