“Caleb, I just want to be happy.”
When a client says this to me, I am often struck by the solidarity that I have with my client. A colleague of mine once told a 15-year-old girl client, “There isn’t very much that is different about me and you. I too am trying to figure out how to do this thing called life.”
Recently, I watched a movie called Hector and the Search for Happiness. In this move adaption of the book by Francois Lelord, a psychiatrist named Hector realizes that the lives of his clients are not happier from seeing him. So, he goes on a quest across the globe to find out what happiness is. There is this intense moment where he is asked why he is really going on this search to define happiness, and he blurts out, “I want to know if I can be happy.” It is this raw moment where his personal confusion and struggle with life finds its voice. Although we sit in offices with degrees on the wall, I know we struggle with how to be a happy therapist.
When my clients sincerely comment on this desire to be happy, I often ask them what happiness is. I get answers like, “I don’t want to hurt anymore.” “I don’t want to be needy.” “I don’t want to feel fat.” “I want to be safe.” “I want to be loved.” “I don’t want to be scared.” Ironically, as we begin to explore together, we often find that the addiction, eating disorder, or other relational issue that brought them to counseling is actually giving them “happiness.” The presenting problem is actually keeping them isolated so that others won’t hurt them and hides their neediness. Their acting out often insulates them from relational pain and the addiction or eating disorder often provides a sense of safety and acts as an attachment where they can avoid the scary fears associated with real relationships. Clients start to realize that the happiness that they have long pursued is actually an avoidance of pain and in the end short-circuits their ability to be truly happy.
To be truly happy is to be able to experience a full range of positive and negative emotions and risk loving and being loved. We as therapists often struggle with our own patterns of resistance, avoidance, or escaping. Consequently, there is a need for deep exploration and connectedness to our own wrestling with life if we are to be of any use to our clients. Without doing our own messy life and engaging with the sorrows, pains, and joys of life, we will at best offer platitudes to our clients and at worst be hypocrites.