“Until I began therapy, it was like I lived in a bubble,” Harry, Duke of Sussex, told me before our recent livestreamed conversation.
The metaphor of breaking out of a constricting bubble denotes a sense of liberation, an invitation to live a richer, more authentic life. At the same time, it’s scary: Even as it shields us from reality, that psychic bubble serves as a safe capsule keeping us from feeling the full range of grief and pain that life serves up to most of us.
The dread of feeling what is inside keeps many people from confronting their personal trauma, lest the process of therapy unleash emotional storms one could not handle; the fear, if you will, that the genie can never be forced back into the bottle. Why embark on such a perilous journey? Why would someone push themselves to enter therapy or other forms of self-healing?
I can answer that question from my own personal experience.
In my early to mid-forties, as a skilled and in-demand physician, I could tell myself that I was by societal standards a success: respected, engaged in meaningful work, economically secure, a family man with children. And inside? A fragment from my diary of that time: “I have no energy for life. I have spent every free weekend for the past two months in an enervated, passive, demoralized state…”
It was then, mired in depression, that I first began to seek therapy. My well-honed coping mechanisms of running away from myself no longer sufficed: not the self-importance I derived from work or from other people’s positive evaluations of me; not struggling in my marriage to extract from the relationship the sense of value and acceptance I could not grant myself; not my addictive flights from inner discomfort. Put simply, the pain of living an unexamined life finally outweighed my fear of what might emerge if I became self-aware.
For most people I have encountered, the decision to enter therapy springs from distress. Many of us will seek the truth only when driven to recognize that the cost of not doing so exacts too high a price. The Greek playwright Aeschylus was exquisitely on point when he had his chorus declare: “Zeus has led us on to know, the Helmsman lays it down as law that we must suffer, suffer into truth.”
A person comes to realize that the emotional and behavioural patterns that dominate their life engender suffering, whether in unfulfilled goals, relational difficulties, alienation or lack of genuine self-esteem, or manifested in pathology of mind or body. Indeed, disease — or what we call disease — often acts as the wake-up call, serving as a signpost that one is heading in the wrong direction.
And where do dysfunctional emotional and behavioural patterns stem from? From trauma. To say so is not to present oneself as a victim, blaming others for one’s difficulties. I see neither myself nor others that way. On the contrary, to acknowledge one’s trauma is to find empowerment. As the renowned psychiatrist and trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk told me, “so long as one doesn’t examine oneself, one is completely subject to whatever one is wired to do. But once you become aware that you have choices, you can exercise those choices.”
Literally, trauma is a wound — the word’s Greek origin means just that. Unhealed emotional wounds may impair our capacity to interact effectively with our world. When raw, they can trigger reactions that have more to do with the past than with the present; or, like scar tissue, they can be hard, inflexible, incapable of growth, lacking feeling.
Accepting that one is wounded offers the possibility — and responsibility — of healing, something we are all capable of given the requisite support, guidance or grace. Without awareness, our subliminal hurts, and our adaptations to them, run our lives. We function in many ways like marionettes controlled by an invisible puppeteer, our unconscious. “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate,” wrote a leading figure of modern psychology, Carl Jung.
What is to be gained? To begin with, freedom from self-limiting beliefs. That’s the bubble to be burst. Many people carry a vindictive, harshly self-judging voice in their heads, a voice that evokes shame every time it speaks. Until understood for its traumatic origin, the voice trumpets a view of reality that is crushing to self-esteem. Understanding its origins allows us to come to terms with it, even to make peace with it. It began as an adaption to emotional wounding.
Young children are by nature narcissistic, not in any pathological or pejorative sense, but in that they take everything personally. It’s all about them, and there is no one to help or to understand. They not only absorb the parents’ suffering, they fault themselves for it, as in families with marital discord — no matter how good the parents’ intentions. (One may think of a certain royal family in this context.) Or, when children are abused, harshly disciplined, or even just not seen and understood for who they are, they perceive it all as their fault. Punitive self-judgment is one result.
The belief that “there is something wrong with me” is easier to bear than the awareness that my parents may not know how to accept me, see me. For if it’s my “fault,” perhaps if I work hard enough, I can make it OK. One may then become a workaholic physician, for example, trying to prove his worth in the world, thus passing his trauma onto his children.
Breaking the multi-generational chain of trauma transmission is, perhaps, the best reason to consider therapy. It’s no one’s fault, as the title of Mark Wolynn’s bestselling book indicates: “It Didn’t Start With You.” But it can end with you or, at least, be greatly mitigated by self-awareness. “I, as a father, feel a huge responsibility to ensure that I don’t pass on any traumas or negative experiences that I’ve had as a kid or as a man growing up — and that’s work,” Harry told me. “That’s putting in the work and daily being conscious of my behaviour and my reactions to both of my kids.”
What I have professionally witnessed and personally experienced is that self-knowledge can lighten the burdens of life. It is, indeed, possible to grow older; that is, to grow emotionally as we age. As we do, we become unburdened. “I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now,” Bob Dylan sang. Surely, he did not mean more jejune and immature, but with more range, more capacity for spontaneity, to play, to keep growing. Too, one can develop genuine self-esteem, not based on others’ valuations and approbation, but rooted in authentic self-acceptance, flaws and all. That may, of course, evoke the grief of letting go of who you thought you were and who the world that shaped you wanted you to be.
No one can tell anyone else to undertake therapy. It’s almost a given that honest self-viewing may bring to the surface suppressed pain. But which pain, we may ask ourselves, would we rather live with — the pain of an unconscious life, forever acting out or attempting to escape our woundedness, or the liberating pain of knowing the truth, of bursting that bubble that has encased us and limited our possibilities?
To those still afraid of self-examination, here is what I advise: You have already been through the worst of it. The first time you endured the agony you now dread you were young, dependent, utterly vulnerable and helpless. Have confidence and be assured, you will never be that again. What you fear is not the future, but the past. And this time, you can ask for help.
does not endorse these opinions.