He laughed and said in a mocking voice, “No, Miss Courtney, I don’t need you to hold my hand. I can do it all by my wittle self.”
Then I teased him and said, “I know you can do it, but I bet you won’t.”
“I’ll bet I will,” he responded, smiling. “I’ll take a picture on my phone to prove it to you, Miss Smarty Pants.”
I shook my head. “I don’t believe it. I bet you $50 you won’t do it.”
“You’re on, lady,” he said, shaking his fist at me. “If I do it, you’ll give me $50 off this session?”
I nodded and said, “Yes, sir, I will. But I don’t have to worry about it because you’re so stubborn I know you won’t do it.”
He leapt from the sofa. “Well, I’ll go do it right now and show you! I want my $50!” With that he drove right over to the park, marched across the bridge, and texted me a picture of him standing on the other side with his tongue sticking out.
He returned to my office within 25 minutes, grinning from ear to ear. Since we still had a few minutes left in his session, I invited him to sit down and handed him $50. As he reached out to take the money, his hands were trembling and his face was flushed. He gave me a brief hug and began to cry. “Thank you,” he said. “You got me all caught up in that. It’s just now hitting me what I did. I really did it! I can do this.”
I smiled, and said, “Yes, Michael, you absolutely can. We just had to find something more emotionally compelling than your fear to get you to take a risk.”
Over time, a series of similar therapeutic experiences we did together revealed the deeper root of his fears—a long-held presumption that people and the world would always hurt and disappoint him. He realized he coped by not taking risks and “not believing in anything,” so he could avoid further disappointment. Once Michael could put words to this largely nonverbal, deeply felt reality, which had been overshadowing everything in his life, it became less daunting to him. In our last session, he commented, “Yeah, people can hurt and disappoint you. Nothing is ever guaranteed in life, but you do the best you can. The experience of going for what I want is still worth it. I can at least believe in that.”
Many of us were motivated to become therapists because of our emotional experiences with trauma, suffering, and adversity. We understand these things deeply, and I’d venture that most of us chose this profession for emotional rather than intellectual reasons. We didn’t just want to be smarter: we wanted to help people heal and make the world a better place.
As therapists, we’re not looking for a mundane 9-to-5 job, and our clients aren’t looking for a nice, empathic listener or a dry analyst. They want someone who not only understands their pain, but also respectfully leads, pushes, and compels them to do what’s in their best interest. For some, that fits the definition of being a coach rather than a therapist, yet I believe it’s our training as psychotherapists and our comprehension of the psychological roots of emotion that allow us to be more effective than motivational coaches at facilitating deep change. We understand that healing doesn’t come through simple goal setting, treatment planning, and accountability. True healing occurs when we’re passionately committed to illuminating that spark of light within our clients’ hearts—something we now know ignites new pathways in the emotional brain. Even the tiniest spark can ignite the healing process, as we ourselves become the experience that causes the change, taking our clients to emotional places where they’ve never been before. It can be challenging as we develop the courage to be more demonstrative, provocative, and playful, but the transformative results this produces in our clients, and in ourselves, are worth it.