[Bella’s intro: If you are a single person and you are thinking about going into therapy, what might you expect? One of my worries is that some therapists don’t understand that single life can be a good, meaningful, and fulfilling life. Fortunately, other therapists are more enlightened, and Tricia M. Parker is one of them. Readers of this “Single at Heart” blog have enjoyed her previous guest posts: Loneliness: Change your story about them, about you; Debunking parenting myths; and 5 keys to effective and joyful independent parenting. I think you will enjoy this one, too. Thank-you, Tricia Parker, for sharing your insights with us.]
You Are Enough
Guest Post by Tricia M. Parker, LMHC
What happens to each of us in life is personal yet it also belongs to the inner workings of unique relationships — family, friends, lovers, colleagues — as we strive for meaning, success and connectedness. In my work as a licensed mental health counselor one of the most confusing and stressful relationship issues for which a client seeks help is unfulfilled romantic companionship. Whether single and struggling with a breakup, married and feeling disconnected, married and contemplating separation or divorce, recently divorced and feeling alone and lost, or single and building a solo life, I have come to believe that particular deep-seated pain is a social-emotional manifestation of a person searching for a sense of self and identity. Client stories are laden with examples of people who abandoned self in hopes of being fulfilled with a security and comfort of belonging to another. The more I have thought about this, and having reflected upon my decades of work with youth, the more I am convinced that this abandonment of self begins at the very tender developmental stage of adolescence.
And what is meant by self? Self is a person’s essential being that distinguishes him or her from another. It is a persona, an identity, the soul, the psyche or the spirit. Self is individuality. When you think about your self you should be able to articulate beliefs and values and that act as guides through your life, and independent of any lasting influence from another. Self also includes an awareness of one’s feelings and emotions about life’s issues, being able to regulate these in times of stress and challenges and also independent of any influence from another. Self is you. It is what gets easily lost in the cacophony of messages in this world that you do not matter. That you must conform.
In a therapy setting, stepping aside from the inner workings of a relationship and towards self-discovery invariably involves traveling down a road into the past. A client oftentimes struggles to understand the importance and power of story telling in the beginning, yet eventually self begins to be viewed through the lense of learned behaviors recognized through discussions of childhood role models, parenting practices, family expectations, religious practices, and especially guidance received from teachers, counselors and coaches during the school years. Self-discovery takes an unexpected turn when a client sees that companionship decisions were influenced by one overpowering external message: You are not enough alone.
Human growth and development theory tells us that during adolescence, that transitional stage from childhood to adulthood, young persons naturally begin to look at the future in terms of relationships and families. They begin to explore values and beliefs and the search of self as personal identity takes center stage. As adolescents strive to find their place and to contemplate their future goals, that overpowering external message from older peers, family, music, fashion, movies, television advertisements, and so on conveys that happiness and success in life depends on being coupled. Think about that for a minute. Just when the adolescent’s main job is to discover and embrace individuality, they are being asked to compromise this developmental stage by suggesting they will not be complete only as an individual. Sexuality and physical intimacy complicates it even more so by jumpstarting biological hormones meant for intense emotional bonding that ensures procreation of the species. As the adolescent continues to attempt to balance the confusion of wanting to be independent and free from family constraints and rules of society with having to compromise and surrender to the parameters of intimate companionship, one tender relationship after another fails. The young person is searching for fulfillment of self in another. You gets lost.
Having worked with clients from adolescence to middle age, and with both genders, this scenario of entering and exiting committed relationships, and that begins in the teen years, has been defined as status quo for as long as they can remember. The moment a young relationship break-up occurs, or a divorce is finalized, or someone remains single for a lengthy amount of time, the message rings out again: ‘You’ll find someone better.’ ‘It just takes time.’ ‘There is someone out there for you.’ When a client arrives in their healing journey with this newfound understanding of external messages having directed their growth and development and progression through life, discussion can begin in greater detail about the relationship paradigms they have identified as having influenced their decisions from such a young age. Inevitably, discussions center around a particular relationship model that is deeply embedded within our culture – marriage and its promise of happiness. That promise of marital bliss includes agreements about ‘until death do us part’ and ‘in sickness and health’. It can include affirmations and declarations of ‘I belong’ and ‘I’m whole’ and ‘You’re my person.’
The saddest aspect in helping a client take apart a life of relationship heartache is the constant worrying if the years of chronic stress and exhausting struggles at having lost a sense of self could have been avoided had those external messages not overpowered that adolescent declaration: ‘I am enough.’ This is where pain and disappointment really take over and where careful redirection must occur so that blame, shame, and sense of failure do not sabotage the healing journey back to self. At this juncture, a client is introduced to dimensions of self-care – emotional health and wellness, mindfulness, social networking outside of a relationship, intellectual growth, physical fitness, sleep and nutrition. Some clients eventually discover through self-care work that staying in a relationship is where they would like to remain. Some discover that exiting a current relationship is necessary for their continued growth and development. Some decide that taking a break from companionship altogether should begin in earnest. And some embrace their solo journey with newfound confidence and courage that this is indeed the right path. Whatever a client decides is best, self-identity can and oftentimes takes center stage again. The client has tapped back in to you.
I believe that one of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say. Perhaps this is where we all need to turn around on our shared paths. Perhaps instead of telling others what they need to be happy, and beginning when they are trying to shout out their independence to the world as budding young adults, we should try listening. Really listening with compassion and openness and acceptance of differences. Perhaps we should put forth more effort in embracing one another wholeheartedly and unabashedly as individuals, and for as long as it takes, in finding meaning and connectedness in each of our relationships whether that be with friends, family, love interests, or co-workers. And even our relationship with self. After all is said and done, one truth remains — there is a you in all of us. And you is definitely enough.
Tricia M. Parker is a licensed mental health counselor in private practice in Washington state, and who specializes in relationship issues, behavioral issues and coping skills for chronic stress and anxiety. Her approach is person centered and mindfulness based. She believes that through mindfulness and self-care practices, including brain-based health, people can discover healthy and lasting change in self and within each their unique relationships.