When Steven came to see me for counseling, I started the first session with my standard opening question, ''Why are you here?'' He began a mechanical recitation of the symptoms I often hear from chronic pain patients: anxiety, insomnia, irritability, loss of sexual desire, depression, headaches, boredom. Midway through the interview, when Steven seemed particularly low-- depressed and angry-- I asked him to take an emotional ''snapshot'' of how he was feeling. Then he continued his recitation, including detailed descriptions of the many painful and unsuccessful medical treatments he'd been through.
After I felt he'd spent enough time on the negatives, I asked Steven, ''What relieves your symptoms? What's good in your life? What are your strengths? Describe some of your positive experiences--those that made you laugh, or feel wonderful, glowing inside.''
''Nobody's asked me that before, ''Steven replied, a bit surprised, wiping the beginning of a tear from his eye. He thought for a moment, and began reciting another list dusting off a much more positive self-image that he'd ignored for far too long. ''I'm a loving father;'' he began, smiling softly. ''I really enjoy playing with our family's pet cat.'' His eyes twinkled. ''I'm smart.'' Then, after a few minutes recalling good feelings he'd enjoyed with his children, Steven really began to glow.''Take an emotional snapshot, of how you feel now;'' I told Steven. ''You feel pretty good at this moment, don't you? Yet you were feeling pretty bad five minutes ago. You turned on your good feelings in just a few minutes. Sure, I helped, but you really did it on your own,'' I told Steven. ''My goal is to teach you to focus on your good feelings, rather than your negative ones. You must learn to highlight your strengths and productive efforts, to make the most of your positive experiences and of whatever opportunities for happiness you encounter.''
I pointed out that Steven put all his energy into negative reactions to his pain and the ''rotten and unfair treatment'' he received.
''What would you do, if you learned two years from now that nothing could be done about your problems?'' I asked. ''Would you stay angry and depressed anyway; the rest of your life? Or would you accept the fact that you might always have some pain, and start to make the most of the assets you do have? Why not start today? The worst that can happen is that your pain will persist. Even if it does, you'll be making plans, and taking steps to get on with a meaningful life. And in the best case scenario, if your pain should disappear, you will have made the most of each day, rather than suffering while you waited for the problem to disappear.
Facing Life's Little Deaths
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