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Thoughts from a psychologist: Why we prevent ourselves from getting healthy

An anxious woman sits on the floor in a brightly lit room, her body language reflecting tension and unease. She clasps her hands tightly, shoulders hunched, as sunlight streams in, creating a stark contrast with the emotional struggle evident on her face. The room's brightness serves as a poignant backdrop to the internal turmoil she experiences, emphasizing the vulnerability of the moment

These thoughts stem from battling my own demons, discussions with close ones, and listening to hundreds of hours of people’s stories in the psychologist’s office.

Recently, I have come to a puzzling realization: no matter how well a person understands the conflicts and complexes within themselves—the things that prevent them from living a satisfying life—it often isn’t enough to take a step towards a productive, vibrant, free life.

Some individuals, including myself, cannot endure the pain of change and fall back into familiar patterns of escapism, while others repeatedly return to behaviors that have been discussed countless times and have not yielded the desired outcomes.

Like a donkey after a carrot

With therapy’s aid, a person finally understands what they truly want, how their destructive behavior is linked to that desire, and realizes (and I mean truly comprehends, not just superficially) that this behavior won’t lead to the desired result. Despite this awareness, they continue to act in the usual manner.

Generally, I understand that returning to habitual patterns is part of recovery, but this time, I’d like to explore the role of personal responsibility in this cycle.

One evening, while anxious about my personal dreams not materializing, I suddenly felt like a donkey with a fishing rod attached to its back and a carrot dangling before its eyes. The donkey, being a donkey, chases the carrot as fast as it can, not realizing it will never catch it because it moves with him. The faster you run, the further the carrot gets. In that moment, numerous existential thoughts came up.

Who am I? Where is my life heading? Am I taking the best care of myself with my current behavior? What is the meaning behind all this anxiety and desperation? These and other questions arose spontaneously, and at the same time, the environment seemed to slow down as if someone had slowed down the film. Of course, it wasn’t the carrot that stopped, but me.

The objects and the view outside the window took on a thicker, more realistic feel. Anxiety disappeared and calmness washed over me. The needs were not gone, I knew and felt them, but they did not create that unbearable feeling of lack. I would like to call this experience a return to myself, a seeing of myself, an awareness of the reality of my life as distinct from fantasy.

Of course, I probably do not need to say that the next day I successfully ran after my carrot again. Now I try to consciously ask myself these questions as often as possible.

Where does anxiety come from?

Anxiety comes from the conflict between fantasy and reality. This fact has been studied and proven by many eminent psychotherapists.

R. May, one of the pioneers of existential psychotherapy, has shown in his study of anxiety that it is not the fact of rejection from a parent that causes anxiety, but the inability to accept it.

In families where emotional coldness was not masked by apparent love, children were able to find ways to meet their needs by seeking the company of others in their immediate environment.

The people who experienced the most anxiety and inner conflict were those who did not accept the fact of rejection and who tried to distort reality in some way.

We will not go into whether children are really able to accept the fact of emotional coldness. I think that in certain circumstances and at a certain age, they cannot do that. But can adults?

How can we accept reality?

I think that part of the reason we fall back into our ‘complexes’ and destructive patterns of behaviour is that we refuse to accept reality as it is. In this text I would like to emphasise this refusal. The psyche of some people is actually incapable of assimilating the harsh, traumatic facts of their experience.

Taking responsibility for our lives and daring to face reality gives us the opportunity to make a real constructive difference. Until there is responsibility, there is no real awareness of possibilities.

We can spend a lifetime worrying about not becoming Elon Musk and achieving nothing, or we can make something of ourselves. As the renowned psychotherapist C. G. Jung said, we can only begin to heal and grow from where we are now. When we refuse to accept our current state, we lose our direction.

Of course, accepting our reality responsibly is extremely challenging. It often leads to considerable suffering because it forces us to realize that the fantasy we live in must be sacrificed. This “happily ever after” scenario may never occur. This doesn’t mean we must abandon our needs and desires, but we must dare to open ourselves to the unknown, which is also quite daunting.

It’s very difficult to notice the small positives and enjoy them when we’ve been living with expectations and scenarios for so long. Needless to say, social media doesn’t help in this regard. It’s also challenging to find supportive hope, a belief that if we focus on ourselves and work hard and responsibly, we’ll achieve the best possible outcome in life (which isn’t necessarily what we want now).

Numerous articles have been written about the various challenges involved, yet what I want to emphasize now is that we often fail to recognize the importance of an individual’s choice and decision in recovery.

Many of us are waiting for a time when it will become easy to come to terms with reality and accept ourselves. Perhaps after another five years of therapy? I do not underestimate my work and believe that the purpose of professional conversations is to facilitate this process. However, it’s crucial to understand that it will never be easy and that reaching a turning point will always involve sacrifice and pain. The good news is that, after enduring the suffering caused by harsh realities, we become stronger and more capable of creating a life that is at least slightly better than before.

I would like to conclude my reflections with a quote by Viktor Frankl, the founder of logotherapy and a former concentration camp prisoner: “Man can be deprived of everything except the last freedom of man – to choose his own attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose his own way.

These and similar quotes might often seem naive, but they are written with the life and blood of the author. I believe each of us can take an evening to meditate on what freedom we have in relation to our complexes, intrusive thoughts, and passions, and what freedom we have to choose our own approach and response to life’s questions.

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