|Windham & Leibovich PC
Heidi Leibovich, LCSW
Scott Windham, LCSW
1016 Greentree Rd Ste#102
Pittsburgh, PA 15220
|Staring at the Wall is the Bravest Act in the World
In psychotherapy we talk about thoughts and perceptions, often to the point of saying that they are more
important than reality. "Challenge your thoughts, challenge your perspective, see if in a different way". These
are often the mantras that we as therapists follow day in and day out. They are incredibly useful probably
80-90% of the time for 80-90% of our patients, but, what do we do when these mantras not only fail to work,
but fail to make sense? What do we do when the patient before us has incurable cancer, when they have been
rejected by a beloved spouse, or when their job and financial state has disintegrated to the point where they
have lost hope?
Do we say to them "think of the positive side of your wife cheating on you", "try to see that ALS diagnosis as
your friend", "look at it this way, at least you don't have 3 cancers"? To be honest I have seen interventions like
this work somewhat with very established clients who have a healthy sense of irreverence, but I've seen them
chase clients deeper into their despair and out of the therapy room all together much more frequently.
When we are faced with hard, cruel realities that can be part of life, oftentimes there is no "other perspective",
no reframe, no "bright side". What we are left with is the job of seeking to help our patients accept that which
seems unacceptable. I always point out to patients in this situation that there is a very definite distinction
between acceptance and approval. When I speak about acceptance I am not speaking about supporting
something negative or tragic, but of finding a way to endure and stay with one's self genuinely through the
extreme emotional discomfort that comes with deeply acknowledging the powerlessness that is a part of this
human existence. I am often reminded in these situations of a quote from Babylon 5's Captain Sheridan,
uttered as he sent one of his junior charges into harm's way: "May God stand between you and harm in all of
the dark places you must walk". I always assure my clients that I will walk with them where ever I can, but that
there will likely be trails and part of trails in their journey that only they can take. When those trails appear I
can only stand at the trail head and await their safe return.
I once heard Roshi Joan Halifax say in a Dharma talk "Staring at the wall is the bravest and most necessary
thing in the world" What she was trying to say, I believe, is that to allow ourselves to exist quietly without
distraction and let the darkness come to us, to tolerate it without flinching, to feel it fully, to understand it, to let
it stay until it leaves, and to invite it to visit us again when it is time is in many ways the most gut wrenching
and difficult part of growing that we go through in this lifetime.
As therapists we value growth and we need also to understand that it is at times a painful process. We need to
be willing to ask our patients to go to those places of deep pain within themselves and to stand by them as
they do. We can't run away from the things that are dark and the things that are painful. We can't always
"focus on the positive" and try to give out clients easy and disingenuous ways out of their suffering. To do so
would be to rob them of their potential for growth. Sometimes, we have to face the darkness, and that's okay.
**If you are in the greater Pittsburgh area and would like some help facing your own darkness, please contact
Windham & Leibovich at (412) 937-0411 to set up an appointment.