Making Friends With Symptoms: A Love-Based Approach
“Mainstream psychology views disturbing feelings, behaviors, or experiences as an indication that something is wrong with us—an attitude that often shames people.” — David Bedrick
Ruby had been described as a fearful child, one who shied away from pets, playground equipment, other children—even her teachers. Twenty-four years old, she sat on her hands in her therapist, Debbi’s, office with a tense expression. She was there because her fearfulness was affecting her new relationship and she was terrified this one would end like the others—that her anxious behavior would turn him off and push him away. Right now he considered her “enigmatic” which she found hilarious; there was nothing mysterious about her. She wasn’t keeping any secrets! She just couldn’t bring herself to say much. What if he thought she was an idiot? What if she said something ignorant or unfunny? These were the questions she poured out to Debbi, who as, usual remained the picture of calm.
“You can’t possibly understand! You never get like this!”
“Ruby,” her therapist said, “that isn’t true. I get fearful and anxious quite often. But this is about you. Tell me exactly what it feels like when you are most afraid.”
Ruby was caught off guard. No one had ever asked her to describe it. She’d been coming to Debbi for weeks now and she kept being surprised. Her therapist didn’t want to know more about what she was afraid of but what her anxiety actually felt like to her—how it rose up first in her body starting in her stomach with an unsteadiness and the sense that she might need to eliminate. Then, it extended down her legs with shakiness and the feeling that her feet might bolt without her. Her hands sweated. Her throat went dry. Her thoughts began to race and she had trouble focusing on what another person was saying, just like the time when she was still very little and she’d been unable to pronounce her father’s Hebrew words and he had left her and her mother.
Debbi’s face seemed to glow with compassion and she wanted to know more. One thing Debbi didn’t do was tell Ruby there was nothing to be frightened of—that no one could ever reject her quite that way again. She didn’t tell her that her anxiety was irrational or outsized. Debbi didn’t offer tips on how to calm herself—all things that Ruby knew by now but which had failed to work for her. Her therapist simply invited Ruby to share her experiences so that they could sit in them together. Strangely, this seemed to offer comfort.
After a while, Ruby began to tell her story differently. She no longer saw herself as “broken” but simply as a woman who experienced anxiety. She could choose to mask it with anti-anxiety medicines, something that had never worked well for her, or she could attack it with “tips and tricks.” Or she could choose to more deeply accept this part of herself; it simply was. As this occurred, and it did, as she embraced what she’d formerly believed was “wrong” with her, Ruby began to feel less anxious. Her fear began to abate, not as a result of her chasing it away, but as a result of her acceptance of it. It did not leave her entirely, and never completely, but enough.
David Bedrick’s Love-Based Approach
David Bedrick, psychologist, professor, attorney and author, practices and teaches a psychotherapeutic approach, which might seem strange to many therapists as well as to those familiar with the other side of conventional psychological practices. When his patients come to see him, usually about distressing psychological symptoms they see as “problems” and wish to change, he is interested in discovering along with his patients what their symptoms—and the sources from which those symptoms tend to emerge—may have to reveal. If a patient complains of depression, for example, Bedrick’s response is not initially to attempt to “anti-depress” them, as he says, but to ask what their depression feels like to them, in an effort to learn more about the experience itself, as much as to learn about his patient. This is one step in what he refers to as a love-based approach to psychotherapy.
In the introduction to his book, Talking Back to Dr. Phil: Alternatives to Mainstream Psychology, Bedrick writes:
Psychological thinking is so woven into our day-to-day lives that we attribute almost everything disturbing to us about ourselves or others to a psychological problem in need of diagnosis and treatment. When we experience disturbing feelings, we say we are depressed, hot tempered, overly sensitive, insecure, or have low self-esteem. When we become aware of disturbing patterns of behavior, we say we are lazy, undisciplined, out of control, self-medicating, or judgmental. We also show this predilection for diagnosing when we are disturbed by other peoples’ emotions or behaviors, assuming that they have anger issues, lack self-control, are egotistical, narcissistic, out of touch, depressed, irresponsible, or lazy. We even diagnose whole groups of people who disturb us, concluding that they are immoral, oversexed, greedy, menacing, manipulative, untrustworthy, irresponsible, or criminal.
Love and a Cheeseburger
In the first chapters, Bedrick tells the story of a woman who has come to see him for help with over-eating; her weakness is cheeseburgers. She has tried removing the bun and the cheese and replacing the mayonnaise with a low-fat version in order to reduce calories, but whenever she’s had an especially stressful day, she complains to Bedrick that she ends up eating the lower-calorie version at lunch and a regular cheeseburger for dinner—and she feels terribly ashamed of herself.
Bedrick asks her to say more about what it’s like to eat cheeseburgers, but his patient prefers to discuss ways to stop eating them (what she sees as her problem), so he gets clever and tells her he is going to have a low-calorie cheeseburger without the bread and asks her to tell him why he shouldn’t do it that way. She explains that the bread is what makes it a sandwich! He tells her he’s going to eat it without the cheese and she exclaims this is no good either. They go on this way until she shouts something to the effect of: “I EAT MY CHEESEBURGER THE WAY I LIKE IT BECAUSE IT’S THE ONLY THING I GET TO HAVE MY WAY!”
Diagnoses versus Diversity
“A love-based psychology views social prejudice as impacting people’s well-being, and the promotion of social justice as an important psychological intervention.”
Bedrick might say that this over-eater’s insight belongs to the beautiful dynamic behind seeing our “problems” as teachers. In simply trusting the darker parts of ourselves and digging deeper in exploration rather than turning away from them too quickly with diagnoses and quick fixes, we can discover meaning and beauty. When we approach what we perceive as problems with this kind of curiosity, gentleness and acceptance, they may not only teach us, but change on their own without forceful intervention. When we are hurting, we may certainly sometimes need the conventional approach and the resources it offers such as medications and other therapeutic techniques, but a love-based approach in conjunction with these methods can never steer us wrong.
As Bedrick’s quote above so well illustrates, humans are quick to label other races and cultures as problematic just as quickly as we are to turn against ourselves. This race or that group is prone to behave criminally, that one is lazy; I am shameful, bad, worthless. But if we look more deeply, underneath the symptoms, behind what we too-quickly believe are the problems, and if we approach with openness, love and curiosity, we might just discover profound and illuminating meaning that clarifies our diversity as much as it unifies our idiosyncrasies into something far too rich and whole to be dismissed. You can’t treat the human heart with anti-depressants, after all. It requires kindness, acceptance, empathy, poetry, love.