Recently a patient wanted to start some counseling.  His matter: he was trying to figure out ‘what happened?” for something that occurred to him 30 years ago.  He has dwelled on this for decades with other therapists. He struck me as a fellow who will never find the answer, and even if he did, it would accomplish nothing. I recommended he take a different approach, one based on letting go of the past and focusing on the present. It was time for him to give up the need to solve the mystery. This approach went over like a lead balloon; he hinted he did not think me a ‘proper psychiatrist’ for taking such an approach. After all, isn’t therapy all about going back to the past and working on it?  Well, no, it is not. Sometimes ‘going back into your past’  can be a waste or time or even detrimental to your Journey to healing.

As I grow in experience I find I am getting more ‘practical’.  I like to recommend treatments that “actually help”.  These maneuovers are often antithesis to what was taught to me as dogma.  Going back to the time when you were six years old and didn’t get enough brownies isn’t useful therapy for most neurotics.

“What works?” you ask.  Here’s my quick list of 5 rules for mental health and well being.  Mind! There are always cases of people who need to work on past events either as the treatment or as a prelude for the matters below. What I am trying to avoid is patients getting ‘stuck’ in the past.  It truly sucks to be pushed into the pig pen. It is unjust and unfair, and people need a time for rage/anger and bereavement. And then they need to rise up and get out of the muck and move on.

Give up the need to know why something happened.  

Like in my patient example, people get ‘hung up’ on ‘why did this happen to me?” If a few appointments can’t come up with a good enough answer, then it is sensible to stop trying to solve the mystery. “It happened”, perhaps for many reasons beyond our comprehension . I use the simile of an avalanche in your backyard. You have a backyard full of rocks that slid down from the mountain. Rather than trying to figure out which stone caused the avalanche, it is better to focus on how to go about cleaning it up.

Give up the need for control.

It is a sad paradox: the patients I see who are feeling ‘not in control’ are the ones most obsessed about control.  I first explore with them what is so horrible or terrible about not being in control, and then work backwards from “the worse case scenario’ to an approach less black and white. Being somewhat in control rather than in control of everything is a more sane and healthier way of living.

Give up the past. 

All great religions and philosophies promote living in the present; sensible advice indeed. I coach my patients to recognize when they are thinking/being in the past. They identify it, take a few breaths, call their spirit back from the past, and

go onwards. The positive attributes of the past are integral into the present: the negative attributes are better left behind.

Give up negativism.

This one may sound funny, but how we approach things makes a difference. When someone asks you how you are doing, think a moment. Before you respond “Oh, terrible, my issues are making me miserable (or words of that effect)” say something like ‘Overall OK, despite some things I am holding my own, I am doing well enough’.  This is not hypocrisy or suppression; this is helping you to remember your blessings and avoid the pitfall of gloom.

Give up living your life to fulfill the expectations of others. 

Squelching your Self for the approval of others causes illness. Prostituting your Self for security, approval, or even profit is no prettier.  We all have to do some to survive; hopefully not enough we get lost in it.