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Recognizing Underlying Themes in Our Lives

Matthew Cuddeback, LCSW

When therapists are meeting with a client for the first time one of the questions we ask, in some form, is what the client feels they need to work on, what brought them in. It is intended to provoke a few things, ultimately, therapists look at everything as information and without judgement. So, I am listening for information that tells me where the client is focused, but also how they think about their life situations. When I am doing this, I also work with clients to make sure they are not just looking at the one thing that’s going on, but how does it fit into their whole person. Now, that is not to say that all of a person’s struggles are the same, but it is worth considering nothing happens in a vacuum and there may be some connective tissue among all these things.

When thinking about themes and trends in our lives it often looks something like this, “This person broke up with me because they think I am not committed enough to the relationship. How unfair, I was totally committed, it’s not my fault they didn’t know, etc.” Well, it is easy to feel frustrated with this situation and want to work on it and move forward. However, it is important to consider, is it possible that this may somehow be connected to your frequent job changes, or why you seem to struggle with maintaining friendships as well, etc. The answer certainly can be no, but it is often yes, or at least maybe. That same example from above often plays out like this, “Well, I guess now that I think about it, I have been told I am flighty or disengaged by some exes and friends, and I do change jobs about every year or two…” Ok, let’s dig in some more. I would discuss why they think that is. We might be able to see that it has to do with something from earlier in life that made them feel as though they were only safe (whether emotionally, or physically) when they were planning their exit. Now, we are actually getting to a place where we can deconstruct these unhealthy processes and build healthier ones in their place.

It is important to stop for a moment and recognize not everything is this simple or neat. It may take a long time to recognize there is connective tissue, maybe there is connective tissue but not among all these areas. “Sure, my friends and partners have noted I am disengaged and that’s connected, but my work is actually because of a different specific issue.” We want to explore all of these possibilities without judgement. We are not going to judge ourselves for our feelings or thoughts, we are just going to become more aware of them and place no value-based opinions on them. It happened, it happened for a reason.

So, we have been able to recognize that there is some connective tissue or themes in our lives that have been causing problems for us. Now what? Once we see trends that starts to point us in the direction of a cause. You feel safest when you know where the exit is and have planned for it? That suggests you have feared or more likely, have experienced the consequences of not being prepared. Can you think of times when you weren’t prepared or didn’t plan an escape and ultimately experienced harm because of it? This usually is followed by some realizations about a specific event or perhaps a series of events. “Well, we didn’t have a lot of money growing up, so we often got evicted, I had to move a lot,” or “I was in love with someone when I was younger and just got so caught up in it that I didn’t see they were cheating on me…” Well of course you would be protecting yourself more, and trying to always be ready to escape, anyone would after experiencing these situations. The problem, however, is that it hasn’t been working. If it had, you wouldn’t be feeling bad. So, let’s alter this process a bit. We don’t want to get rid of it, we just want to make sure we do it in a healthier way. All of these responses were adaptive, it helped you survive, but it became maladaptive along the way, so we need to tweak it a bit to get it healthier.

The work here continues, we start to break down the unhealthy process and build up a healthier one it’s place. But what we have done here is gone from feeling sad about one specific situation, to recognizing there were bigger themes at play that were actually working behind the scenes. If you just focus on that one area, you didn’t actually fix the primary issue, but rather one of the symptoms. Focusing your work on these overarching issues makes it less likely these things will happen to you and you will be better prepared for it and better able to manage it if they do reoccur. Take a step back when you can and ask yourself if you see any trends among your struggles because being aware of and understanding the underlying themes or trends in our lives quickly puts us on track to lasting change.

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