A lot of therapy and coaching clients I've worked with are initially very preoccupied with some issue that has been a major blocker in their life. Maybe they’re very socially anxious, or depressed, or they’ve suffered a lot of trauma. And the pattern is that they organize their lives and identities around these very real problems in a way that precludes them from actually, really living. A common example is the client who says “I can’t start dating until after I’ve fixed my social anxiety,” or “I can’t apply for these really ambitious jobs until after I’ve fixed my depression”; so they identify their dysfunctional behavior patterns and process their feelings and pick up new self-care frameworks from one therapist or self-help guru after another, all the while stalling in their career or romantic life. What they often don’t realize is how easily this “shadow work” can itself become a coping mechanism to avoid the harder work of actually going out and living their best lives.
To their great credit, these clients are usually quick to get on board with the idea that every effective social anxiety treatment involves exposure therapy (e.g., going on a bunch of awkward dates!) and every effective depression treatment involves re-engaging in valued activities (e.g., doing challenging work!), once I present it to them. But what I often find is that there is still something subtly “off” about their internalized approach to these tasks: like they’re not going out and living their best life but rather just doing more shadow work. For instance, they might go on a date and then report back about how well or poorly they managed their anxiety or their negative self-talk; but I don’t hear much about how much they liked or connected with the other person. Or they might describe the coping strategies they used to “get through” a job interview, but I don’t get the sense that they showcased any of the passion and brilliance with which I’ve sometimes heard them riff on their most ambitious technical projects. Not too surprisingly, they tend to get middling romantic and professional outcomes with this approach, which further reinforces their “I’m broken and need fixing” mentality.
To really unlock their full flourishing, I find that these clients need a more fundamental paradigm shift: from “I’m broken, how do I fix myself?” to “This is my one precious life, how do I make it awesome?” Once they are looking through this lens, they may well still decide to work on their social awkwardness or their proneness to depression—or they may decide to invest their energy in other, higher-leverage endeavors, drawing inspiration from the many socially awkward and depression-prone individuals (from Ella Fitzgerald to Abraham Lincoln, respectively) who nonetheless lived unambiguously awesome lives.
I came across Dr. Gina Gorlin while doing research on the intersection of psychology and AI, but these three paragraphs from her most recent newsletter were an unexpected kick in the pants for a different problem I’ve been working on.
I don’t necessarily need to “fix” my depression and anxiety. I need to ameliorate their symptoms to the point where I can resume experiencing the joys that come with living life.