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  • Writer's pictureAlex Houseknecht

The Unwelcome Passenger

Is it possible to be opposed, to be two things at the same time? I ask this question when I sit with others, though I’m sure it’s because my attention is drawn to my own internal landscape. Clients are often surprised when I pay so much respect to the ways they have sabotaged their lives. I often speak to this “other” who lives inside them, the designated cause of their problems. An unwelcome passenger they drag into therapy each week. This is the object of derision, because don’t they deserve it? I can’t say I don’t understand it, because I do the same thing. I forget that this sabotaging “other” is me at the same time that the more realized, getting-better self is me.

There are good reasons why we do the things that ultimately end up perpetuating our own suffering. The past is important, and our experiences are important. Experiences that have shaped our behaviors in ways that continue to create problems while having provided us with invaluable protection. It is strange to think that we hold such contempt for this passenger whom we point to as the problem, after they have served us so well for so many years. Though this may be an unfair characterization, because it may be more of an ambivalence, as the truth is that we can be so unwilling to let this “other” go.

I once worked with someone who presented as depressed and burned out, with no sense of the cause or possible solution. Before long, it became apparent that she invested so deeply into all of her friends that she was left with nothing for herself. She was one of the most giving people I have ever met, yet she buried herself under the soil she spent so much time cultivating for others. She ultimately acknowledged that this was the cause of her current suffering. I asked what she would like to do about this, and after thinking about it she said, “Nothing. I’m not going to stop.” I was shocked. We explored some other ideas and options, but nothing else made sense, to either of us, because of how central this behavior was to her depression. She eventually stopped therapy.

I want to understand this experience. She made me ask myself, “What is it to give up the cause of pain only to abandon that which is meaningful?” It revealed the anger and contempt I have toward my own unwelcome passenger, the one who seems to spoil everything. It revealed a compulsion to push a part of me out, and maybe convince others to do the same. It is my role, after all, to identify and target those things that create distress. But it may not be so simple. The drive to cut others out, to withdraw, to over-invest, to harm ourselves or create a context for rejection, this is a spark. I’m not sure exactly how to describe it, except that it is something within us pushing to be alive. I think it’s related to the very real ways we had to protect ourselves when we were powerless and alone. We do the best we can to manage pain, and sometimes the negative effects of our own protective strategies are better than the harm we may have been experiencing from others.

We are too complex to be able to reduce to symptoms or diagnoses. While these things may highlight areas of need, they do not speak to who we are. Perhaps a weakness of the therapeutic endeavor is that it veers too much toward a process of perfecting. An internal cleansing that wipes away the bad to make more room for the good. I’m not sure if it is more freeing or more painful to realize that this unwelcome passenger is simply telling the truth. The truth of our experiences, and the creative solutions we used to stay alive.

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