Therapy is like bedroom carpet and many therapists are completely clueless. And that’s a good thing. This is what I mean by that…

therapy

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Earlier this year, our family was preparing to embark upon an adventure, picking up our lives and plopping them back down in a new town and a new culture. It seemed grand and epic, but it began with a lot of tedium.

Like replacing the carpet in the bedroom.

Our realtor said we needed new rugs so we called the rug people. The morning they arrived, we thought we were taking a big step toward where we wanted to go, but it came to a screeching halt when they pulled back a corner of the carpet.

Asbestos.

It was another hurdle and it was expensive and it slowed us down, so it was a little frustrating. But even more so, it was a little disorienting. We’d been walking on a toxin for six years and hadn’t known it. It was a little concerning that something so important existed just beneath the surface of our life.

Disorienting and concerning, but not unfamiliar.

Because I’m a therapist and, at the beginning, that’s exactly how therapy can feel.

We usually go to therapy for help with a specific problem, like dirty carpet we can see and want to remove. But, inevitably, we start to pull it up, and we find stuff underneath we didn’t know existed. Stuff that’s a little more complicated, a little more frustrating, probably even a little more painful.

Therapy doesn’t create it; therapy reveals it.

We sense this might be true, and so we avoid the endeavor altogether. We decide to live with the dirty carpet, or we put on blindfolds and try to replace the carpet ourselves, without looking at what’s beneath it. Yet, there comes a time for some of us when we decide we’re ready to lift up the carpet and face the unknown.

We pick up the phone and call the rug people.

I’m a psychologist, so I went to my first therapy session thinking I had it all figured out. When I walked out the door for the initial appointment, I said confidently to my wife, “I’ll go every other week for a couple months. That’ll be plenty.” It’s unusual to pull up much carpet in a first session. But I guess I was ready to start yanking. That night, I began to see the way I’d idealized characters and scenes in my story because I didn’t want to face the pain of what it had really been.

I began to see how clueless I’d been.

When I walked back in the door ninety minutes later, I looked at her and said, “I’m going to go weekly. Until I don’t need to anymore.” And in the ensuing weeks, I found many unexpected things—shame, loneliness, a gnawing fear of being abandoned, an anger I’d thought was wrong to feel but was actually essential to feel, tears that seemed bottomless but weren’t, and I found out my perfectionism was just an exhausting kind of protection.

As a therapist, it is essential to have had this experience. To have pulled up your own carpet and discovered you were completely clueless about what lurked underneath. It opens you up, expands you, makes you unafraid of mystery, prepares you for the unexpected, does away with your need for certitude, annihilates your need to be right, teaches you all pain can be redeemed, and makes you comfortable with the journey that is facing oneself.

In hindsight, I’m grateful my therapist knew he was clueless, too—he knew he didn’t know what he was going to find beneath my carpet and thus was completely prepared to find what we did. And I’m also grateful for something else: he was also completely confident in one thing—he knew exactly what he would find beneath the asbestos of my mind.

He knew he’d find my heart.

You see, beneath the first layer of mess is the good and solid subflooring of our soul. It is ancient and untarnished and the stable foundation upon which we can rebuild and redecorate our lives in any way we want. In the end, it’s the one thing a therapist need not be clueless about. It’s the one thing we can trust completely.

That beneath every disconcerting surprise we discover a breathtaking strength.

All the way at the bottom of us.

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Dr. Kelly Flanagan

Dr. Kelly Flanagan

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist, practicing at Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives at DrKellyFlanagan.com. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again.

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Dr. Kelly Flanagan
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