Recently I have begun to refer to the work I do as “Ideals-focused psychotherapy” when I am trying to describe it. As I reflect on the work I am doing with the people I see, and my own journey through life, it seems clear to me that even though we cannot control much of what happens to us and we are dealt some portion of pleasures and pains, ultimately what makes our lives feel worthwhile is the extent to which they resonate with what we value at the deepest levels. When we are investing ourselves–our time, energy, attention and resources–in the direction of the ideals we hold, we come to respect ourselves or perhaps value ourselves in a way that is fundamental to life satisfaction.
Each of the focuses of our ideals is important: our relationships, our work, our responsibility to the environment and to the society, our spirituality. But even upstream from that is our commitment to reflectively become intimate with what those ideals are, and then to make efforts to place the “stubborn ounces of our weight” behind them (Bonaro Overstreet’s expression). As we mature, our ideals may shift, become clearer or lose relevance. The ongoing activity of taking the time to identify what we care about and then to recalibrate our lives so that they line up with those identified meanings creates a lifetime of meaningful experience.
We need relationships. We need autonomy. We need to feel that we matter in the world. We need to feel that the world matters to us. Each person has a unique combination of ways that these matters are organized. For one person, a spiritual focus may be essential. For another, a focus on significant close relationships. Some people invest themselves in protecting or improving the environment or certain ecosystems.
What is satisfying is not the outcomes–not the successes–but the act of choosing to give to what we care about. Becoming aware of that ongoing choice is an affirmation of us as unique individuals. It carries with it the experience that we have value in the world.
When our lives are out of whack somehow and our energies feel wasted or misdirected, or worse, we are not aware of where our energies are going, our lives can feel empty, unsatisfying, and paralyzed. We thrash about looking for the causes of our unhappiness outside of ourselves, and then, finally we realize we will need to look at our own ways of being in the world. We will need to figure out what we are doing, or not doing, that is not working for us.
Ideals-focused psychotherapy is about taking time to become intimate with ourselves via a deep relationship with a caring, attentive person. It is not, ultimately, about fixing problems or accomplishing tasks. We may start with problems and tasks, but with any luck, we move into a realm of growth and development–a space for reflection and self knowledge. It is a relationship where we agree that the purpose of our being together is to provide a space and responsiveness that allows one person to develop him or herself deeply.