Why not fix all of your problems?

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During my earliest days of studying Milton Erickson’s work, there were many fascinating premises which I could not understand. One of these was his warning that you need to leave some small component of the clinical problem in place. In other words, it is a mistake to strive for full clinical success (to learn more about this read: the case example of Cathy, Hope & Resiliency, p. 63). Even more difficult for me to comprehend was Erickson’s suggestion that people need their problems as part of who they are.

Most of us can see what’s wrong with the “you could have made an A+” parent. It’s obvious that this type of “help” is harmful. If the child brings home an A-, a skillful parent will be joyful for the accomplishment rather than inducing shame. What is less obvious is the clinical application, when it is the therapist’s job to help manage symptoms. Shouldn’t we make them all go away? Why not try to make everything as it should be? Isn’t that how we add value?

Perhaps the easiest way to understand this is to recall the last time you were speaking to a significant person in your life, someone who while pointing out your strengths went on to call attention to the one little thing that you need to work on. That type of interaction can really take the wind out of your sails. Rather than feeling good about your accomplishments, you feel fundamentally flawed.

No matter how hard you try, you cannot correct every little thing that someone might find wrong in you. Perfection really is a terrible goal. Even though most of us are smart enough to avoid the explicit statement, “I will not accept you until you are perfect,” it is the unspoken, implied messages that go straight to the heart. People who do this to you are often good intentioned and just want to add value to the relationship. But it comes at the cost of your own sense of personal value.

Another way to make sense of this dilemma is by thinking about the Yin-Yang symbol. Without the black, there is no white. Also, a field of beautiful flowers is not nearly as charming without at least one flower that is off-color. Human perception requires something for the sake of contrast. If people did not have some tiny flaw, there would be no perception of strength, either. I believe in therapy we best help clients not by trying to make all of their faults go away, but rather by helping them transform debilitating limitations into minor flaws. These small flaws can then be used to act as a frame for really impressive strengths and accomplishments.

There is something very liberating about this. Try it out for yourself, as an experiment (don’t worry, if you want, you can always go back to despising every part of you that’s not perfect). First, think of your best flaw (one that is really harmless) and then make a commitment to hang onto this piece of your identity. Learn to use it as contrast for some of your favorite personal strengths. Then, when you are ready to be completely liberated from shame, laugh about your small flaw with a friend, someone who has learned to be at peace with being human. As summed up eloquently by Brene Brown, “Why, when we know that there’s no such thing as perfect, do most of us spend an incredible amount of time and energy trying to be everything to everyone? Is it that we really admire perfection? No – the truth is that we are actually drawn to people who are real and down-to-earth. We love authenticity and we know that life is messy and imperfect.”

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