What makes therapy effective for some people and not for others? How is it possible that some people seem to get stuck in the same problems and hardly ever move forward and others seem to overcome the most difficult challenges in life against all odds?
Of course there are the obvious reasons - maybe they have not found the right therapy for them, the right therapist, maybe they are not in the right place in their life or perhaps the problems seem to serve an often unconscious purpose, which is very difficult to let go of. On top of that we are all shaped by our past and we might have experienced one disappointment after the other, never really feeling appreciated and encouraged by our surroundings. The reasons are endless and distinct for each person.
However, there is one factor, which is the most important determinant in whether we are able to face our problems and overcome them. It is courage.
Courage is not easy and it is not given freely. We have to work on building and nourishing our courage. It is of course easy to be courageous if we had a pretty easy life and we are used to getting what we want. It is much harder if we have had to struggle. I would go so far to say that those of us who have never faced hardship might be disadvantaged in the sense of not having the opportunities or motivations to develop courage.
If you look closely at those who are successful, you might notice that they often have had a difficult background, they had obstacles they had to overcome - social injustice, financial hardship, broken homes and having survived war and humanitarian crises. Instead of being deflated by these experiences, they have felt an even greater desire to turn their life around, to have something better for themselves and often also their families and children.
My client Andrew has gone through a lot in his life: growing up in an unstable home, having moved more than 30 times, having to find his place and friends in a new school again and again. His mother was an alcoholic and was more concerned about covering up her partner's sexual abuse of Andrew's sister than protecting her own children. His sister, the one he could trust and rely on, was taken away by social services without an explanation. Later in life he is taken advantage of by his partners and ends up having an injury which means he will never be able to live pain-free or be able to walk or stand for long periods of time again. Andrew does not give up. He tells me how the most important thing for him is to provide a safe and stable environment for his son. Even though he has been hurt and disappointed many times, he continues to take the risk of having close relationships. And he does find a caring and trustworthy partner. To my astonishment, he even comes up with new ideas and careers, which he might be able to follow and what adaptations he might need, to work with the limitations he has. He sees what has happened to him as an opportunity to finally be able to be looked after himself, and to address some of the painful emotions he has run away from for so long. His relationships change and he lets go of those who were never really there for him anyway, but strengthens those he truly knows are nourishing and important for him.
Starting on working on your courage does not have to be a big gesture. It can be going for that date, even though you dread how awkward it might be and how disappointed you might feel afterwards. It is asking for what you want and need, even though there is a chance you might be rejected. It's showing vulnerability, when you dread that nobody will be interested and ending a relationship which has stopped working, even though you know the pain will be dreadful. Courage means facing and feeling your fears - and doing it anyway.
There is no guarantee that it will always go right and taking risks always means that there will be times when we will not get what we want and feel disappointed. But just like Andrew has learnt, there are these sweet little moments when we suddenly realise that we are able to achieve great things if we only try. That life can be full of difficulties and tragedies, but there is always something we can learn from each of them. That courage can help us to get through the times when everything just feels dreadful and impossible. That courage can help us to become the person we really want to be.