To Be A Hero: Facing Challenges with Dignity

To Be A Hero: Facing Challenges with Dignity

Date: 5/5/2014


My original training was in NLP; that was in 1997 and 1998. I opened a private practice and although I did have some challenging cases, everything went along fairly smoothly. Then, a few years later, someone referred a young man to me with a multitude of serious personal issues and I felt a bit overwhelmed trying to work with him.  I decided to consult with a seasoned therapist I knew and he introduced me to and taught me Existential Therapy.  In contrast to NLP which focuses more on specific issues and symptoms, ET deals with the person as a whole.

Here is an overview of Existential Therapy.

Many of us get stuck in life at one time or another; we want to move forward, but something holds us back. We may find ourselves in a situation which seems too formidable, too overwhelming to deal with. This can be frustrating and can produce anxiety.  

Why are we stuck... and how do we get beyond being stuck?

These questions are answered by confronting two fundamental life issues: “ME” and “WHAT NEXT?”

For many people the problem begins with losing touch with ME; that is,  who am I and what do I really want in life?  It is difficult to move forward when you don’t have an awareness of the answers to these questions.

There are numerous reasons why people lose touch with themselves.  Sometimes it is because they define themselves according to the circumstances they are in: "I am not wealthy, that must mean that I am a failure and cannot succeed."

Or, they may define themselves according to what other people (teachers, parents, friends, the media) have told them is their identity: "You will never be a________."  "You can't do____"

Or, perhaps the person had a traumatic experience that causes him to seal off a part of himself to avoid feeling the pain in the present.

 The main goal of the "ME" section of the therapy is to help the person develop a healthy and authentic self-concept which leads to an enhanced sense and experience of "ME". In the first example above, the fact that the person is not wealthy does not have to mean that he is a failure.  Somewhere along the way he developed this idea, but there are many ways of defining who is a success and who is a failure other than wealth. And, this should be discussed in the counseling sessions.

Or, in the second example above, the self-belief that was installed by significant others can be challenged.  For example, I once counseled a young man who grew up being told that he was "stupid" by his parents. All day he would hear "You're stupid",  "That was a stupid thing to do", etc. Stupid, stupid, stupid stupid...The truth was that this young man was intelligent.  However, he had developed this false belief because he was constantly told that he was stupid.   We explored how this belief had developed as well as worked on  building a truer, more resourceful self-belief.

If a traumatic experience causes the person to seal off a part of himself, then we have to work on helping the person overcome the pain of that experience so that he can recover the part of himself that has been lost.

The new, truer self-concept invests the person's existence with more vitality.   Then the person is ready to deal with the question of how "ME" is going to choose to relate to the world. This is “WHAT NEXT?”

A person’s interaction with the world is only in the now.   People often let what happened in the past define their future—however, this does not have to be.  My past explains why I am in my present circumstances.  However, I do not have to allow the events of my past determine what will be my future.  Man was created with the ability to make choices about the actions and directions he or she takes in life.

Another way of understanding this idea is that every moment is made up of two possibilities.   The present is the result of every moment leading up to that instant.  However, the present also contains the creativity of that instant.  I can choose to "go along" with the momentum of my life as it has been or I can choose to respond to the newness of this moment. 

Of course, this choice can be very challenging . First of all there can be anxiety in moving out of familiar rules and structures that I have been embedded in.   And, even if I want to creatively respond to the newness of the moment there can be issues that have to be dealt with:  Perhaps I am confused about where I want to go... Perhaps I am unsure what is the best way to make the changes I want...  Perhaps I feel incapable of making changes.

The role of the therapist or counselor is to assist the person explore what changes he or she wants to make, consider options how to go about making those changes, and support him in overcoming the obstacles that seem to prevent him from making the desired changes.

In the final analysis it is the person—not the therapist—who decides how to define himself.   And, it is the person who makes the decisions of where to go and what to do with his life.   And it is the person who implements those decisions and makes the changes happen.

When someone  is willing to face and deal with the challenging circumstances of his life, that person is a hero.

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As I was learning ET it struck me that these ideas are very compatible with the Torah outlook on the meaning of life. Then, I found a Torah source that expresses the basic goals and premises of ET.   Here is a quote from the commentary of Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch to Tehillim (the book of Psalms), Chapter 86, Verse 4:

"Gladden the soul of Your servant..." שמח נפש עבדיך

"...This Joy of the Soul is the highest happiness of which man is capable here on earth; and he can attain this greatest happiness at all times and in all circumstances of fate.   The Happiness of the Soul is completely independent of external circumstances.  The most grievous tragedy, the most abject poverty, or the most threatening peril can become the source of the purest,  highest happiness of the soul, when man can find the power to view it as his task to bear such troubles with dignity and resignation, and when he fully succeeds in discharging this task.... "(Translation from "The Psalms" Feldheim Publishers)

A religious person might offer the following perspective on ET:  

 "ME...  You are talking about making personal changes, of not letting myself be defined by circumstances or the way other people have defined me.  I know that it is possible to make profound changes in myself because I am already familiar with the concept known as "Teshuva".   In fact, "Teshuva" is an obligation;  it is something that G-d expects of ME.  "Teshuva" means 'Improve yourself according to standards that your G-d has defined for you'   I have made changes in myself and have have seen others make changes in themselves.

Another important consideration is that I know that I have intrinsic worth.  I am unique; I can contribute to the world in ways that no one else can.

With this in mind I know that I can certainly respond to the newness of the moment;  I do not have to just go along with the momentum of my life as it has been until now. In fact, utilizing the newness of the moment to improve myself is ultimately what gives my life meaning. "

"WHAT NEXT...You are speaking about circumstances and rising above them.  You are talking about not defining myself according to the circumstances that I am in, but rather, recognizing what they are and doing everything in my power to deal with them as a mature adult. I am familiar with this concept, too.  I know that the circumstances I am in, unless I acted foolishly and brought them on myself, are decreed by G-d. I may not understand why He has placed me in these circumstances, but we believe that somehow it is for our own good and that someday we will understand how it is good.  It may be for an atonement that I am in challenging circumstances.   It may be as a 'nisayon' (a trial or test).  The concept of a 'nisayon' is to bring out my potential by making me deal with new challenges. For either of these reasons I can be thankful to G-d that He is helping me to fulfill my potential in life and receive my reward in the World to Come.  

And, even if I am in difficult circumstances because I did something foolish, I need not despair.   I can regret my misdeed, and ask for Devine Assistance to guide me in the right way in the future.  I can learn from my mistakes and pass that knowledge on to others.    

The history of our people is a history of dealing with one challenging circumstance after the next. Rav Hirsch expresses this idea in his commentary to the Psalm above: "...The ability to attain and preserve such 'Happiness of the Soul' has been our talisman throughout all our past troubles, and it is for this reason that amid all the acts of oppression and persecution we have remained spiritually alert and serene as a nation. .." This is my legacy.

The world we live in is full of unexpected twists and turns, but there is a Divine plan to it.   It is not random, and I am not 'lost' in this world. Our Torah gives me a very clear orientation of how to live life.  

Knowing all this I am ready for ME to face the challenges of WHAT NEXT."  

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Of course, if this is what the religion is teaching there is a question..why do we need therapy at all?   Why can't we just live the principles of the religion?  

The answer is that intellectually a person may know these principles, but he may be in a lot of pain from what is happening in his life. It may just be too overwhelming for him to function properly. A therapist can help him to sort things out and gain enough control over his life that he can live according to his values and principles.   

To schedule an appointment contact me by phone: 052-763 7029 or by email: 

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