May 30, 2024
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Creating Happiness In Spite of Adversity

To paraphrase the old Hair Club for Men commercial, “I’m not only the therapist, I’m also a client.” What I mean is, I self-therapize a lot, using the same techniques on myself that I teach my therapy clients.

In 2005, I awoke one day with excruciating lower back pain. Long story short, I was diagnosed with a bulging disc and spent the following eight years in a perpetual state of pain, some days better, some days worse, but pretty much always there.

Eventually, in the summer of 2013, I heard the words I thought I’d never hear: “You may want to consider back surgery.” After exhausting the various treatment approaches, I chose to have minor back surgery (my wife tried unsuccessfully to get my surgeon to also perform a lobotomy in a 2-for-1 deal). Unfortunately, the surgery did nothing for the pain.

The failure of the first surgery led me to opt for major back surgery in 2014, in which my vertebrae were fused above and below a disc that was degenerating at an advanced rate. Fortunately, the procedure was a success in that I no longer have a deteriorating disc. But, while my pain level is better than it was pre-operation, I still have fairly constant lower back pain.

I thank God the pain isn’t worse than it is, but I’d be lying if I said there aren’t days when I wallow in a bit of misery, when my thoughts go to that dark place where I wonder if I’ll always be stuck with what is sometimes debilitating pain. It’s times like these that the therapist voice inside my head pipes up and reminds me not to catastrophize. It reminds me that as bad as things are, they could very easily be much worse. These reminders help me to refocus myself and pull myself back from the “pit of despair” (Princess Bride anyone?).

This is the healthy voice of reason and positivity that we all need to cultivate if we want to live a happy and emotionally healthy life, one in which we take pleasure in what we have rather than focus on what we don’t have. As I’ve suggested in previous articles, it’s all too easy to feel depressed, anxious and hopeless in life. There is no shortage of negative life events and circumstances that can make us feel this way if we allow them to. So the challenge is to learn how to not let ourselves be brought down. The challenge is to figure out how to remain hopeful and positive in spite of all our adversity.

One of the ways I do this is to remind myself of all that is good in my life, all that I have to rejoice over. Of course, it’s easy for us to be thankful for the obvious things, such as if one is wealthy. Or, if one has a dream job. Or, if one has a wonderful, close-knit family. But what if we don’t have any of these things?

What if, God forbid, we have cancer, or we’re financially destitute, or we’re not blessed with a wonderful family? How do we focus on positive, wonderful things to feel good about if we think we don’t have much that is great in our life?

The answer is that we always have things in our life that are wonderful; however, sometimes, we have to change how we think in order to recognize them. It’s kind of like watching channel 2 on TV for months and months, not realizing you also get channels 4, 5, 7, 11 and 13. When we become weighed down by adversity, our thinking becomes constricted. It narrows so that we hyper-focus on the adversity and stop noticing the positive things in our life. The antidote is to broaden our vision so that we see, and experience, everything else, as well.

I was reminded of this lesson recently while walking through the prison in which I work. I was lost in my own thoughts about my painful back when I saw two inmates walking in my direction. One of them was noticeably disabled, with one of his legs misshapen, causing him to walk in an awkward manner with an extreme limp. As they passed me, I overheard the disabled man tell the other with a self-conscious chuckle, “This is the best straight line I’ll ever be able to walk.”

In that moment, I was reminded of how wonderful it is that I can walk in a straight line. How amazing it is that I can walk altogether. Regardless of how bad my pain is, I can be grateful that I have two legs that operate properly.

The other day, my wife and I took one of our daughters to a check-up with her pediatric neurologist at NYU. In the waiting room were children of all ages waiting to see their doctor for one reason or another. It was impossible not to notice the adolescents and teenagers with no hair or the adorable little girl doing arts and crafts with a PICC line taped to her shirt.

While I can be thankful I don’t have cancer or some other terrible disease, what does one have to be thankful for if he does have such devastating problems? If she has a great, supportive medical doctor, she can be thankful for her health care treatment. If someone is financially destitute, he can be thankful he has valuable skills and work experience with which to find work and regain his financial independence. If he can see, he can be thankful that he can see flowers bloom in the spring. If she can hear, she can be grateful that she can hear the wondrous sound of music.

The point is that there are always things for which to be thankful, regardless of how bad off we are. What is required of us is the courage and will to step outside our thoughts in order to realize all that is positive in our life. Life is never exactly as we would like it to be. Sometimes, it’s not even close. But, if we learn how to change the channel of our own thinking, we can train ourselves to focus on all that we have that is good. And that is a lot, indeed.

Dr. Gur-Aryeh is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Saddle Brook, NJ. He works with a wide variety of clients seeking mental health treatment and specializes in mood disorders and addiction in particular. If you would like to contact him, you can do so at [email protected], at 201-406-9710, or through his website at www.shovalguraryehphd.com.

By Shoval Gur-Aryeh, PhD

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