“Fawning” doesn’t come out of nowhere.

You DON’T “have” to accept others’ worldview, opinions, or directions. 

But a lot of us think we do. 

A lot of us have been conditioned to believe that to NOT accept other peoples’ worldview, opinions, or directions, is LITERALLY dangerous. 

The essence of the “fawn” trauma response is, if we don’t go along to get along, if we con’t acquiesce, then we’ll be abandoned— or attacked. 

We don’t come by the fawn response by accident. 

Many of us grew up in environments where our survival— emotional or maybe even physical— really did depend on our willingness to “play along” with somebody. 

We might have grown up in an environment in which disagreement really wasn’t an option. 

Perhaps we grew up in an environment in which disagreement was brandished as evidence of our “bad attitude.” 

Maybe we were shamed for even THINKING about NOT conforming to what somebody wanted. 

Maybe we were threatened for not “playing along.” 

Or, perhaps it wasn’t even that active or specific— maybe we grew up neglected, and got it in our head that our only chance at getting ANY kind of love or attention was to “go along to get along.” 

Maybe we figured that IF ONLY we could get everything JUST RIGHT, we would “earn” approval or acceptance. 

Maybe we made it our goal to be SO GOOD at “going along to get along” that OF COURSE we would be loved and valued. 

Sometimes that strategy may have even worked— for a minute, at least. 

Many people DO like people who agree with them. 

Many people DON’T tolerate it when people in their sphere disagree with them. 

Some people in positions of power DO attack or retaliate when someone in their sphere doesn’t “get with the program.” 

Whatever the origin of your “fawn” trauma response, it didn’t just come out of nowhere. 

You didn’t just think it up one day as a strategy to gain safety or approval. 

if your “go to” trauma response is fawning, chances are you grew up in an environment in which “go along to get along” may have been an actual survival strategy. 

We often judge ourselves when “fawn” is our go to trauma response. 

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that people pleasing is a “choice” we’re making because we’re “scared.” 

Trauma responses aren’t choices. 

We don’t sit down and calmly decide between fight, flight, freeze, fawn, or flop. 

When we’re triggered, our nervous system makes that decision for us. 

It helps to understand where our “fawning” comes from— to see its origins clearly, with acceptance and compassion. 

If your go to trauma response is “fawning,” you likely grew up very scared or at least somewhat desperate. 

People pleasing can be an exhausting addiction. 

The only way we’re going to recover from it is to understand the purpose it served— both once upon a time, and now— and to meet it with enormous self-compassion. 

Inside of our “fawning” adult self is a kid who is scared they’ll never be safe or loved. 

We need to hold that kid close. 

Trauma recovery is about progress, not perfection.

Trauma recovery is about progress, not perfection. 

Recovery from ANYTHING that threatens to ruin our life— including trauma, addiction, eating disorders, depression— is about progress, not perfection. 

Perfection doesn’t exist, except by accident every now and then. 

Our recovery will NOT be picture perfect— probably ever— and that’s actually the good news. 

I dunno what I would have ever learned from a  “perfect” recovery. 

Recovery is about getting close to some NASTY truths. 

In trauma recovery we get close to truths about what happened to us that MANY of us would REALLY rather not know. 

We often get close to truths about certain people that we’d rather not know. 

We get close to truths about the world that we never, ever wanted to know. 

It’s rough stuff. 

Anyone who says that getting past PTSD is about “willpower” doesn’t understand the hard truths that trauma recovery asks us wrestle with. 

That journey will not be “perfect.” 

Wrapping our head around this sh*t is painful. 

Our nervous system is going to push back. 

We’re going to want to avoid. We’re going to want to dissociate. We’re going to want to numb out. 

We’re going to have days when we’re REALLY into our trauma recovery…and days when the very LAST thing we want to think about is our trauma recovery. 

Our coping skills will DEFINITELY not be perfect— at least partly because we’re not particularly good at them yet. 

In order to get good at coping, we have to cope— a lot. 

We’re going to have to get a lot of practice. 

And practice is not perfect. It’s not SUPPOSED to be perfect. 

We’re going to get scared. 

We’re going to get overwhelmed. 

We’re going to backslide. 

We’re going to use our focus and our motivation. 

Sometimes we’re going to choose priorities OVER our trauma recovery for a minute. 

And that’s all okay. 

Our recovery doesn’t need to be perfect. It needs to keep us alive. 

It needs to keep us functional enough so that we don’t throw away the things we value and love. 

Our recovery needs to support us in getting through THIS minute. 

In trauma recovery, we gotta think progress, not perfection. 

Perfection’s a red herring. It’s a fever dream. It’s doesn’t exist. 

Don’t worry about it. 

Let your trauma recovery be good enough. 

Good enough to get you through. 

Good enough to keep you alive. 

Good enough to take the very next step. 

That’s all we need. 

Trauma really f*cks with our self-esteem.

Trauma really does a number on our self-esteem.

Self-esteem has two components: our confidence that we’re appropriate to life, that we can figure stuff out, that we can meet the challenges of living; and our conviction that we deserve good things to happen to us (or, at the very least, we don’t deserve BAD things to happen to us). 

That is: our self-esteem is our summary judgment of our efficacy and our deservingness. 

Trauma messes with both. 

Trauma tries to tell us we can’t figure stuff out. 

We often look back on what we went through, and we see all the ways we think we could have, should have, avoided it. 

We remember what we went through and we reexperience the feelings of helplessness and being overwhelmed that we experienced at the time. 

On top of that, our post traumatic symptoms themselves often leave us feeling helpless and overwhelmed. 

How are we supposed to believe we are appropriate to life, that we can figure stuff out, when we’re constantly remembering feelings of powerlessness, experiencing feelings of powerlessness, and telling ourselves how we “should” have done things better or differently? 

Then trauma tries to tell us we don’t deserve good things. 

After all, if we deserved good things, the things that happened to us should never have happened, right? 

How can we possibly believe we deserve good things when bad things have happened to us, sometimes over and over and over again? 

Often our brain tries to tell us that we MUST “deserve” bad things— because there’s just no way the universe would let all these bad things happen to a “good” person, right? 

When trauma kicks the crap out of our confidence that we can figure things out and handle life on the one hand; and our conviction that we deserve good and better things on the other hand, it’s no wonder that we often just don’t wan to get out of bed in the morning. 

Who WOULD want to get out of bed? 

Trauma recovery, then, is about reclaiming and rebuilding our self-esteem. 

Recovery is about accepting the fact what happened to us WASN’T our fault— even if our brain tries to tell us it was. 

Recovery is about realizing: the fact that we couldn’t control what was happening to us— and we may struggle to control how our nervous system is responding to it, even now— DOESN’T mean that our actions don’t matter. 

It doesn’t mean our priorities, goals, and desires don’t matter. 

We DO have efficacy in the world— even if once upon a time our ability to stop or change what was happening to us was limited. 

And we DO deserve good things. 

You, right there, right now, deserve to be safe. 

You deserve to have the same opportunities to create a life— the same opportunities at happiness— as any other human being who has ever existed. 

Trauma is going to try to convince you you don’t. 

Trauma is going to try to convince you you can’t change anything and you don’t deserve better things. 

Trauma is going to try to convince you it is a truth-teller. 

It is not. 

Trauma colors and distorts our world. 

It colors and distorters our future. 

And it ABSOLUTELY distorts our self-esteem. 

Trauma recovery is about slowly getting to the point where we don’t listen to it anymore— and when we do hear it, we recognize its propaganda for what it is. 

Trauma responses are reflexes, not choices. Think hot stove.

Remember that a trauma response is a reflex, not a choice. 

It’s as reflexive as pulling your hand away when you touch a hot stove. 

There’s no “choice” involved there— your nervous system calls the shot. 

When you touch a hot stove, pain and fear temporarily override any “choice” about what to do. They literally jerk your hand away for you. 

The same thing happens when a trauma trigger is activated. 

We don’t “choose” to fight, flee, fawn, or flop, any more than we “chose” to leave our hand on the hot stove. 

There’s no shame in experiencing a trauma response, any more than there is shame in jerking your hand away from a hot stove. 

Trauma responses can be confusing and frustrating. 

We don’t LIKE the idea that something can hijack or nervous system as immediately and thoroughly as trauma responses do. 

On some level, we may WANT to believe that our trauma responses ARE “choices”— because if we “chose” them, that means we can “choose” something different, right? 

As usual with trauma, it’s not that simple. 

When our nervous system has been impacted by a traumatic event, we often don’t get a “choice” in how a trigger affects us. 

It’s not exactly like touching a hot stove— it’s more like our nervous system detecting that a hot stove MIGHT be nearby. 

It thinks it sees, or feels, or smells something that it saw, felt, or smelled the LAST time you burned your hand on a stove— so it pulls your hand away preemptively…even if there IS no stove. 

Trying to convince your nervous system that there’s no stove is virtually impossible. 

Our nervous system was not designed to “listen to reason.” It evolved to err on the side of caution and keep us alive. 

So what can we do? Do we just have to let trauma responses take their course and run— maybe even ruin— our lives. 

No. 

We may not have much choice when it comes to what triggers us or how we initially respond— but we CAN get good at wrangling our secondary reactions to trauma triggers and responses. 

Our nervous system will ALWAYS jerk our hand back from a hot stove— but we can get really good at deciding what needs to happen AFTER that involuntary jerk has taken place. 

Do we get so upset that we almost burned ourselves, or did burn ourselves, that we spiral into self-blame and despair? 

Or do we recognize what just happened, and check in with ourselves with realistic self-compassion? 

After all, it’s a scary thing to think or feel you came close to touching a hot stove. 

The “kid” inside your head and heart might be freaked out. They probably need a check in. 

Do we manage our breathing and our focus? 

Do we choose to do something distracting that can return us to a little calmer baseline? 

Do we maybe seek support— tell someone “Oh man, I almost touched a hot stove, or at least I felt I was about to, and it FREAKED me OUT!” 

We don’t have to let our nervous system reflexes be the end of the story. 

Over time, in recovery, we can modify our gut reactions. The hot stove won’t always loom so large in our thoughts. 

But that’s a process that takes time— and until it works, our best bet is to focus on the response to the reaction. 

Think realistic self compassion. 

Think on the ground self care. 

After all, the reason you HAVE trauma responses is because you WERE burned once upon a time. 

We can acknowledge that was real. 

You matter. Yes, you.

You matter. 

Yes, you. You there reading this. 

I know, I know. It might sounds stupid for me to tell someone I don’t even know that they matter. 

How would I know, after all? 

That’s the thing: I don’t need to know you to tell you that you matter. 

Whether or not you matter isn’t dependent upon my, or anyone else’s considered judgment. 

I don’t need to know what you look like or what you’ve accomplished to tell you you matter. 

I don’t need to take time to think about it. 

You don’t need to prove it to me. 

You matter. 

What does THIS matter? 

Because many people who have experienced trauma get convinced that they don’t matter— or that they only matter conditionally. 

We get convinced that we only matter if we’re entertaining or attractive to someone. 

We get convinced that we only matter if the right people like us. 

We get convinced that, if we can’t convince specific other people that we matter, that maybe we DON’T really matter. 

It’s all BS (Belief Systems). 

Whether you matter is not subject to anyone’s approval. 

It’s not dependent upon the “right” people affirming that you matter. 

You certainly don’t matter just because I’m writing a blog telling you you matter. 

You matter because you are a human being who is alive and reading this. 

You matter because no one can take AWAY your right to dignity and safety. 

Other people, or events out there int he world, can very easily make us feel like we don’t matter. 

Hell, you will sometimes be TOLD, explicitly, that you don’t matter. 

It’s not true. 

You matter. 

No matter what “they” say. 

No matter what “they” did or didn’t do. 

No matter how many social media followers you have; no matter your net worth; no matter how  many consider you a friend. 

You matter irrespective of ANY of that. 

You deserve the chance to recover. 

You deserve the chance to breathe. 

You deserve to take up exactly the space you take up. 

You don’t have to earn it, and you can’t forfeit it. 

You matter— and not just because I say you do. 

I say you do because it’s true. 

You matter. 

Our stories save us.

Often, our stories save us. 

You know the stories I mean. 

When we grow up abused; or bullied; or neglected; or otherwise in pain…our stories become REAL important to us. 

Sometimes they’re myths. Sometimes they’re fairy tales. 

Sometimes they’re movies. Sometimes they’re TV shows. 

Sometimes they’re even music videos. 

For me, it started with comic books. I was way into Superman. 

Here was a guy who could do ANYTHING he wanted. He could FLY. He could outrun anyone or anything. He was BULLETPROOF. Superman could have RULED THE WORLD if he’d wanted. 

But instead he chose to work a day job— and to use his overwhelming power to help people. 

That was a story that saved me. 

The Greek myths saved me. 

Stories of heroes and survivors, trying to stay alive and fulfill their destinies despite incurring the wrath of gods and nations— those themes spoke to me, as a kid who was trying to navigate a world where every day and every social interaction was…sad. 

Star Wars saved me. 

As a kid of a narcissistic, addicted father, I resonated strongly with Luke Skywalker’s struggle to find the good in his father— and to come to terms with the potentially dark legacy his father had left in his very genes. 

Superman, the Greek myths, Star Wars— they all had things I needed to hear, things I needed to know, woven into their very fabric. 

I find survivors of abuse and neglect often NEED those tales and heroes to keep going. 

We NEED to know that somewhere out there are people who aren’t like the ones we live with or encounter every day. 

We NEED to know that somewhere out there, someone imagined a world that was NOT full of pain or uncertainty every day. 

We NEED to know that heroism is possible. 

We NEED to know that even the most triumphant stories have their dark chapters. 

We NEED to know that somewhere out there are people who are just like us— who are struggling, who get hopeless and tired and frustrated and sad— and who persist anyway. 

We NEED to know that we are not alone…and, somehow the very existence of those stories makes us understand that we’re NOT alone. 

Many survivors reading this know what it is to be strongly attached to, invested in, stories. 

Whether it’s mythology or movies, sitcoms or novels, we return to our stories, again and again, even as adults. 

In my job as the Trauma Program director at a psychiatric hospital, I wear a lanyard around my neck with my ID and my hospital keys— a lanyard emblazoned with Star Wars characters. 

When my pediatric patients see m Star Wars lanyard, their eyes light up. 

They know, instinctively, the power of story. The power of myth. 

The power of hope. 

And that’s what we’re really talking about, isn’t it? 

Our stories remind us of who we are, what we’re all about…and they give us hope. 

They remind us that, as the saying goes, everything is going to be okay in the end. 

And if it’s not okay— it’s not the end of the story. 

The first step toward wrangling your emotions.

It’s hard to wrangle feelings until we put words to them. 

And it’s hard to put words to feelings until we’re willing to feel them. 

I know. Given what we feel sometimes, that can seem like an OVERWHELMING proposition. 

People who cheerfully tell us “healing starts with FEELING!” don’t know what they’re asking. 

Many people reading this have felt overwhelmed by their feelings for years. 

A disproportionate number of people who struggle with trauma-based disorders are highly sensitive people. 

Part of this could be because HSP’s are more vulnerable to trauma and post traumatic reactions in the first place; and part of this might be because trauma itself sensitizes and scrambles our ability to regulate— to turn the volume up or down— on how we feel. 

Either way: trauma survivors OFTEN feel our feelings turned WAY up. 

Trauma survivors very often feel STEAMROLLED by our emotions. 

We feel as if EVERYTHING effects us— a LOT. 

I can personally tell you that, for years, I actually avoided listening to certain pieces of beautiful or meaningful music— music that I loved— because I knew that listening to them would RUIN me for the rest of the day. 

Many survivors decide that the ONLY way we can keep our emotions KIND OF regulated is to cut them off entirely. 

(Dissociation might be thought of as the ultimate expression of this impulse— though we rarely “decide” to cope via dissociation. That “decision” is usually made FOR us by our nervous system.) 

Learning how to manage our feelings can be a long term project. By any measure, it’s a huge, often intimidating project. 

Lots of us have been coping— more or less successfully— for years by stuffing, denying, disowning, and ignoring our feelings. 

We’ve often NOT put words to them, because we don’t even want to KNOW about them. 

Putting words to them— naming them, getting real about what they are and what they’re all about— would make them real…and we DON’T want them to be real. 

Here’s the thing, though: our feelings ARE real. 

And they’re there— whether we want them to be or not, whether we acknowledge them or not. 

Whatever we think about our feelings, they ARE affecting our decisions. 

They’re affecting our very physiology. 

And if we’ve spent years denying  and disowning our feelings, chances are they’re affecting us in ways we don’t choose— and probably don’t like. 

At a certain point— we can’t afford to stay on autopilot when it comes to our feelings anymore. 

No matter how scary it is— we have to face them. 

We have to name them. 

We have to create a relationship with our emotional life that doesn’t run on denial and fear. 

The truth is, our feelings exist to help us survive. They’re our friends. 

Yes, they can seem overwhelming at times. Yes, when we’ve survived trauma, feeling ANYTHING often feels like being hit by a truck. 


But the fist step to reeling our feelings in, is to put words to them. 

To start developing our emotional vocabulary. 

To get to know these forces of nature within us— that have always been with us, since the day we were born. 

We start to understand them. 

We start to feel less afraid of them— little bit by little bit. 

Our emotions DON’T have to remain mysterious— and they DON’T have to rule or ruin our lives or behavioral decisions. 

It all starts with getting curious about and compassionate toward our feelings— which, as it turns out, is also a process of getting curious about and compassionate toward OURSELVES. 

Maybe.

Maybe you don’t have a “bad attitude.” 

Maybe you’ve actually worked VERY hard to have a “good” attitude. 

Maybe you’ve worked hard for years to be what everybody wants. To meet everybody’s expectations and needs. 

Maybe that project— of trying to anticipate and meet everybody’s expectations and needs— has left you burned out. 

Maybe it makes a lot of sense that, right now, you wouldn’t be all that focused or motivated about ANYTHING. 

Maybe your attitude toward and beliefs about life are informed by things that actually happened to you. 

Maybe feeling the way you do right now about the world isn’t a choice. 

Maybe you’d give ANYTHING to be enthused or open. 

Maybe you tried DESPERATELY over the years to be “low maintenance.” 

Maybe you had a belief that the only way you would ever be loved or accepted was to BE “low maintenance.” 

After all, what happens when people are “high maintenance?” 

Others get frustrated with them. Then those others give up on them. They leave. They abandon them. 

Talk about terrifying. 

So maybe you tried to develop the ultimate “good attitude.” 

Maybe you became not just flexible, but VERY flexible. 

Maybe you became not just willing to compromise, but VERY willing to surrender your needs, wants, perceptions, and priorities— because you believed doing so was necessary to others liking you, accepting you…or not attacking or abandoning you. 

Maybe years of all that takes its toll.

Maybe you’re not “negative.” 

Maybe you’re not even all that “angry,” at least not at the people around you every day. 

Maybe you’re just tried. 

Maybe you’re in pain. 

Maybe you’re struggling to scrounge together enough hope and motivation to get out of bed in the morning, let alone make it through the day. 

Maybe you really would give ANYTHING to NOT feel this way every day….but the path from feeling this to feeling anything else seems winding, uncertain— and uphill. 

Maybe feeling the way you do isn’t al that weird. 

Maybe we can have compassion for the part of you that IS so tired— and, sure, kind of cynical at this point. 

Maybe we can see what other people see as “lashing out” or “withdrawing” as what they REALLY are— your attempts to manage feelings that FEEL quite unmanageable. 

Maybe the first step to realistically managing ANY of this is to refuse to blame yourself for what you FEEL. 

Refuse to blame yourself for being tired. 

Refuse to blame yourself for being sore— physically and emotionally. 

And maybe— just maybe— other peoples’ judgments about how “negative” we can be don’t matter all that much. 

Maybe what really counts is what WE can do— to turn our attention to doing the next. Right. Thing. 

Maybe. 

“They” will try to police your experience & recovery. Don’t bite.

You’re gonna have people try to police your experience. 

I’m positive almost everyone reading this has had this happen to them— probably recently. 

You’re going to have people tell you you obviously don’t have a certain problem because you look a certain kind of way. 

You’re going to have people tell you you obviously didn’t have certain kinds of experiences growing up because of what they think they know about your history. 

You’re going to have people tell you that they know what you’re struggling with better than you do. 

None of it is going to have ANYTHING to do with your ACTUAL experience— but that won’t matter to “them.” 

Here’s the thing: when people are passing judgment on what you supposedly should or shouldn’t feel, they’re not REALLY talking about YOU. 

They’re talking about themselves. 

Most people who seem to have strong feelings about what you’re going through probably don’t even know you, or know you all that well. 

They can’t POSSIBLY know all the ins and outs of your struggle. 

But their strong feelings are often not even ABOUT your struggle. 

Their strong feelings are about THEIR life, their struggle— and their fears. 

Complex trauma is often under appreciated and misunderstood because the entire CONCEPT scares the living daylights out of some people. 

They don’t like to think that there is ANYTHING that can make human beings feel and act so “crazy.” 

They want to deny it, disown it, minimize it, stigmatize it…because they truly believe, if they can get away with blaming the victim of complex trauma for their own suffering, that somehow “inoculates” them against similar “craziness.” 

But it won’t. 

Trauma, including complex trauma, doesn’t discriminate. Every human being, under the right— or wrong— circumstances can develop the pattern of beliefs, reactions, and behaviors that we call complex trauma. 

Trying to blame survivors for their own trauma doesn’t magically make anyone invulnerable to trauma. 

Complex trauma and dissociation can be scary. They’re scariest to the people who have to live with them, every day. 

Imagine trying to live, work, and conduct relationships in a haunted house that you can’t leave. That’s what trying to live with trauma and dissociation is like. 

The thing is, we didn’t ASK to tour this haunted house. 

Most of us woke up one day to find that we’d been RAISED in it. 

Don’t let “them” get in your head about your trauma or your role in your suffering. 

Trust me, in trauma recovery, we take responsibility for a LOT of things, and hold ourselves HIGHLY accountable. There is no “dodging responsibility” in genuine recovery. 

But what we DON’T do is buy into “their” fantasy that trauma can somehow be avoided or negated through sheer will or bravado. 

Yeah. They’ll try to police your experience— get YOU to feel a certain kind of way about what happened to YOU, what YOU’RE going through. 

Just remember: that’s about them. Not you. 

You just keep working your recovery— one day at a time. 

Good Will Hunting and Punching Meat.


One of my favorite scenes of all cinema is a scene from “Good Will Hunting.”

Well, two of them, really.

The scene less relevant to what I want to write about today, but one of my favorites, is the scene where Will, having out-intellectualized the Harvard prick with the ridiculous ponytail in the bar, smugly asks, “Do you like apples? Well, I got her number…how do you like THEM apples?”

(Those who know me, for some reason, are completely unsurprised that I love that scene.)

But the other scene that I, and everybody else who is either in therapy or does therapy for a living, finds enormously powerful, is the scene where Shawn, the psychotherapist played by Robin Williams, takes Will’s clinical file, which details his history of abuse, and tells Will, matter-of-factly, “See this, all this shit? It’s not your fault.”

“Don’t fuck with me, Shawn,” Will famously replies. “Not you.”

“It’s not your fault,” Shawn repeats, until Will finally allows himself to give into tears.

It’s a scene that attempts to sum up the turning point where abuse survivors surrender the conviction that many of us don’t remember NOT having– the feeling that abusers don’t abuse kids for no reason, that it must somehow be our fault.

It’s a dramatization of that turning pont, to be sure.

Having worked with literally hundreds of abuse survivors, I can tell you that I’ve never had the magic “Good Will Hunting” moment happen so suddenly and so emphatically– so cinematically, if you will.

The closest I’ve come to it was once, while working with a patient who was hell-bent on blaming and shaming herself for her abuse history, finally, in a moment of exasperation, challenging her to align her perception of herself as “dirty” with any kind of external evidence.

She kind of sputtered, and went silent for a moment, at which point I exclaimed, “Aww, you got NOTHIN’! You got emotional reasoning, that’s all you got! Psssht.”

(For those who aren’t immersed in cognitive behavioral therapy every day, “emotional reasoning” is what we call it when we assume something is true just because it feels true, as opposed to having any kind of evidence to back up that assumption. It’s the kind of faulty reasoning a ten-year-old might be expected to use, which makes it hilarious and tragic that most adults use it to make most of our decisions.)

That patient did experience my “You got nothin’ but emotional reasoning!” intervention as a turning point, where she could no longer blame herself for abuse that was objectively out of her control (and, for some reason, she didn’t fire me as her therapist)– but even that moment came after literally years of laying groundwork.

The fact is, powerful, memorable, dramatic, flash-bulb moments in therapy are pretty rare.

The idea of the one-and-done therapeutic breakthrough is basically a myth, in my experience.

Why is it important for you to know this?

Because the number one reason people quit therapy is because they’re not getting the results they expected, at least in the way they expected them.

Very often, people get into therapy with this idea that they’re simply misunderstanding something, or they’ve repressed something into their unconscious, and once they talk, talk, talk enough, that misperception will correct itself, or that unconscious gunk will bubble up to the surface, and then they’ll be “done.”

It’s actually one of the less fortunate legacies of Freud (popularized by many movies and TV shows), this idea that there will be an “ah-ha!” moment, where everything will change in an instant.

It’s such a destructive myth, for multiple reasons.

It’s destructive not only because people sometimes quit therapy when their “Good Will Hunting” moment fails to materialize, but the myth of the “ah-ha!” moment is also harmful because it can also keep people in ineffective therapy for years, talking, talking, talking, and in some cases paying thousands of dollars over the course of years, waiting patiently for that moment to arrive.

Most of us know at least someone who has been in “therapy” for years, but who doesn’t seem to be getting any better.

My hypothesis is that at least a few of these poor souls are waiting for their therapist to soulfully tell them, “It’s not your fault,” at which point all maladaptive patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving will suddenly disappear.

Trust me, if that “Good Will Hunting” moment happened on any kind of regular basis, we psychotherapists would figure out how to reliably make it happen and market the hell out of it.

We’d bottle it and sell it like the latest and greatest smartphone.

The fact that there are still a hundred different types of psychotherapy practiced, each with a hundred different theoretical orientations, each orientation promising a very different path to that moment, suggests that we’re nowhere close to knowing how to make that moment happen with any kind of consistency.

(No matter WHAT the EFT and EMDR people might tell ya.)

The scene with Shawn and Will is powerful because it’s a cinematic distillation of a process that actually takes a long time to create– and there’s actually no magic to creating it.

The bottom line is that most people come to therapy because they don’t like the way they’re thinking, feeling, or behaving; and the reason they tend to be thinking, feeling, and behaving in not-so-great ways is usually because, for one reason or another, they’ve learned ineffective ways of dealing with their feelings and come to believe negative things about themselves somewhere along the way.

The only real way to fix that is to develop a new skillset for dealing with feelings and a new set of beliefs that helps instead of hinders…and the only way that we develop new skills and beliefs is to practice, practice, practice.

Yeah, I know.

Much less glamorous than the “Good Will Hunting” moment.

As much as I like that scene in “Good Will Hunting” for all its dramatic and symbolic charge, I also dislike it, for a very specific reason– it frames the role of therapist as kind of a magician.

Once he speaks those magic words– “It’s not your fault”– then the spell of trauma is broken, the tears flow freely, and suddenly we’re off to see about a girl. Metaphorically speaking, that is.

(Well, sometimes not metaphorically speaking. But you get my drift.)

I don’t think it’s particularly useful to think of therapists as magicians.

There aren’t, actually, magic words. Even therapists who use hypnotic techniques (don’t think of a duck) aren’t using “magic words,” really– they’re employing a specific way of implicit teaching that has more to do with how the brain processes information, not the actual language.

If we think of therapists as magicians, that means we also have to believe in magic to heal– and there’s nothing about this project of healing that’s magic.

Rather, it’s science– a process of learning how to make observations, form hypotheses, test hypotheses, and adjust our behavior accordingly.

Lather, rinse, repeat– no sleight of hand needed.

Instead of thinking of therapists as magicians, who might someday say the magic words that will allow the “Good Will Hunting” moment to materialize, I think it’s more useful to think of therapists as coaches, or maybe cornermen in a boxing match.

All a coach is, is somebody who has expertise in a particular skill, and who, standing in the corner or on the sidelines as you’re out there on the field or in the ring, has some perspective that you probably don’t, being so close to the action and all. ‘

In order for a coach to be useful to his athlete, he has to use the very small amount of time between rounds or plays to communicate some helpful insights or advice– but then the player needs to take that insight or advice back out into the competition.

All of this, of course, after hours and hours and hours in the gym, making mistakes, making adjustments, learning new skills, shedding old habits of exercise and nutrition.

Running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and punching meat and what not.

(I’m pretty sure my former mentor, who has authored multiple books, has never used the phrase “punching meat” in print.)

Yup, Will and Shawn embracing is an incredibly powerful moment on the screen. I still tear up every time I see it.

But, if you want to really get a feel for how powerful change happens in therapy? Go watch “Rocky.”

Actually, go watch “Rocky” and “Rocky II,” back to back.

Then go punch some meat. Metaphorically, that is.