Cleaning Versus Therapy

As I have been catching up on the clutter at home during the pandemic, I can’t help but think how the process and the results of deep cleaning are similar to what happens when a person goes to therapy. I don’t know if you are anything like me, but I simultaneously love cleaning and hate it. I hate cleaning when I have a million other tasks that call my attention. However, if you want to show your love for me, tell me that I can drop everything else and clean, and I transform into a household goddess/Zen monk as I work my magic slowly examining each area of the house, focusing on one thing at a time (or sometimes going back and forth between different projects) and enjoying the results and the discoveries made in the process. And you also earn my unending gratitude.

Like therapy, we often resist going. We all have a lot of excuses that are so logical, convincing, etc. We don’t have the money, the time, our problems aren’t that important, there are other more important things, we can figure it out ourselves. Trust me, as a therapist, I’ve heard and probably said those same excuses myself many a time. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “The credit belongs to the man in the arena.” It is a process and a decision to step into the arena of therapy, but until we do so, we go nowhere and keep spinning our wheels fighting the same unconquerable fights.

When I was in Spain, I saw a live bullfight. As a sensitive person who can’t stand watching actors even get pretend hurt on TV, it took a lot for me to attend, but I wanted to show my respect for the Spanish culture. What I saw was very entrancing, even if hard to watch. A bullfighter knows the bull and respects it. I watched as the bullfighter came close to the bull, then led it in a different direction when it got too worked up or the prodding became too much. Then the bullfighter would back away. It was like a beautiful, painful dance between man and bull, fraught with danger and a great vulnerability on the part of both. When we enter into a therapy session, we allow ourselves to be like the bull, prodded and poked in painful areas. When things get too difficult, we are led in a different direction, and eventually we leave the arena, a little bit stronger as we have faced our vulnerable side and come out better and stronger than before.

Cleaning too, can be onerous and time-consuming. It often seems better to just leave things as they are and not worry about doing anything more. When I was working a 40-hour job, it was simply a matter of survival. However, when we really take the time to do a deep clean, we can find not just the nitty-gritties, but also beautiful, long-forgotten treasures and maybe some shining new discoveries as well. As I was clearing out bookshelves and bins full of holiday items, I discovered little pieces of paper, candy wrappers that my kids had tucked away in various corners, broken pieces of plastic toys, short little bits of yarn, etc. In therapy, we bring out a lot of our own “nitty-gritties” the flailing distractions that keep us from looking at what is going on. They are the presenting arguments, the dramatic flair, the false cognitions we have, the stories passed on to us by our family, our community that keep us down and keep us from being our best selves. A good therapist will help us take the time to find the nitty-gritties and show us where the proper waste receptacle is for such things that deplete us and make us avoid living our life to our fullest.

What many people who have never experienced therapy don’t realize is that when you take the time and make some space in your life for self-examination, there are many great treasures to be discovered. As I was cleaning out my bookshelf, I found a grease-stained lined white paper with writing on it. On further examination, I saw a handwritten recipe for my husband’s famous Kung-Pao recipe that has brought joy and delight to many members of our household, friends, and extended family. That day, I decided not to let it sit on a bookshelf any longer, but wrote it down in a computer and made a copy for my recipe binder. It is a recipe that I will always cherish as much as I cherish the creator of that recipe and look forward to passing it on to my children. In therapy, we should find not only areas of improvement, but the good parts too, the valuable stories and strengths that were just waiting to be found, if we only take the time to look.