Two Types of Challenges

There are fundamentally two types of challenges that bring a person to a therapist's office: problems of external circumstance and problems of internal struggle.  Life puts some problems before us, while others we essentially create for ourselves. As a therapist and counselor I help people deal with both categories.

Many inherently difficult situations are just a part of life. These come in all shapes and sizes: injury, illness, loss, betrayal, defeat, adversity, poverty.  Just because they are inevitable doesn't make them any less painful.  A great deal of counseling involves helping a person to make sense and gain mastery of these difficult but unavoidable challenges of life.

But of course those are not the only problems we face. Many of our greatest challenges reside not so much "out there" in the world but within the deep recesses of our all-too-human heads and hearts. Examples of these "interior challenges" include depression, anxiety, addiction and all the other ways people distort, magnify, numb, deny, repress, project, or in some other way respond in an unhealthy manner to life stresses.

These two fundamental sources of suffering and woe interact in infinite ways. Difficult life events often lead a person to respond in a manner that make matters worse. This creates an even more challenging situation which can result in yet another round of unhealthy and unproductive reactions. All too often this mutual influence spirals into a terrible dance of destruction.

This is the point at which simple "advice-giving" of counseling is often not enough to change the situation for the better. Deeper and more inwardly directed goals may be necessary.  I've previously written about how this is one way of distinguishing counseling from psychotherapy.  Perhaps a person needs to better control his or her thoughts and emotions, or gain a capacity for greater insight, or explore and improve core beliefs about the self, or deal with the long-term effects of past events, or make any number of other deep and lasting inner gains to improve his or her overall functioning and satisfaction. These are just some ways in which it is possible to reduce the destructive impact of internal challenges and improve the quality of responses to external challenges. Often a variety of such approaches is the best course of action.

To summarize, we all have to deal with challenges in life, and we all contribute to our own challenges by the way we think and feel. In my profession I deal with both ends of the spectrum. It's the most effective way to achieve meaningful and lasting growth. Facing and addressing the challenges of your life can bring great rewards for you, those around you and the world at large. It's OK to seek help. As the saying goes, "you alone can do it, but you don't have to do it alone." 

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Bill Herring is a psychotherapist, counselor, consultant and coach in metropolitan Atlanta.  He brings almost a quarter century of experience to each client, and is especially noted for his work with people who struggle with compulsive, addictive, deceptive and confusing sexual behavior.