Emotional Health

A Psychologist’s Thoughts on Change

3773580856_e8743e2bce_zArt by Andrea Nigels via Flickr (Creative Commons License)

fordCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years. This is her response to Women’s Voices’ recentMarch Challenge,” in which we urge our readers to bring some change into their lives.


I once heard a line from a song that went something like this:

“The strong give up and get going;
The weak give up and stay.”

I don’t remember the name of the song, but I’ve referred to the quote over the years. I don’t mean that it should be taken literally (e.g., leave that man! that job!, etc.)—well, in some cases I do. What I mean is that change requires grit.

Growth and renewal are essential, so life is fundamentally tied to change. Throughout the life cycle, as with a garden, we are in a constant state of evolution. In Erik Erikson’s stages of human development,  even one of the last ones— late adulthood—is termed the stage of “generativity vs. stagnation.” Emotional health is dependent on growth—not just during childhood, but throughout the lifespan.

As a therapist, I’ve had the opportunity to work with people with a wide variety of issues. Sometimes I am asked the naïve and somewhat offensive question by a stranger, “Isn’t it hard to listen to people complain about themselves all day long?” In fact, those who come for therapy are not there to complain but are united by two underlying strengths: the willingness to take responsibility for themselves and the wish to change.

Given the ubiquity of human misery, it’s surprising how few people actually attempt change. But facing change is an act of strength. It requires energy and resources. Psychological change, Freud discovered, requires the courage to overcome defense mechanisms set up to protect us from feared wishes and conflicts.

There’s a misconception that therapy involves a process of “parent-bashing.” On the contrary—while it’s important to understand how your past has influenced you and how you may be holding on to the feelings engendered by those experiences, the key is understanding and taking responsibility for your feelings so that you have more control over your emotional life and can make better decisions.

Freud said that the goal of therapy was to turn neurotic misery into ordinary human unhappiness. What he meant by this dour statement was that we should be free of misery of our own making—the kind of unhappiness that is a trap, that is compulsive, repetitive, and beyond our control. Whether it is a compulsion, a mood disorder, a marital pattern, a sexual practice (one that disturbs us and/or can’t be varied), sometimes neurotic patterns create traps even in otherwise well-functioning lives. Often we employ neurotic “defense mechanisms,” such as denial or displacement, and the situation resolves by itself. For example, a somewhat authoritarian boss may inspire a negative “transference”— feelings of hostility because he reminds you of a particularly negative figure from the past. This could lead to a rocky relationship. You may or may not be able to keep it under control; it depends on your level of insight and self-control.

There are many other reasons why someone might seek out therapy, however. There are developmental issues at all times of life—childhood, adolescence, and many stages of adulthood as well. In fact, many “problems in living” issues that may have formerly been the province of the clergy or the wise old grandmother have now been relegated to mental health professionals. The advantage to this is that the moral stigma and shame once attached to certain issues has lessened, and scientific enlightenment has been brought to bear on some issues—such as homosexuality—that were once misunderstood.

Still, people who walk into a therapist’s office are brave. Not because there’s a stigma attached to it (at least not in New York, where I practice) but because they are willing to reveal themselves to a stranger. They are not complaining. They are willing to say, “I want to look at things I have hidden even from myself.” They are willing to say, “I want to take responsibility for the course of my own life.” They are willing to say, “I want to change things, even if it’s hard. But it’s worth it.” I have tremendous respect for every one of them.


Erikson, Erik. Childhood and Society.


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  • Toni Myers March 9, 2015 at 10:43 pm

    Right on, Patricia! Reassurance is what I get. I see therapy as being in a very safe place in order to make some perceived as unsafe discoveries about one’s life. I never miss Cecelia’s posts. Thanks.

  • Patricia Volin March 5, 2015 at 9:59 am

    Cecelia’s columns always provide reassurance.

  • Andrea March 5, 2015 at 9:56 am

    Thank you Dr Ford on another insightful article about how we can best the best we can be emotionally. That 1st step Is the most important and knowing one can seek help and not try to do it one ones own is so empowering.