Symptoms Have Meaning

We live in a culture that gives us the message that if we are in pain, if we struggle, that there is something fundamentally wrong with us. We are presented, in a thousand ways, with a very “athletic” model of mental health; essentially, that somehow our suffering means that we have not run fast enough, jumped high enough, trained hard enough. That we lack will and motivation. That we do not measure up. No wonder people worry that they are failures or burdens, or that they are defective while other people are happy and successful. No wonder so many of us feel alone and isolated.

In contrast, I believe that suffering is part of being human–that we all have to cope with it, whether we feel it consciously, ignore or numb ourselves to it through addictions, project it outward onto others, or some other combination of strategies. Like the fact that we are all born, and all die, suffering is something we have in common. It can join rather than separate us.

As a psychotherapist, a big part of my job is to work with suffering. I come from the perspective that suffering is normal, but that our relationship to it, or you could say our relationship to our problems, can profoundly change. In other words, it isn’t about just “getting rid of ” difficulties. I agree with Jung that it is more accurate to say we outgrow our biggest problems rather than solve them. Perhaps you could say that our biggest problems don’t really change, but we do, and that makes a significant difference in the quality of our lives.

One important aspect of my approach to psychotherapy is working with you to understand what your symptoms are trying to tell you. It is my experience that symptoms (like depression, anxiety, trouble with relationships, etc, etc.) are meaningful– that they appear when some unrecognized part of us wants and needs attention, wants to be made a conscious part of us.

This may sound kind of strange, so let me say it another way: imagine that you are a river blocked in various places by dams which prevent you from flourishing. The dams were created by the wounds and traumas you have experienced as a way to protect yourself from the possibility of being hurt again. The force of the water pushing up against the dam, trying to break it, stands for the symptom–the painful part that alerts us that the river is blocked.

If it weren’t for the painful symptom, one would never know that the river was blocked and therefore, never have the chance to be freed . A deep understanding of the symptom can tell us where the dam is and what needs to happen in order to restore the overall flow of the river. In this way, our dreaded symptoms may be helpful and important in the same way that the pain receptors in our fingers prevent us from leaving our hand to burn on a hot stove.

When a river flows more freely there is literally more life in it. That is what happens to people, too–when energy is undammed, life can take on a richer, freer and far more meaningful quality. And as life flows more freely and strongly it is as Jung says–our “insoluble problems” lose their urgency.

These symptoms and problems at first can seem entirely negative and our first reaction may be to try to just get rid of them. Who can blame us? But if we explore more deeply, and with care, we often find that the very symptoms/problems we so hated actually carry the seed of our future growth. Our greatest wounds often carry within them our greatest potential.

Working in this way with one’s individual difficulties can ultimately result in more access to one’s individual gifts. To see, accept and understand our symptoms can lead to their, and our, transformation.


A raging glacial stream near Ranwu Lake in Eastern Tibet provides a symbol of a journey to be taken.