Part II: Complexity, Paradox, & Tension

[Part II: Complexity, Paradox, & Tension continues with series of articles that I hope to do provide over the next few months, discussing the various themes that emerge in a therapeutic setting that entails working within an existential framework.]


Complexity, Paradox, & Tension continues a discussion I began last month, (10/14/15), that explored and commented on the many dilemmas we face in our day-to-day living. In that first article, I delineated a few of the dilemmas we might encounter. Many times, it is these very dilemmas that bring clients into therapy, or more accurately, the dilemmas may be behind the problems that clients bring to a therapeutic setting. The second part of this discussion looks at what it may entail to work with clients (and ourselves) who struggle with various tensions that make up existence. Obviously, there are many more complexities and paradoxes we encounter than the few listed and discussed in Part I of this series. As explored last month, life appears to involve a navigation between the various poles of the paradoxes and tensions that make up life’s strugglesWe want to resolve them because they produce various levels of anxiety within us. We want to come to grips with them so we can feel to be on solid ground; yet, if we settle on one pole of these tensions at the negation of the other pole, we can find ourselves feeling imbalanced, out of kilter, and not as on solid ground as we had hoped for.

Working with Clients

The upshot of all this discussion about complexities, paradoxes, and tensions is that psychotherapy, many times, involves working with clients simply to help them live with the tensions of existence, rather than seeking to resolve them too quickly. I believe that if we, as therapists, do not look into how we, ourselves, face such tensions, and how we might have gained some insight in doing so, we have little to offer our clients. Just like us, our clients want the tensions resolved so as to alleviate question marks and anxiety that surround or emanate from them. We all want quick fixes to the dilemmas that make up life. It is not easy to reach that place where we simply recognize and embrace the reality that quick fixes and simple answers are not forthcoming for many of our struggles, especially with those things in life that are most important to us. Having to live with tensions, rather than getting rid of them, is not necessarily a welcomed perspective on living. Yet doing so – embracing the necessity of doing so – can lead to a deeper understanding of how to navigate life, as well as a fuller understanding of ourselves. We will come to learn about ourselves through our struggles with the dilemmas of existence. Learning to ride out and go through longer resolutions to problems can teach us a lot about ourselves.

Consequently, there are no simple formulas or patented techniques to work with clients who are facing the tensions inherent in existence. In the environments of professional counseling we hear phrases all the time, such as: being with clients as they wrestle with their problems, sitting with clients through their struggles, providing a place for clients to face their dilemmas. Such phrases can sound, and actually be voiced in ways that are trite; but they need to be more than mere bromides. No doubt, we all want someone to provide us with an answer when we’re facing major difficulties in life. The answer may very well be – we simply have to ride them out. I’m not saying at all that we can’t help clients solve some particular problems they face, or suggest ways to deal with specific situations in which they may find themselves. Paradoxes, however, that involve such experiences as wanting certainty in the face of the unknown, coming to grips with a solid sense of who we are while also recognizing that we are constantly changing, or trying to garner meaning out of experiences that seem or feel meaningless – these struggles lend themselves to no formulaic approach, but instead call on us to recognize that they are a part of our existence with which we have to deal. And they tend to be the struggles through which we can learn a great deal about ourselves and others.

Action versus Contemplation

Life is always about growth, never being totally settled. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t find a place and a time where we can rest from the daily pressures that life brings our way. But restoration gears us up for the continuing struggles that life throws at us. The notion of life involving continuous struggles generates yet another tension: action (taking on the struggle so as to resolve it) versus contemplation (stepping back, slowing down, letting things be, taking time for reflection). Personally, this is a hard tension for me to navigate. How do we take on the struggles of life – fight – while at the same time recognizing that there are times to take things in stride, letting them be as they are for the moment. Camping on one pole of this polarity can lead to a harried, constantly keyed-up take on living, while camping on the other pole can become an excuse for acquiescence. Most of us would probably agree that we desire neither a harried way of living or a giving-in or giving-up to the struggle to create the kind of life we want for ourselves. Navigating the tension to face the struggle while living with the results of our efforts is a navigation with which we must deal and work out so as to find our peace, even in the midst of the storm. It appears that somewhere in the tension between these poles is where personal understanding and growth take place.


I do not deny that therapy entails helping clients problem-solve specific concerns, work through phobias, deal with problematic relationships, and struggle with certain symptoms they experience. I believe, however, that even these experiences speak to something that entails a bigger picture in living. And I believe with firm conviction that the richer work of therapy can involve working with people to help them find a way to face the paradoxes inherent in life so as to find deeper meaning for themselves. I believe that if we simply rely on throwing techniques and pills at people, we do them a disservice. The tendency to oversimplify life is a strong one because pat-answers are attractive and seductive. They are the seductions and power that produce all kinds of gurus. It’s much less sexy to say that life is composed of dilemmas we face, and there are necessarily no simple answers in facing them. Life is a struggle at times. Embrace those times when it is not, enjoy them, for we rarely know what the morning brings.

Although it’s not easy at times, I likewise deeply believe that living a meaningful, fulfilling, and enriching life is possible.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/November 14, 2015