Erickson: Is contentedness unhealthy?

The following opinions expressed by Scott M. Erickson are his own and do not officially represent the views of the American Counseling Association or the Wyoming Mental Health Professions Licensing Board. The expression of these opinions does not constitute a real or implied counselor-client relationship.

When setting goals with clients in therapy, sometimes I hear people express that the thing they want most in their lives is to be content. Though balanced contentedness is certainly an important part of overall well-being, pining for contentedness as our only goal can have some distressing unintended consequences.

Perhaps you have heard yourself describe a character trait that at its best isn’t very skillful and then summed up the description with something like, “That’s just the way I am,” or “That’s just me.” Masked in a disguise of self-acceptance and confidence in our own skin, we sometimes excuse our faults and communicate to others that we are somehow above reproach because we have come to embrace the entirety of our choices. We inappropriately salve our consciences with the ointment of myopic self-assurance and rigidly expect others to come to the same conclusion we have: we are a finely finished product and our unskillful behavior is to be either overlooked or even appreciated by ourselves and everyone else around us.

Accepting things about ourselves that can and should be changed is the very definition of vanity and pride, and it almost always comes before a fall. I have written before about the important role guilt plays in our lives. Our most effective and adaptive response to guilt includes increased introspection and a willingness to do better, try harder, and be more motivated to change. Ignoring or burying guilt tends to quiet and, over time, silence this very important companion that serves as dignified teacher, beckoning us to empower and become our best selves.

It is important not to misunderstand this principle: we have organic and biological predispositions and body/brain chemistry that need to be acknowledged, understood, and managed. I also wish to discourage emotional self-flagellation attempting to force ourselves to change. Running a balance of tuning in to guilt without allowing it to transition into shame is a skill that takes awareness and intentional practice over time to develop.

Scott M. Erickson is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Kemmerer who has provided counseling services in southwest Wyoming for the last eleven years. Erickson’s mission is to “be a dynamic catalyst helping you to empower your best self.” He can be reached at his website or his Facebook page: Erickson Counseling & Coaching LLC.

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