Happy Sisyphus - a metaphor for therapy
Updated: Oct 26, 2021
'I've never met a strong person with an easy past'. (Atticus)
Have you ever had that feeling of everything being an uphill struggle?
The image of Sisyphus (an ancient Greek king punished by the Gods) carrying a boulder up a mountain, only for it to roll back down again, reminds us of the futility of the human condition.
But if Sisyphus is destined to struggle, how can he keep going? How can he be happy?
What if I told you that your burden can become your strength? Instead of being an instrument of destruction, it can become a tool for growth and transformation.
Growing through adversity
When we heal a broken bone, we must put pressure back on it, and go through the pain that comes with that, in order to stimulate growth and healing of the bone. In a similar way, adversity can become an opportunity for growth.
We talk about the concept of growth through adversity when we use phrases like 'no pain, no gain' and 'what doesn't kill me, makes me stronger'. This intrinsic wisdom is backed up by scientific research into Post-Traumatic Growth. Following adverse experiences (such as an accident or a loss), we are forced to re-evaluate our perspective on ourselves, the world and our relationships. This in turn can lead to greater authenticity in the way we live our life. This process is no mean feat however.
Anxiety, depression and stress can lead to isolation and a feeling that we are somehow 'broken' or 'weak'. We may feel like we are condemned to this existence forever (just like Sisyphus). Or perhaps we are waiting for something outside of us to make things better.
My message to you is that you have the power within yourself to take action now! Everyone needs support at times, and a counsellor can be a caring, accepting, professional ally who can safely accompany you on your journey to a better life.
Happy Sisyphus and the therapeutic process
Years ago, when I was in a dark place, I was inspired by Albert Camus' idea that Sisyphus is happy. It's the idea that no matter how much has been taken from us or how many bad hands life deals us, we may still make meaning out of it, we may still access our inner resilience. We don't have to be defined by our past! We don't have to carry the labels that have been given to us, or the guilt and shame that were instilled in us!
But first Sisyphus had to take responsibility for his past, he had to come to terms with his experiences before being free to choose a new attitude towards his life.
This is why I use 'Happy Sisyphus' as a metaphor for the therapeutic process. The boulder represents that which we carry around every day, pulling us down (anxiety, stress, loss, shame, guilt, regret, etc.) If we carry this boulder without resolving its contents, it continues to feel crushing and punishing. But if we get to know it better, we will find it becomes lighter and it allows us to thrive rather than just survive.
'Yes', I hear you say, 'but we all carry things around all the time'. We bottle things up'. This is very true! It is a normal defence mechanism because sometimes we just need to get on with our lives, we have responsibilities, other people to look after. However, this defence mechanism only works for a time. Every once in a while it is necessary for our mental health that we pause and reflect.
Sadly, sometimes we learn the value of this process the hard way - such as when we experience a loss or an accident. Sooner or later we must take time to look at all those things weighing us down, so that they don't become too heavy and stop us in our tracks.
Granted, this process requires courage! Camus invites us to 'imagine Sisyphus happy'. Sisyphus has such spirit that he turns his punishment into his reward. Not even the Gods can tell Sisyphus who he is and how to live his life. He has the courage to be happy.
I am here to tell you that we all have this fighting spirit, an essence that cannot be broken, an immense capacity for resilience and growth despite the harshest of environments.
Hardship can act as a reminder to enjoy and appreciate life. Happy Sisyphus remains engaged in his life fully. He is a symbol of defiance in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.
Have you ever felt stronger after overcoming a crisis?
I would love to hear your thoughts on this blog post and if/ how it may resonate with you.
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