Seven Lessons for Making a Meaningful Life: A Therapist’s Guide

Seven Lessons for Making a Meaningful Life: A Therapist’s Guide

by Andrew Marshall
A therapist shares his quest to define a “meaningful life” and insights that therapists can use to improve their clinical efficacy and help clients live richer lives.
Filed Under: Psychodynamic


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what makes your life meaningful?
What makes your life meaningful? It is a question that I first asked myself in my late thirties after my partner died, and all the way through the difficult mid-life years in my forties and early fifties. I have also put the same question to over 130 other therapists, academics, and advocates for better mental health on my weekly podcast.

What I never expected was how fruitful the question would be for my own personal development or how asking it to other therapists would change my life. So, what are the seven things I have learned from other therapists that I wish I’d known years ago? And how have they changed how I look at myself, how I deal with my own problems, and how I work with my clients?

The First Four Important Lessons for a Meaningful Life

1. Therapists need therapy so much that they turn it into their profession, and in this way, can be in it full time.

perhaps we should pay our clients for everything we learn from them
When I interviewed the psychotherapist, Terry Real (the founder of an approach called Relational Life Therapy), he joked that, “therapists need therapy so much that we turn it into our profession so that we can be in therapy all the time.” We laughed but it is true. I came from a family where no one ever talked about emotions. Now, I talk about them all day with my clients and in my spare time started a podcast where I speak about, guess what, feelings! “Perhaps we should pay our clients for everything we learn from them,” Terry added.

2. Your earliest childhood memory is the key to the work.

Galit Atlas is a psychoanalyst, faculty member of the New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, and author of “Emotional Inheritance.” One of her techniques is to unpack the first memory of her clients. I have yet to use the technique with a client, but I took it to my own psychoanalysis.

I have two memories from the same day. The first one is coming into my parents’ room on Christmas morning but finding that my mother was not there. My father reminded me that she had gone to hospital to collect my baby sister. I would have, therefore, been two and three-quarters years old. Later in the day, my mother came back from hospital, and I remember going to her bedroom, wanting to show her all my presents but she was too tired and turned her back to me.

So, both memories were about her being unavailable — which was a surprise because my mother was always there. I would come home for lunch from school (and so would my father) and she tried to be there when my sister and I got home, but the memories spoke to how I got my physical needs met but not my emotional ones.

a few months after taking my first memory to my analyst, I had a healing dream about my mother’s return
A few months after taking my first memory to my analyst, I had a healing dream about my mother’s return from the hospital, but this time she pulled back the covers and invited me into bed for a cuddle.

3. Don’t take things so personally.

My witness on “The Meaningful Life” was Olivier Clerc, founder of an international programme called Circles of Forgiveness. His journey started when he translated Don Miquel Ruiz’s book “The Four Agreements.” These include the advice: Don’t take things personally.

Unfortunately, because we are at the centre of our own lives, we imagine that the actions of other people are all about us. In reality, we are often just collateral damage. Clerc got me thinking because he flew from France to Mexico to do one of Ruiz’s workshops because he wanted to meet someone who did not take things personally. I have spent a lot of time since the interview meditating on what it would be like to meet someone like that or to be like that myself. It would certainly make forgiveness easier.

I have started using one of Clerc’s forgiveness rituals. I ask my clients to look into each other’s eyes and repeat after me four sentences: “I’m sorry.” “Please forgive me.” “I love you.” “Thank you.” I have been surprised by how powerful this simple ceremony is — nearly every time one or both clients have cried. Secondly, it is not important as I imagined specifying what you are sorry about.

4. Understand your navigation principle.

When you have a difficult decision to make, how do you make your mind up? Matthew McKay, who is a clinical psychologist, couples therapist, and professor of psychology at the Wright Institute, talks about “Navigation Principles.” The most common ways of deciding “what next” include avoiding pain; going for power, control, or wealth; choosing the safe option or what other people want.

some people try to be rational. most of my clients have no idea what their navigation principle might be
Some people try to be rational. Most of my clients have no idea what their navigation principle might be, but with a little delving, come up with answers that speak to their core beliefs. For example: growth, love, and curiosity. It helps them have confidence in their choices and when facing a blank page to know in what direction to head.

How to Mine the Unconscious Mind

5. I can ask my unconscious a question.

I can’t remember my training as a marital therapist covering the unconscious — beyond in passing. It was more focused on the argument between the couple on the couch in front of me, making certain both parties were heard, and helping negotiate change. So, the unconscious remained a shadowy presence, I never really thought I could ask mine a question until two different guests came up with two radically different techniques.

Machiel Klerk is a licensed mental health therapist, founder of the Jung Platform, and the author of “Dream Guidance: Connecting to the Soul through Dream Incubation.” Instead of waiting for a dream that might shed light on a current dilemma, he suggested putting a specific question to your dreams before going to sleep.

Meanwhile, William Pullen, a London-based psychotherapist, suggested asking my jog (or in my case the brisk morning dog walk) for advice when I was stuck or directionless. With both techniques, the conscious mind is off-line, and the unconscious has time to work on the underlying dilemmas. I have put together four steps from their advice and my own experiences to pose to clients:

Ask open ended questions. These start with who, why, what, where, and when. For example: what might be the consequence of putting all my money into buying this apartment? Rather than a leading question, would it be a mistake to buy this apartment?

Ask one question at a time. It sounds obvious because you don’t know which one your unconscious is answering, but this is something that I have to stop my clients doing with each other all the time. Another trap, according to Machiel, is asking a plural question for example, about “limiting beliefs.” A better option would be, “what belief is limiting me the most at the moment?”

Split big questions into smaller ones. With big questions like health issues, job changes, and finding love, it is better to start with diagnostic questions and then ask about steps along the way.

Look out for answers from other places. Once you have started meditating on a well-formulated question, there are others ways beyond dreams and exercise through which your unconscious can speak to you. There is synchronicity (meaningful coincidences) and one that works for me: certain sentences in a book I’m reading or a podcast that I’m listening to seem to light up or trigger a small click in my brain. Sometimes, they don’t always make immediate sense — a bit like a dream — but I write them down and look at them. More times than not, they are a response to my question.

Being Brave Opens the Door to Insight and Change

6. Be bolder.

it is easy to get stuck in a groove with clients
It is easy to get stuck in a groove with clients, using the tools that have been proven to work and not questioning your underlying beliefs. But listening to how other people work has made me think about my own practice. I will give two examples.

Back to Terry Real who highlighted failing strategies that couples use to resolve disputes. These include, “I’m right and you’re wrong.” Neither Terry nor I have ever had a couple where one partner stopped a fight and said, “You know what, I’m wrong about this.” (If they feel they are losing, they just throw in some other dispute where they might have a stronger case.) While I have allowed couples to continue an “I’m right and you’re wrong” dispute — in the hope of finding a breakthrough into a third way — Terry just calls the game out straight away and saves lots of time. I immediately thought, “I’m fed up too.” I need to be braver and speak up.

The second guest who encouraged me to be bolder was Avrum Weiss, a psychotherapist and author of “Hidden in Plain Sight: How men’s fear of women shape their intimate relationships.” When Weiss’ male clients talked about their relationship problems, he was surprised not only to discover they had not told their wives about their grievances but gave him a look that suggested he was crazy to even to suggest it.

“You don’t casually suggest to another woman that he’s afraid of a woman,” he told me. “But each time I did, I got the same response. They would get defensive, but very quickly I would see the idea go across their face and they would say how that made a lot of sense.”

When I thought about my own experiences in the therapy room, I have spent 35 years seeing couples. I have often seen the dynamic where the man would go to extraordinary lengths to avoid his wife’s anger, but I had never had the courage to call it out. But since meeting Weiss, I had been bolder and helped several men understand their fear of being controlled by their wife and why they need her so much.

Between Trigger and Reaction Lies Choice

7. Mine the golden gap.

When an idea comes up from multiple guests, it must be good. In a nutshell, the idea is that we have automatic reactions to conflict or adversity — normally learned as a child (which sort of worked). For example, we will shut down, go on the attack, people please, get defensive, distract ourselves. The list is endless. We don’t consciously choose this reaction; it is like a whistle goes off and before we know it the train has left the station. We are stuck in the same reflex action and there is no going back. As I say to my clients, when the train has left the platform, have you ever seen it reversing back?

as I say to my clients, when the train has left the platform, have you ever seen it reversing back?
So the golden gap is the moment between trigger and reaction. With practice, you can stretch the gap. “Take a deep breath. Where is the feeling? What is it? Please name it.” At this point, the gap has become large enough to make a choice — and therefore has turned golden. Yes, you might want to do the same old actions, but you know where that ends. What might your well-adjusted adult self (rather than your frightened child state) decide to do? How can you experiment and break the old patterns?


These days, and perhaps most influential among the seven lessons is the golden gap technique which I use with all my clients. The feedback is that this is one of the tools which brings the greatest reward for their relationship. I am currently working on using it in my own relationship too.

Andrew Marshall Andrew G. Marshall, BA, trained with RELATE, the UK’s largest counselling charity. He is the author of 20 books including the international best-sellers “I Love You but I’m Not in Love with You,” and “How Can I Ever Trust You Again?” He is the host of the podcast” The Meaningful Life with Andrew G. Marshall.” He is based in Berlin but leads a team of English-speaking therapists. Andrew is a member of COSRT (College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists), and you can find him at