A lot of therapy is about sort of stepping back and seeing things – seeing yourself – from a different perspective. Getting out of the weave and the warp of the moment and looking more at the whole fabric of the situation you’re in. Seeing if there’s any repeating motifs or themes that might help you unlock some solutions… or even unlock parts of you.
And the wonderful thing is that you can do this without being in formal therapy.
Don’t get me wrong, traditional therapy is a great way to get the hang of this pattern-spotting business. And it’s incredibly powerful to work with someone who’s got your back and can help you see any blindspots you might have. But once you’ve become a pattern watcher, you can use it anytime you like, to find deeper insights and often deeper healing, too.
So what sort of things might you try to notice? What helps spot the patterns?
Sometimes questions like these are a good place to start:
I was winding my way through the early morning rush hour at the station, past crowds of people blurring by, when this strange little moment of stillness opened up.
And then I saw it: a lost sole.
(In the picture, above).
A visual metaphor, reminding me of the times I’ve felt a bit like a lost soul myself. Or the times I’ve spoken with clients in counselling who felt they’d lost touch with their sense of soul and the things that really mattered to them.
Have you ever felt that way?
Where maybe some part of you was lost?
Maybe covered over by sadness or grief?
Or buried alive under a pile of convention or expectation that you felt you “should” live up to?
Or maybe you just became so busy you gradually lost sight of it?
There are so many ways to lose touch with what really matters in your life – to let the everyday grind take over instead. Or to let habits or old thought patterns get in the way.
Sometimes it’s important to take a step back and reconnect with yourself. To remind yourself of what you want this life of yours to be all about. To find yourself again.
But how might you do that?
I was walking in the park this morning. Past the hundreds of thousands of millions of leaves, all applauding each other in the wind.
Which one of them isn’t perfect?
Which leaf hasn’t “lived up to its potential”?
Which has “fallen short”?
They seem like slightly ridiculous questions. (And yet, are there times that you ask them of yourself?)
In light of all of these leaves, the idea of “perfection” seems suddenly a bit lifeless and arbitrary next to the endless, vibrant variations dripping from the boughs.
It was on this same trip to work the other day, walking a different way, seeing different things, that I spotted this sign:
“FEED YOUR MIND.”
And it led me to wondering… What are you feeding your mind?
Are you nourishing it?
Or mindlessly stuffing some junk in for a quick bit of rush?
What are you putting in there?
(And what are you hoping to get back out of it?)
In his book, “Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life,” world renown Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes about mindful consumption. Not just of food. But of everything you ingest: television, conversations, images, thoughts.
So, if you were to look at the typical “diet” you feed your mind, what might you find?
Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like an outsider. Like you don’t quite fit in.
Maybe you’re carrying a certain sadness that sets you apart from the places that other people seem to inhabit right now. Or maybe you doubt your worth or your ability to contribute sometimes. Maybe you just feel “different.” Or even “weird.” Or that your values or the way you want to live your life aren’t quite what society currently sees as “normal.”
Feeling a bit out of step with the people around you – your family or work colleagues or friends – is often tough. One theory suggests there are two opposing “life forces” we balance inside ourselves: the “force of individuality” and the “force of togetherness.” Individuality is about our uniqueness, while togetherness is thought to heighten our sense of safety and survival in a group.
So it can be tempting trade self for safety sometimes. To hide your points of difference and gloss over them. To keep the surface calm so that no-one else’s boat is rocked. To muffle the parts of you that would sing a different tune. To shrink yourself to make the anxiety smaller, too. (All of which usually just means that you get to keep all the dissonance inside you, instead of sharing it around).
What if there was another way?
I have a love-hate relationship with one of the major therapies endorsed by psychology today: cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Both as a therapist, and as a client, I know it can work. It can bring fast relief in acute times. So it’s a good thing to have in your inner toolbox when you’re working with the challenges life can throw you.
In a (very small) nutshell, CBT asks you to question your thoughts, and the beliefs that underpin them. It asks you to have another look at the way you’ve got things set up in your mind. To see if the conclusions that it’s so easy to jump to in the heat of the moment are actually even real or right. To renovate the interior of your inner-most home. And it has a few user-friendly formulas to do it with.
Which all sounds great, right?
But something about CBT also irritates me. Because it seems a bit patronising, sometimes, to be sort of “taught” to “un-think” or un-learn your so-called “negative thoughts.” To sort of shuffle things around in your skull to just think a little differently.
Sometimes that seems a bit fake. A bit try-hard. A bit rose-tinted glasses goody-two-shoes to suggest that there are “right ways” and “wrong” ways to think.
But then I have to remind myself that there’s also a whole lot more to CBT than just hoodwinking yourself with word games and tricky thinking. For at another level, this seemingly formulaic therapy can also reflect elements of much deeper, much older wisdoms such as:
“You are not your thoughts”
(which I once heard spoken by a Buddhist monk on the radio).
What do you think about that idea?
You are not a machine.
You’re mortal. Organic. You don’t come in a shape that will always easily slot into all the timetables and schedules and systems that beckon.
That’s probably no surprise. (And yet how many demands do you put on yourself sometimes?)
So there might be times when you can’t “keep on keeping on,” or where maybe you don’t always have the energy to “push on through.” Where it’s not always so easy to “just do it.”
Times, instead, where you might need to rest.
Respect the boundaries of your humanness – perfectly imperfect just as it is – and simply restore the balance a little. To stop treating yourself like the machine that you’re not…
I had a set of spare keys cut yesterday, so I can store them at a friend’s place in case I lock myself out. And it got me thinking…
What about the keys to your internal spaces?
The keys to your thoughts, your dreams? Your ups your downs? Your emotional and psychological home. How many people in your life have access to the inner sanctum of you? Who’s got keys?
It’s worth having a look at this every now and then, to assess if your levels of security or accessibility have changed or need updating. To find out if more – or perhaps less – people have access to you than you might have thought (or that you might hope for).
All of this points to the idea of boundaries. About psychological safety and connection with others. Of striking a balance between being locked away in an isolated tower of ‘safety’ alone, or being completely enmeshed where you’re sort of ‘access all areas’ for everyone that happens along.
There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer for this stuff. It’s just about finding out what’s right for you. For now.
So let’s take a moment just now to ponder…
Storytelling seems to be written so deeply into us. We’ve done it for millennia, to capture knowledge and wisdom and heart. Yet stories aren’t only verbal. They’re visceral, too. They’re the lived-out stories of our days.
So what kind of story are you telling with your life?
Where might the story of you be headed right now?
(And is that where you’d like it to go?)
When you pull back from the minutiae and dialogue of the everyday, what themes seem to emerge off your pages? Are there patterns re-visited across time?
And as the author of this particular story, this particular life, what does all of that mean for you?
Let’s delve into the pages for a moment.
That’s what this sticker on an alleyway wall in my local neighbourhood is on about (in the photo, above).
It sounds like a pretty good proposition… No emotional meltdowns, no relationship dramas, no self-sabotage, no “failure.”
But is it too optimistic? A bit utopian, even? Something to strive for, maybe, but not completely attainable?
Well, a branch of family systems therapy thinks not.
In fact, from it’s perspective:
“the problem is the solution”
So what does this actually mean?