December 30, 2016
“Nothing is wrong with me.” How does it make you feel to say that? Incredulous to say the least? You feel like it’s more accurate to think that “Nothing is right with me?” Well, thousands of years of human experience begs to differ.
But first, let’s go to the movies. Take your pick. Comedy, drama, romance, ZomRomComDram (Zombie Romantic Comedy Drama), etc. The point is to snuggle into your seat with a buttery tub of popcorn and your favorite drink. The anticipation builds. The lights go down. The movie goes up and you are… transported.
You eat the popcorn but don’t taste it. You sip your soda, but aren’t aware of it. Why? Because you are no longer in the theatre. You are in the spaceship or running from dinosaurs or eavesdropping on a secret conversation with the queen. Needless to say, your body may be scarfing popcorn, but it’s on autopilot.
Until something happens. The guy in front of you starts playing Candy Crush on his phone. The couple next to you starts making out. The soda spills in your lap. Whatever. Point is you are no longer IN the movie. However, you might just be able to settle down and get back into the it if you’re lucky. Even so, you never actually think that you are a character in the movie and that you can actually affect the outcome of it… hopefully..
But the dynamic of watching a movie entails part of your brain being caught up in the movie while another part of your brain realizes that you are actually in a chair watching a movie but knowing that you aren’t really a part of the movie itself. Part of you knows that it is a completed piece of work and will proceed of its own accord regardless of your efforts to the contrary.
And so it is with your thoughts and emotions. The modern human brain is generally wired to conflate and confuse the fact that their thoughts, emotions, consciousness and psyche are all one and the same. Metaphorically speaking however, this is roughly the same as thinking that you are part of that movie and that you can interact with the characters in it to affect the outcome.
Simply put, and you can probably attest to this fact, thoughts and emotions pretty much have a life of their own and there’s very little you can do to change them. When we obsessively try to do so, however, we start getting into trouble.
And so we return to our original premise of there not being anything wrong with you. It’s not so much that there’s nothing wrong with you, but that there might be something dysfunctional about how you are thinking instead. When we superglue all of our thoughts and emotions and self-esteem and ego together in one big ball of pain, it’s understandable to see how we would think that something is wrong with us when it’s really just something wrong with how we’re going about this.
The cure? Mindful awareness of our emotions. The more we are aware of how our mind is mixing all this stuff up together, the more capable we will be at pulling it apart. What are two of the main things you need to start elevating your level of mindful awareness? Curiosity and courage.
Courage is needed to start. It’s like never having worked out in your life and then going into a gym for the first time to sign up with a trainer. It is dependent on a high level of motivation for change just like going into a gym to get into shape would be. It is also dependent on a high-level of patience because, just like the gym, you’re not going to expect to be running a marathon after working out 10 or 20 times. No, you have a more realistic expectation than that. You know that if you want to run a marathon and you are 100 pounds overweight, that this is going to be a long-term project.
Thus it is with developing mindful, emotional awareness muscles as well. It is a long-term project that takes a high level of courage and motivation. It is not a quick fix. It is not the result of reading a self-help book. It is something that takes a lot of work. However, it is also very possible to make progress. Steady, continual progress. So you might not be running a marathon anytime soon, but you might finally get up the gumption to enter your local 5K fun run instead. That's a big victory and it is possible to achieve the same mental and emotional victories as well, through emotional awareness.
The second thing needed for this progress is curiosity. That is the magic pixie dust that will help you to unearth what is going on with yourself. Without curiosity, there is not much progress. But if you can learn to engender a certain amount of clinical curiosity about what is going on with you in real-time, at that moment, then you can start getting all CSI on your emotions. Thus being able to ask yourself in the moment, “why am I overreacting to this situation?” or “why am I getting so anxious or depressed in this moment?” Then real, steady progress can be made.
How to get better and better at that and how to remove the obstacles which are preventing you from doing so, are the goals of good therapy. It is the essence of what I go through with all my clients every day, and I have lost count of how many times I have seen it work magic in peoples’ lives.
Unfortunately, we live in a society that is hooked on instant gratification and we have transferred that unrealistic expectation to improving our mental and emotional health as well, but of course it is a fantasy. Sometimes we feel that if we can just watch the right talkshow, read the right book, or pop the right pill, that it will somehow throw a switch in us that will suddenly make us healthy. And while these sources are all good, expecting them to do that much work for you as well is just not going to happen. You are the one who needs to do the work – just as back and that fancy gym you go to, you can have $1 million worth of the latest and greatest exercise equipment but you are still the one who needs to sweat on it. The machines are just tools, they cannot do the work for you.
That’s when a very small percentage of people finally got fed up enough with their struggles to seek help and to finally admit that they are ready to put in some hard work to change the momentum of decades of their lives through therapy and/or courageous emotional introspection instead. As I said, I have seen it work countless times with my clients, with colleagues’ clients, and hardly ever with some quick fix.
So my wish for you is to remember that you need courage, curiosity, and patience. It is to hope that you will remember that you are not actually your thoughts and feelings but that your thoughts and feelings are mere products of your mind and you don’t need to interact with them. Instead, you can start to develop the skill of witnessing your thoughts and feelings like you would witness a movie in the theater-- without thinking that you can get in there and change their narrative. It’s a whole new way of thinking but also an ancient way of thinking that always does the trick -- if you are game.
Next time? Unconditional positive regard and how it is as important as breathing.
Written by 7 Cups Therapist, Matthew Peterson, LPC, NCC