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Tuesday 18 November 2014

Looking from the Outside In

by Stephen B.Chadwick, MA Counselling Psychology.

Often when you`re stuck in the middle of a problem, especially an emotional problem, conflict or crisis it can be extremely difficult, if not next to impossible, to get any kind of perspective on your own personal situation and what you youself might be grappling with.

Self-questioning, self-doubt can come up and the "gift" or "benefit" of having some empathy for yourself or self-forgiveness or just  "cutting yourself some slack" becomes crucial to healthy, psychological functioning.

In fact, this post could well have been called: D.I.Y. "How to cut yourself some slack"!

Now, when I talk about "cutting yourself some slack", I am not talking about climbing down the side of a mountain -- "rapelling"  
 I think it is called -- where you go sliding down the side of a mountain, while loosening  the tension on the ropes while you descend the cliff. Nor am I talking about being a "slacker" or couch potato, where you vegetate in front of the T.V. or the Xbox or whatever in some version of extreme escapism like the ultimate antidote or counter to extreme sports.

Both of these images do bring up analogies or metaphors for relaxing, certainly: loosening the tension, decompressing, etc., etc.

"Normalizing" describes making common or ordinary, what you feel to be uncommon or extraordinary.

But what I am talking about is relief or release from inner psychological tension, where a problem, conflict or crisis has been plaguing you for a while.

You may wonder to yourself -- "Am I normal?", "Is this situation I am in normal?" So, this Alice-through-the-Looking-Glass exercise which I will present to you here may help you to get a perspective on your situation. Trying to get a perspective on what is and what isn't common or normal is called "normalizing". It's kind of like when you see a buddy or a friend, you confess something to them that happened to you and then you ask them: "Has this ever happened to you?" And then they usually (although not always) answer "yes". Normalizing describes making common or ordinary, what you feel to be uncommon or extraordinary, and thereby diminish the impact of the  negative experience.

So, let's start off with an example first to illustrate what I mean and then hopefully the explanation and lingo will be easier to follow.

So, John* is a 35 year-old recently widowed (within the last 2 years) father of three children between the ages of 8 and 13. He has 2 young boys and the eldest, a girl. Since his wife's death, he works two jobs in order to make ends meet. He comes to see someone like myself, a psychotherapist, saying he is stressed.

When his own widowed mother or younger, single brother come to visit, which is infrequent -- his mom and brother live in another province/state -- they help him out but also make quiet, cutting remarks.

John states he is stressed out because:
  1. He "feels he should be making more money".
  2. He "feels like an awful father" because he cannot afford to spend more time with his children.
  3. He would like to get a girlfriend, but is afraid and is really still grieving the loss of his wife. Oh! and the last girlfriend he did have, (he thinks) his children drove away.
His mom and brother add to the mix, because they tell him: " he could (and should) be doing better". But this is exactly the problem. He can't.

Just Get Over it! -- Not!

Now, dear friends in reading John's story it is clear that he is really overburdened. By speaking to John or doing counselling or psychotherapy with John, one can help him to normalize his situation and realize just exactly the gargantuan tasks that he is up against. The fact that his mom and brother tell him he should be over it, doesn't help. In fact, it hinders. Why? See my earlier post on "just getting over it!"

It's plain to see that John cannot see objectively (as much as one can be objective about oneself),  that he is in a tough situation. However, John thinks, or is led to believe, that he "should be doing better".

Were John to see his situation the way we see it, he would of course cut himself some slack. But as I talked about in my post about identification, he doesn't see himself that way and, far worse, if his mom and brother are making subtle, cold cutting remarks, there is a possibility that he could fall into the trap of being an identified patient or in common parlance : "the one with all the problems".

As we all know from the recent suicide of Robin Williams, the public, external  perception of who we are (or who people think we are or how we are doing) may or may not match our internal reality.

This is also precisely why we have transgendered people: because the inside doesn't match the outside. It is how people feel internally, which determines how they identify.

We might not be able to have chocolate cake all the time, but if we know why, it makes it easier to live without it.

Statues depicting "Omphaloskepsis"
Now in order to get a relatively objective perspective on yourself is difficult. On the contrary, most people are usually guilty of "omphaloskepsis".... otherwise know as good, old-fashioned navel-gazing.

A Johari square,(named after Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham, hence, JoHari)  ( illustrates visually just how difficult this is . There are four domains or areas in this square which intersect:
i)known to myself; ii) unknown to myself; iii)known to others; iv) unknown to others.

In such a Johari square, there are always areas that are unknown both to ourselves and to others. About this area of the square we have no conscious way to access. But! With regards to the area known to others but not ourselves, we can.... simply by asking for trusted feedback.

In the case of John, we, the others, consciously know and see what he is struggling with. Should John's awareness grow about his situation, he would readily see how difficult his situation is and although it might not make his situation easier: lonely, overworked, widowed single father of three, it might make his situation at least understandable and normalize it and maybe then it might even become bearable.

We might not be able to have chocolate cake, all the time but if we know why, it makes it easier to live without it.

So, having said all this and having seen an example of how people can distort their situation and feel worse about it, how do you normalize your situation, gain perspective and cut yourself some slack?

Simple. Rewrite your story.
I can "hear" the blank stares already. What on earth does Steve mean when he says "rewrite your story"?
So, I do not mean for you to rewrite your personal story with a happy ending. Although if that works for you and puts you into a better, more empowered emotional space, go ahead.
What I am talking about is to "rewrite" your story as if you were an observer or journalist looking at the situation from the outside in. So, in the case of John, in order to get him to realize just how tough his situation  was and perhaps just how insensitive his mom and brother were, I would ask him to literally rewrite his story.
This time "John" would now be "James" or "Jeff" or "Joseph" or even "Joanna" or "Jenny". This fictitious James would live in another city  and would still be a young widower or widow, but would now be raising 2 young girls and an eldest son. And "James" or "Jenny" would have a widowed father and an older sister, rather than a mother and a younger, single brother .
You see, by shifting the variables and the elements in the "story". eg. changing gender, location, name, even age (young for old, etc.), which has the same narrative, John may be able to see with a little more clarity, insight and perspective the problems he is currently dealing with. It's like putting a shoe on the other foot. Would John give himself more slack, more patience, more empathy, more understanding if he read his story through the eyes of "Jenny" or "James"? Likely.
So, if you, dear friends are dealing with a problem and are struggling, rewrite the story as if you were an outsider looking in. It doesn't have to be long. A paragraph (or two) may suffice, but you may find the shift in perspective enough to change how you view your situation.
Take Care,

* John is a fictitious, composite character and is not meant to identify any one particular person, living or dead.

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