Our culture today revolves around action and progress. Technology and industry are growing rapidly and changing our world along with them. It seems as if everyone is trying to get somewhere else, be someone else, achieve something else. We value progress…in our world, in ourselves and in others. Yet, this leaves little room for acceptance and perhaps, contentedness.
Few people seem to be content with who they are in this moment, where they are and what they have. They act as if they are deficient. Not enough.
I see this every week in my office. People who feel they aren’t smart enough, talented enough, loved enough, worthy enough. People who feel their partners or children aren’t behaved enough, attentive enough, etc. Yet, what they are really telling me is that they don’t want to feel stupid, dull, or rejected. They don’t want their partners and children to be naughty, selfish or clueless. And the list of “defects” that we don’t want ourselves or others to be can go on and on. How scary. How daunting. How exhausting!
These “defects” that we desperately try to ignore can plague us. They can make us feel vulnerable, guilty, bad and abnormal. Yet, if all of us experience these shadows, doesn’t that make us …well, normal?
Carl Jung wrote extensively about our “shadow” side. Jung believed that the shadow consisted of all of those thoughts, feelings, behaviors and desires that we try to ignore or push away. They are the parts of ourselves that we think are bad or unacceptable. Some of us go to great lengths to disassociate ourselves with the shadow. Yet, what is pushed down, Jung said, will come up eventually.
This process is highlighted in the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Dr. Jekyll was a kind and loving doctor who found a way to transform himself into an opposite personality, Mr. Hyde, who was entirely without a moral compass. Dr. Jekyll was then leading a double life. One side of him was empathetic and ethical and the other murdered and manipulated.
Jung implied that we are all like Dr. Jekyll. We all have desires, urges, thoughts and instincts that we repress and detest even though we may not act on them. In Jung’s opinion, we must reconcile ourselves to the shadow. We must recognize and accept this part of ourselves as normal in order to maintain control over it.
What aspects of yourself do you see as defective? What thoughts, desires or “defects” do you try to ignore or suppress? This week, take a peak at your shadow. Begin an acquaintance with the side of yourself that you reject. The first step to accepting yourself is realizing that you are much more than you thought you were.
Last week we spent our quiet moments surveying the contents of our minds; our thoughts. Without judgment, we noticed what thoughts continue to swing around in our awareness when we aren’t paying attention. Perhaps you were surprised with what you found, perhaps discouraged, perhaps overwhelmed. Whatever your reaction, accept this as your starting place.
Identifying our thoughts gives us leverage. If we know they are there, we can disengage from them. How, you may ask, can I disengage from a thought? Don’t thoughts come from “me?” Who am I without my thoughts?
Marsha Linehan, the founder of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, asserts that thoughts are not “facts.” They are experiences to be noticed, but not believed. If thoughts are not facts, then they certainly can’t define who we are. Yet, many of us spend our lives dominated and defined by the thoughts that arise within us. We respond and react to them as if they constitute the only reality.
Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Men are not prisoners of fate, but prisoners of their own minds.” So, how do we find freedom from our endless thoughts, assumptions and perceptions? I propose three ways.
1 One way to find freedom from our thoughts is to give them our attention. Blow-ups, fights and conflicts are often subdued when people felt heard. The same can be true of our minds. If you notice yourself being bombarded with thoughts this week, consider setting aside a small amount of time to pay attention to them. Just listen and acknowledge or write them out. You’re likely to find that given some attention, they become less persistent.
2 Ultimately, we want to disengage from our thoughts; to stop identifying with them. Linehan teaches that a thought is “just a thought.” No more, no less. In DBT, participants are often encouraged to imagine a flowing river or a sky of moving clouds that they can “throw” their thoughts into over and over. In your quiet moments this week, practice noticing your thoughts, accepting their existence, and giving them up. Over and over and over.
3 Disengaging from our thoughts means we are back in control. As you learn to stop identifying with your thoughts, decide which ones you want to react to and which ones you don’t. A thought cannot cause you to react. You decide to react from a much deeper place. Freedom from thought arises with the realization that we can choose which thoughts to respond to, and which thoughts to simply notice and let go.
Rejuvenation is about discovery, not about a final destination. No matter what your experience is like this week, congratulate yourself for just noticing it.
Photo by Bet Mercer
The Spirit of Therapy
Where psychotherapy interacts with our mental, emotional, spiritual, physical and relational wellbeing.