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  • Mirror, mirror…

    The distress that brings people to my office seems to follow a theme that sets in and needs to run its course like the flu virus. Small coughs and aches give way to fever and runny nose just before the throwing up sets in. Misery.

    The emotional flu this season is about making decisions. Small moments of hurt and confusion give way to doubt and hesitancy just before panicky fear sets in. This is equally bad, if not worse, than the flu virus. The difference being that this emotional flu doesn’t run its course and fade away on its own. A decision must be made before pain will ease and healing may begin.  

    You might be familiar with the idea that the problem isn’t really the problem.  It means that the reason we seek therapy is often about something different- something bigger, deeper, living in the shadows of ourselves while feeding off our emotional energy and draining our ability think clearly. Likewise, the decision to be made isn’t really what it seems to be on the surface. It’s about something bigger, deeper, shadowy, and draining. We freeze in these moments, unsure of where to go or what to do next.

    Unmade decisions lead to feeling “stuck”. This has been an emotional flu season of “stuck”. Individuals and couples come in, share, and eventually the word “stuck” finds its way into the conversation. That’s the time I pause the conversation and ask:

    *What’s the decision in front of you?

    How can we/I stop arguing, heal broken trust, learn to trust again, move forward after a breakup, discover my true calling, create a new normal in life after a crisis or change in stage of life.

    *What’s your motivation behind the decision?

    Make the pain go away and feel good again.

    This is another way of saying “We/I have the emotional flu and we need to know what to do to feel better.”

    Unfortunately, the answer isn’t pushing fluids and a few days of rest in front of the tv.

    The answer also isn’t the answer we expect because the problem isn’t the problem that we often think it is.

    Making a decision first requires that we recognize that making a decision is an action, a verb, a change of direction, an acceptance, a choice. It is present tense and happening in every moment of our lives. We are never not making decisions (my apologies to grammar teachers everywhere!)- which clothes to wear, what to eat, which direction to go, and on and on.

    Making a decision then requires that we acknowledge that “stuck” is an active decision. When we are “stuck” we are deciding to ruminate and speak negatively to ourselves or others about how we “need to” or “should” or “must” make a change. We are actively choosing to stay in a place that feels painful enough to complain about it but not painful enough to move through it or away from it. This results in no other action being taken and “stuck” sets in.

    Making a decision then requires talking to the person in the mirror. Life does that to us. It puts mirrors in our bathrooms, hallways, dressing rooms. Mirror, mirror on the wall…

    Life also puts mirrors in our relationships. Often what feels painful for us is the behavior of the other person, and people come to therapy seeking relief from their pain through trying to motivate/require other people to take action. Yet in relationships, that person is often our mirror. The behaviors, traits, attitudes, choices we dislike about them are often reflections of the places we judge negatively and dislike about ourselves. We don’t like the view in the mirror and so we turn away from those reflections to focus our attention on requiring the other person to take the action needed for the relationship to feel better. We avoid our reflection and our accountability by instead focusing on their behavior choices and their places of accountability.  

    Thus, the motivation for change is avoiding pain.

    But whose pain is being healed and whose pain is being avoided?

    My clients and I talk about how requiring the other person to change is really about not wanting to look in the mirror and address the parts of ourselves that are being reflected. The decision to demand change from the other person reflects the lack of willingness to demand that same change of myself. Taking accountability and changing is uncomfortable, and we love to be comfy! Need proof? I’ll show my growing collection of fuzzy socks, minus the ones my dog has snagged for herself.  People often choose to avoid discomfort, and taking a hard look at their role in the pain within the relationship is hard, uncomfortable, and avoided at high cost to the relationship and quality of life.

    However, when we stop demanding change from the other person and instead make the decision to require it of ourselves, that’s when true growth occurs. Still painful, yet no longer “stuck”. Healing has begun, physically and emotionally.

    Decisions made in the therapy are often about choosing between multiple paths that are each hard in their own way. It’s about making the decision about which hard you are going to endure.

    When I make the decision to avoid changes within myself, I am also deciding to avoid the path that will bring healing and relief from the pain. Hard future ahead, no end to the pain insight.

    When I make the decision to be open to making difficult changes within myself, I am also deciding to foster healing and growth and relief from the pain within me and within the relationship. Still hard, yet an end is in sight. A bit of relief begins to drift in and around us and the light at the end of the tunnel begins to shimmer.

    Be honest with the person in the mirror. Choose your hard. Make the decisions that bring about feelings of being “unstuck”; the feelings of growth, healing, and valuing oneself. Own those decisions. Decide to identify and take baby steps towards replacing pain with happiness. Then take the first step.

    Embrace your best self! Anne