Surprise Box

My client sat on the floor in front of her over-stuffed closet. She was making lots of "Oh God!" groaning sounds over the phone. She didn't want to venture into there, but she knew it was causing her a lot of problems.

So I said, "Well, we'll just take out a little bit at a time. An amount you can do." She sounded resigned when she said, "Yeah, okay. I have what I call the 'box of surprises.' It's a mixture of a bunch of crap I've been saving for the last year, but I never go back into it to check it out, only to put things in. It's one of many boxes of surprises I have."

I said, "Tell me the first thing in the first box of surprises." She made another one of those groaning sounds. She said there were multiple sheets of paper for a project idea that she's been wanting to do for the longest time, because she thought she should do it for her business. She said she wasn't getting to it, and she didn't know what to do.

It turns out that her business has been suffering. She's been getting fewer clients because she gets bogged down into these side projects that she thinks she needs to develop so her business will get better. She doesn't have much energy left for clients, and they pick up on that.

I told her that this happens to all of us. We have an ideal about how we think things should be, and then there's how we actually live our lives. I told her, "You have this ideal that you should do these different projects for your business that either you're not doing or someone else is doing poorly. It helps to recognize that the ideal that you're hanging onto tells you that you need it in order to be happy. But the presence of the ideal and trying to live up to it is causing pain. It's not in your nature to do it, as we can see by the fact that you're not doing it. In the meantime, it's making you miserable."

She says to me, "Yes. The ideals are my model for torture. I see that I think I should do the things, I'm not doing them, and I think I should still try to do them -- even though I see they're causing me pain. I still don't want to let them go. Even if we talk about it, I'm afraid I'll still keep doing it. I'm afraid I won't let this way of life go."

I told her, "You have no way of knowing what's going to happen. One thing you do know, for certain, is that by talking about it this honestly, by looking at it matter-of-factly without judgment, there's no way you can ever go back to being exactly like you were before. After I'm done working with you today, at some point you might want to save more stuff. But you may have a thought as you start to put it in your surprise box, 'Wait! this isn't helping.'"

When you're unraveling something that's such a great source of pain, it's going to be very sobering. You're not alone. A lot of people I work with have ways of living that cause them great distress. But what you can do is to notice the behavior. Then when it comes up again, it's never the same. It doesn't have as much power over you, because you named it.

This shift doesn't happen perfectly. It's a messy process. But you can be kind to yourself while learning to be kind to yourself.