Often our suffering comes because we have an idea of how things ought to be and they aren’t that way. The way we think things ought to be, our expectations and disappointments, they are like a rock we keep carrying around even though the rock weighs us down and keeps us stuck.
Sometimes we pick up the rock in our childhood when we get told that the way to a good life is this one particular way. Maybe the rock is our ideas about the career we want to have or the children we want to parent. We have this picture of how it has to be and that becomes our ideal, the rock that we carry into our Real Lives where things are more complicated and often uglier.
Maybe we don’t pick it up. Maybe it’s handed to us when someone tells us that we will be happier if we get prettier or smarter or nicer. Then the rock becomes the perfect self we want to be. We live under the heavy pressure of that flawless version of our imperfect selves.
So the way to happiness is easy, right? Just put down the rock.
But the thing about these rocks is that over the years we get used to carrying them. They may be heavy but we start to believe that they protect us. As long as we’re carrying them then we’re also carrying the hope that we can make them come true and that somehow keeps us safe. It’s scary to think things like, “I might never be as thin as I want to be.” or “I might never find the perfect partner.”
If we put the rock down, then what do we have to cling to? If we put it down, we have to confront the truth that we might need to learn to be happy without those things we so desperately want. And that’s scary.
I have put down rocks in my time and sometimes it’s a gradual thing. I’d try setting it down just for a minute — just around people who felt safe or just in certain situations. I’d keep that rock nearby just in case I needed its protection; it was proof that I wasn’t giving up or giving in, just taking a break.
Eventually I put it down for good and then I felt weightless, which sounds fun but can be scary. After all, if you’re weightless, how will you know if the earth is safely under you? What if you float off into space without a rock to weigh you down? What if you miss all of the people still crouching under their burdens, unable (or unwilling) to join you a few feet off the ground?
It gets better. Eventually you will realize that the rock wasn’t keeping you safe; it was keeping you trapped. You will straighten up and look around and see that right here in this minute, without your view being blocked by that big old boulder you were carrying, you can see the good things right in front of you.
That rock, it was lying. It was telling you that you couldn’t be happy until this or until that but when you put it down — put it down for good — you’ll see that your happiness is where you make it. You can find it wherever you like.
So go ahead. Put down the rock.
I just finished a kid’s book titled Return of the Twelves. It’s about a set of wooden soldiers once owned by Branwell Bronte and his sisters. The soldiers are alive and the little boy who finds them watches over them as one of their Genii (plural for genius).
When you’re a child small things are so appealing; this is why the sandtray is the most popular (and powerful) toy in my whole office. You can make a whole world in there and most of the kids take intense pride in how “real” they can make it look. The setting up — place each thing exactly where it ought to go next to the exact thing it should stand besides — is very nearly more fun than playing with it afterwards. Do you remember doing that? Setting your toys up and then gazing at them with satisfaction? Most of the kids who come to my office like to take pictures of their set up sandtray on their parents’ phone so they can take it home and share it with other family members. I usually take pictures, too, and make them part of my case notes.
Anyway, reading Return of the Twelve made me think about the other books like that and I came up with an incomplete list.
Which others do you remember?
I was reading this post by Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, about loneliness and how feeling lonely makes us more negative, less likely to engage with other people, and altogether less likeable. We become “more aggressive, more self-defeating or self-destructive, less cooperative and helpful, and less prone simply to do the hard work of thinking clearly.” (This last bit is a quote from the book Gretchen was referencing in her post, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.)
I remember that when I was going through secondary infertility that I was very sad and that this sadness made me very lonely. Going through a personal crisis is like living in a bubble. You can see the people outside and you can hear them, but there’s a barrier between you and everyone else. People’s voices seemed to be coming from a long distance away, someplace where there was happiness and sunshine but I was living in this muted bubble where I could see the sun but not feel it’s warmth. I felt self-conscious in my sadness and found myself withdrawing from friends and family.
This is why I sought counseling. I knew I was in danger of isolating myself in a way that would not be good for me or my son. I could show up for things, sure, but the hard work of being present with other people felt beyond me.
Some people tell me that they are uncomfortable with counseling because it feels weird to pay someone to talk with you. But for me, there was safety in knowing that she could not reject me. The structure of our relationship — that I would hand her a check at the beginning and get 50-minutes of her time — was reassuring. I could be my worst self, my most selfish self, and she would still listen. I could be vulnerable and sad and she wouldn’t try to change the subject. I could ask her to lead the conversation when I was too exhausted by sadness to carry my end and she would.
That safety, that space we built together, helped heal some of my loneliness so I could be with my friends again. And even though I was paying for her time, I know she genuinely cared for me. I know this because I genuinely care for my clients.
I want to write more about that, too, how the boundaries of therapy is what makes the therapeutic relationship possible. Stay tuned for that, same bat time, same bat channel.