Mantras and Mental Images

Mantra and Happy PlacesIf there’s one thing I’ve learned since I began getting help for what I initially feared was depression but was eventually diagnosed as “adjustment disorder with mixed mood” (i.e., “Depression Light”), it’s the importance of developing little mantras as a result of what one finds through introspection. Sometimes we joke about needing to “find that happy place” when something or someone upsets us, and that’s not entirely a bad idea. However, over time, simply finding that happy place is little more than applying balm to an injury in order to dull the pain, but when the anesthetic effect wears off, the sensation of the injury returns — maybe not as sharply, but return it certain does.

Two weeks ago as I was walking along Rue Sainte-Catherine towards Lucy‘s office for my weekly visit, I was wondering how long I should continue seeing her. I was feeling as though she had already directed me in all the areas that I would not have, on my own, deemed worthy of investigation; I couldn’t imagine where else we might go together. In fact, although not unpleasant, my previous visit with her hadn’t yielded much; she tried to turn a few stones that, for many, might have been covering some nasty resentments — but not so in my case. So, as I was nearing her office, I was wondering if my legendary inability to assert myself would lead me to continue seeing her only because she fells we’ve only just begun when in fact we’ve come full circle already, albeit in spectacularly record time.

One of my mantras, as I believe I’ve already mentioned, is “Stop. Now think…” In other words, whenever I find myself feeling guilty or anxious or sad, or whenever I find myself wanting to do something a bit unusual for someone else, I stop …now think. That simple mantra helps me pause long enough so that I can think about what triggered the feeling of guilt or sadness, or what is motivating me to want to act in a certain way rather than in a more conventional way. Before therapy, I couldn’t go beyond dwelling on the negative feeling or acting on an impulse; now, I can pause long enough to consider causation — maybe not finding the answer each time, but at least not letting myself sink back in. By no means is this mantra the magic bullet for everyone, but for me it works.

Anyway, I don’t know how it came up, but during that visit with Lucy two weeks ago, I brought up that icky dream I had back in July, before I started seeing her. I think I had mentioned it to her before in passing, but we hadn’t really gone into it back then. This time, however, she really jumped on it because, as I was telling it to her, I was once again making connections with the notion of anger that both she and Gary (the psychiatrist) had brought up earlier. Indeed, although it is not a notion with which I’m comfortable associating myself, I recognize its validity. But now, I have transformed the notion of my anger into an image: quite simply, I picture it as a big ball of yarn in my lap that I’m pressing against my belly. So now that I have such a tangible image (if only in my mind), I can address it with detachment, in the second person: How did you get there? What makes you grow? Can I dissolve you, make you smaller? Why do I fear you so much, as demonstrated by my gut reaction when Lucy calls you by your real name (anger rather than ball)?

Well, little did I know that, a few days after that visit, something would happen at work with one of my colleagues, with our supervisor acting as an impartial arbiter. I won’t get into the specifics but suffice it to say that I was accused of telling other people how to do their work even though I’m not their boss, and that accusation triggered a milder but very definite form of bad feeling I’d come to know too well (sadness? anger?). For sure it was not nearly as sharp and debilitating as the feeling had become back in the spring and early summer, but I instantly recognized its signature. So I pulled up the mantra: “Stop …now think.”

This incident became the topic during this week’s visit with Lucy. On the specifics of the incident, she immediately agreed with everyone else to whom I mentioned this and previous incidents that I was on the receiving end of jealousy. Some might perceive my inability to suppress my creative urges as an attempt to be a show off, and my sharing of tips that could get everyone in our team to work more cohesively as an attempt not only to get everyone to do everything exactly as I do, but also to undermine our supervisor’s authority. This colleague even went as far as to mention that I’m no longer the new kid on the block, implying that I should stop trying to prove myself — as if that’s ever been my motivation. (And become hopelessly set in my ways after five years? Not on your life unless you manage to lobotomize me without my noticing it!) The clincher is not that I can’t take criticism; it’s that I can’t cope with unwarranted negative criticism. Thankfully, I’m becoming better at referring to the latter as “noise,” or that which blinds me from what is essentially true.

In way of comparison for Lucy’s sake, I recalled another unrelated incident a year ago when I knew I was being very unpleasant toward a client but, like watching a train wreck in slow motion, I just couldn’t stop myself. Finally, quite justifiably, the client had had enough and gave me a well-deserved tongue-lashing. I instantly felt something I can only describe as a wave of heat flushing from my head to my toes, as I knew without a doubt that I was in the wrong and the criticism was more than warranted. In that case, not only did I apologize profusely on the spot and change my attitude, but later I recommitted my apology in writing, which the client graciously accepted. (In hindsight, I recall that this incident occurred as I had begun my downards slump.)

The point, I told Lucy, is that I can take criticism when it’s warranted but I can’t take it when it’s not or when it’s downright misguided. There she made again that connection to my perception of how the way other kids my age treated me was unfair, and how that honed my sense of injustice and brought me to want to come to the rescue of those who, in their own way, weren’t being treated fairly. Her reflection got me to make the connection: I saw this latest untruth as another injustice, not unlike the myriad untruths I allowed to drag me down to the point of feeling inert and neglectful of myself. Yup! Just more “noise.” Indeed, that one silly incident with that work colleague was only one more little sound bite of noise, which is why it reanimated those same bad feelings as before but, being only ONE incident, not as intensely. So once I had stopped and thought, I was able to assess the validity of criticism, or its lack thereof. Hence the lesson: if the point is valid, seek to change; if it’s not, flush it — don’t attach it onto that ball in your lap that you’re pressing against your belly.

I think the fact I crammed so much into that ball for so long has shaped my perceptions so much that I will never completely dissolve that ball. In fact, I don’t want it totally dissolved, because its core is what I now consider the infamous “fire in the belly” one needs to move forward, to continue being creative, to believe that things can be changed for the better. I recall writing earlier this summer that there are parts of me I don’t want to change: HOW I came to hone my outrage toward injustice may not have been pleasant, but I much rather have that outrage than forever be inhibited by defeatist numbness. What I need to do, however — in fact, what I think I’m finally doing — is keep shedding away what’s rotten from that ball so that I can keep an eye on that pure core.

In my view, those rotten parts are what we all come to call our baggage (in the pejorative sense) while that core is our collection of experiences that can lead to good things. Baggage might be unavoidable but no one needs to hold on to it. The parts that are untrue can be trashed, while those that are true can be added to our experiences that can move us toward more, better and brighter experiences.

I feel another mantra coming on. Hummm… what could that be? Shed the bad and keep the good? I think survivors of far worse ailments than simple “adjustment disorder” would agree with that one.