When people come to therapy, they’re often consumed by an almost-visible string of old injuries – a hypercritical parent, a missed opportunity, a horrible breakup. And, when I point out to them that they’ve got some past pain stuck on their shoe, their reaction is almost universally the same: “I’ve been trying to understand why that happened.”
I’ve worked with clients, sometimes for months or years, whose stated goal is to UNDERSTAND. Why did mom act like that? What could I have done differently?
Here’s a little secret. Often, when we spend our time trying to understand things in the past, or the things that people have done to us, or the breaks that haven’t come our way, what we’re really doing is STALLING. Rumination is a defense mechanism that trades little doses of low-level pain to avoid the thing we’re really afraid of – moving forward.
When we’re working on change, maybe it doesn’t matter so much WHY your mom treated you like that, as it does HOW to accept it and move forward. Whether she was controlled by aliens, tortured from within by forces you’ll never understand (and my money is on this one, by the way) or simply a crabby person, the fact is that it’s unlikely that even a crystal-clear understanding will do a whole lot to move you forward. That’s your job.
So, here’s your one-minute task. Next time you catch yourself in a rumination about the past that has some impact on your present life (as do all ruminations), just do this: Trade a why for a how. Instead of “why did that happen?” just say “How can I move one step forward?”
Approach, don’t avoid. Rumination is avoidance, and you’ll likely never get the answer you think you so badly need. Pretend like that part of the hard drive is wiped. The question is how, in this beautiful moment of life I’ve been granted, do I take a step forward? Just one step, not the whole path. Just one moment, not the whole day.
Take your minute. Use it to move yourself forward. Then tell yourself you are beautiful, strong, and capable. Because you are.