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People who read this blog regularly know that I am not a preacher of “your thoughts create reality”.  That prescription creates more burdens than it alleviates.  I had an interesting thought recently, though, about the metaphors we use to describe our lives.  Metaphors are a great way to vividly express complex thoughts and feelings in one simple picture.  No wonder people like to use them.  However, I thought about times those words might be limiting.

Think about what words you use to describe success.  Is it “clawing your way up”?  Why do we represent success as “climbing a ladder”….or directionally “up” at all?  The top of a hierarchy, that’s why.  (Of course I could speculate as to why the status pyramid is represented as top-down, since it makes just as much sense to put the leader at the bottom, supporting the whole structure.  Sky-based religions in which heaven is up?  Leaders standing on platforms, or hills?  Anyways.)

In any case, nowadays more people are, or considering, working for themselves.  Is the “up” metaphor relevant anymore?  At “the bottom of the heap”, you may feel squished, or sat on – but the supportive earth is also there.  So what about sinking into success, or mellowing down into it? If you are currently experiencing difficulty, have you described yourself as “stuck”?  Now imagine you are literally, physically stuck in something.  Not a pleasant sensation, is it?  Now look back at your life:  are you really stuck, or did someone just tell you you were, and you started using that word?  Whose metaphors are you using?  🙂

What words do you use to describe your current situation, and what you want to do next from there, and your goal?

Do the words you use imply struggle, or relaxation?  Condensing and tensing, or expanding?  Letting go, or holding on?  Effort, or ease?


Let’s say you are dissatisfied with your life in some way.  Is the cause personal or societal?  Notice what emotions arise in you just from hearing that question.

Some quotes.

Micki McGee in Self-Help, Inc.:

“I have yet to find a best-selling self-improvement book that prompts one to consider, for example, the following:  “If you could live in a world where profit were not the motivating force of production, what would your life look like?” or “How would your life be different if the nutritional, medical and educational needs of children were the top priority of every individual, every group, and every institution?”  or “How would your life be different if racism/sexism/anti-Semitism or other religious intolerance were no longer a structuring principle of social relations?”  Were such questions part of the discourse of self-improvement culture, the writing exercises found in self-help books might be a remarkable tool for social transformation. One’s realization of one’s self might genuinely lead to societal change (though the steps between imagining the idealized future and realizing it would likely involve a good bit more than imagination.)  However, in its current insularity, the literature of self-improvement directs the reader to familiar frameworks, namely, what should one seek for one’s self narrowly conceived as a private individual rather than as a citizen or stakeholder in larger and more public arenas.”

“Self-improvement culture, as it actually exists, derails the opportunities for indivdiuals to understanding injuries or grievances as part of systematic social problems.  [….]  The literatures and practices of self-improvement culture do this in two ways:  first, in self-improvement literature, victims are anathema, and second, when victimization occurs, it is almost exclusively located in the past, in the lost world of childhood, where the family, imagined as isolated from society as a whole, is named as the cause of the violence or injustice. [….] Thus the usual political strategy of organizing individuals around their grievances is short-circuited, and culpability is turned back on the self. Problems and grievances are cast as personal “challenges” that the individual must strive to overcome.  [….]  What the literatures of self-improvement do offer is the promise of power, however limited in scope and mistakenly located it may be in isolated individual action.  Traditional political organizing, for example, the recruitment strategies of labor organizers, builds on a sense of aggrievement and then moves the aggrieved individual to locate his or her power in the group, forging a sense of collective identity that is not wholly a function of victimization but takes victimization as its starting point.”

In this way, self-help can be said to reinforce the social status quo, or at least not to challenge it.  Whether this is intentional or unintentional (I’m steering clear of conspiracy theories for the moment), in my opinion it would be at minimum convenient, to a relatively small group of people who wanted to gain disproportionate economic and social power over a relatively large group of others, if those others believe their problems are all “personal challenges” rather than symptoms of unhealthy, unjust or exploitative social systems.

Furthermore, notice recent propagation of catchy pop-psych memes, specifically the freedom people now seem to feel to tell strangers on Internet discussion boards, for example to “stop complaining and look at your own self and your own role in it” or similar.  Now, nobody has to regulate the populace against rebellion or broader scale social change.  They regulate themselves.

David Smail (who I’ve quoted before here) writes about societal and environmental factors in the context of mental health and psychotherapy:

“From a psychological point of view the Twentieth Century has been a colossal diversion (certainly in the West) from an examination of the way individuals are created and maintained by their environment. The   quality of thought Plato gave in his Republic to the kind of cultural diet most suitable for its future leaders is barely conceivable now, where about the most we get is cursory studies or literature reviews to show, for example, that television has no influence on violence. Our emphasis, as I have already indicated, is very heavily on the inside, on mental factors such as choice and will, and moral factors mostly seen as personal, such as ‘responsibility’. Because of this, our gaze is diverted from the social world around us and our preoccupations are with self-transformation of the personality rather than political transformation of the society beyond the boundaries of our skin.


We have become absolutely to depend on the notion that it is possible to change aspects of ourselves we find inconvenient, to erase the inscription upon us of the environmental influences which surround us. Rather   than accepting that experience marks us for good and all, we wish to insist – indeed have come to expect and demand – that its effects can be counselled away.

But would it really be so terrible if psychotherapy didn’t work in the way we seem to expect it to? Perhaps if we were shaken out of our bewitched fascination with imagination and ‘virtuality’, the wishful invention of interior worlds which have no embodied substance, we might come to see that paying sober attention to the realities of social structure and of our relations with each other as public, not simply private, beings is an option. A difficult one certainly – not so easy as dreaming and wishing – but at least a real one. What this would entail is a recognition that maybe prevention is more possible than cure; a down-grading of psychology in favour of an up-grading of politics.

Where, though, would this leave individuals? Would we not, for example, be in danger of depersonalizing ourselves and risking becoming part of a grey, undifferentiated mass, prey to totalitarian solutions of the kind too often experienced already in this now dying century? I really don’t see why this should be. Politics doesn’t have to be dishonourable. There is no reason in principle why we shouldn’t be able to resurrect a politics whose central concerns are with such things as liberty, justice and equality. Very difficult, certainly; naïve, Utopian, idealistic, I can’t deny. But at least not, like the psychology of self-creation and self-transformation, impossible.”

As Smail suggests, somebody has to start dreaming.  But so often stating these dreams out loud in public is immediately met with a response of judgment or evaluation:  “there’s no way that could happen for everybody worldwide, economic/political/whatever systems don’t work like that” or “what are you personally doing to make this happen?”

Personal integrity is certainly an admirable goal.  Note the popularity of the Gandhi quote “be the change you wish to see in the world” – quoted so often I don’t know if that is even the original wording.  It is difficult to be a leader and get others to follow you if you don’t practice what you preach.   But does “being the change” refer to changing personally, or changing in groups?

Especially if you are a very conscientious idealist, it is easy to focus so much on integrity that you think you can’t accomplish anything  until you’ve worked out all your own problems.  Oh, and especially if you’ve been reading about the Law of Attraction, you interpret the failure of your change initiatives (or of people to respond favourably to them) as being caused by your own “negative thoughts”!

Note that the authors I quoted above do not discount individual actions.  Instead they are saying that societal factors (e.g. government, economics) have significant (if not determinative) influence on the individual, but are largely ignored as a cause of individual distress by both the self-help industry and psychotherapy.  Collective action is needed to alleviate individual distress.

So, the next time you hear someone mention a possibility for social change, instead of jumping right to evaluating it….consider responding with a moment of stillness for contemplation of the new thing that has emerged.  Maybe even an attitude of “what if?”

Here’s mine for today.

Imagine a society where everyone who wants meaningful work has it, and anybody who finds their job unrewarding has options, isn’t stuck in it for practical reasons (for most people it’s financial, “I hate my job but I have to pay the bills”)….they can find something that pays the bills but is also personally fulfilling.

This might even involve a duty on the part of employers to provide people with meaningful work (or ways to make even the “…well, somebody has to do it” work meaningful).  Imagine that!

Yes, there are real obstacles.  Just….sit with me in the “what if” for a while.

It is a cherished and unquestioned belief in self-help that people have choice in their lives.  The theory goes something like this:  the state of your life is a result of every decision, little and big, that you have made up until now, so those who want to improve their lives should improve the quality of their decisions. 

A necessary precondition for choice is that it is possible for a person to control or at least influence the situation they are in.

In some circles it is taboo to question whether one really has choice over one’s situation because lack of choice is associated with….victimhood!  Helplessness!  Nooo!

I find myself asking, however, whether control is really as helpful or empowering an alternative to helplessness (feeling screwed by fate, etc.) as it is said to be.

There is always the flip side:  if things go wrong and it’s true that you do have control….guilt and racking your brains about how it would have been better if only you had done things better, which might ironically (and in my view, predictably) make you feel worse than when you started.

Here are three articles that explain the flip side of choice and control better than I could.  (Particularly notice in the comments how people are not comfortable with the notion of “no control” and try to negotiate it or make exceptions.)

When evaluating a thought or philosophy as to whether I will adopt it or not, I think about not only whether it makes me feel happier (personal benefit), but is it also flexible enough to get me through a wide variety of situations, and is it consonant with how I want to be in the world, not only with myself but with other people (ethics).

And for me, thinking about how little control I actually have….is liberating!  It doesn’t make me feel disempowered or helpless, or make me want to blame people or circumstances.

I’m sure you’ve heard the advice to keep up a positive attitude, keep taking action, “release the limiting beliefs that are holding you back”, discover how happy and resilient people think and change your thoughts to be like theirs, etc. etc.  And that’s worth a third “etc.”, because there is an abundance, no, a glut, of such advice out there.  It seems to be the latest thing in psychology.

I won’t lie that small actions (e.g. “I’ll just go for a walk for 10 minutes”) can get you through those feeling-like-concrete phases.  And seeing a new perspective on something (change in thought or belief) can free things up a little, at least temporarily.

But what about when it feels like you are repeatedly dragging, or slowing down, or the risks you are taking are not getting any easier (unlike the typical situation where practice makes you more comfortable with it?)

Or you are noticing a tendency to find something wrong with and reject all the advice that people give you on what to do?

Maybe it’s time for a constructive tantrum.

Ask yourself, what are you sick and tired of doing, trying to do, or feeling like you have to do? 

No rationalizing out of it by saying “that’s just the way it is, and I have to accept it”.   We are talking about telling the unvarnished truth about your feelings, here.

It sounds a little backwards, but I’ve done it to positive effect.  It seems to release energy and allow for new perspectives, or creative synthesis (resolving two things that you previously thought were contradictory, opposite, either/or).

Here’s an excerpt from Barbara Sher’s book Wishcraft, in the chapter entitled “Hard Times”:

“Now, little by little, if you can – and you almost always can – start having fun with your negative feelings.  Exaggeration, self-parody, melodrama, defiance, and obscenity are all useful weapons, and anything is a fair target:  yourself, me, your goal, mother, flag and country.  ‘The truth is, I hate studying.  It bores me and I can’t concentrate and I hate you for suggesting it.  I like things fine just the way they are.  I’m too lazy to bother with all of this.  I think I’ll eat a lot of chocolate and get fat.’  Say anything, as long as it’s a mean, miserable complaint with some punch to it. 

Did you notice that your energy level went up?  Does your goal suddenly look a little less impossible?  You haven’t solved anything yet.  The strategic problem is still there.  Your doubts are still there.  So why are you laughing?

Because you’ve dug down through all those heavy layers of ‘I can’t’, and struck a defiant gusher of ‘I don’t want to and I won’t.’  Depression is an energy crisis, and negativity is energy – pure, ornery, high-octane energy.  It’s just been so repressed and tabooed that we’ve forgotten something every 2-year-old knows:  how good it is for us to throw a tantrum.  We’re all such good little girls, such brave, stalwart little boys, such polite little children – and inside everyone of us is an obnoxious, exuberant little brat, just squirming to be let out.  I’ve got one.  So do you.  That brat is your baby, and you’d better love her, because you ignore her at your peril.”

Did you identify what you are sick and tired of, or refuse to do?

Now, acknowledge it to yourself, or to someone else. 

If you say it to someone else it is very important, obviously, not to surprise them with it, rather to explain to them exactly what you are doing.  Tell them you don’t want advice or for them to feel they have to help you fix it.  This is not about solving the problem.  It is about listening to you rant until you are finished, and maybe even cheering you on.  Barbara Sher’s suggestion on what to say:  “This is Hard Times.  I’m mad, nervous, fed up, and for the next five minutes I’m going to go totally bananas.  Don’t pay any attention to anything I say.  You can stick your fingers in your ears if you like.  It will all be over in five minutes.”

Try it and let me know how it goes.

Especially during a life transition, you may have noticed that some days you feel great, energized, like you can get anything done, and you have plenty of positive energy to share with others around you.  And other days….you feel like a block of concrete.

[You will see me use the term “advisor” in this and other posts.  It is my generic term for therapists, life coaches, career counsellors, friends, bloggers, self-appointed experts (heh):  anybody who takes it upon themselves to support another individual in their process, whether they get paid for it or not.]

When you are in a down phase, you’re just not using the resources available to you.  You may literally not even see them.  Everything looks impossible.  The well-intentioned mistake I think a lot of advisors make at that point is to see what works for others – taking action and using resources – and then repeatedly urge the downster to get out there and use those resources.  Perfectly logical.  After all, it works for other people.  But that’s not necessarily what the person in a down phase needs.  Not at that point.  (The majority of challenges in advice-giving result not from untruth, but poor timing.)

My observation and experience is that if advisors do not first meet someone where they are at emotionally, the person will not really be listening.  They hear the words, but shut off, or tune out.  They might look polite, but inside they are not able to make use of what you’re saying.  What I mean by “meeting them where they are at” includes empathic listening.  Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication is a good resource here, but I prefer Elaine Aron’s “attunement” process described in The Undervalued Self.  Simple, difficult, and rare.

Anything other than meeting the client where he or she is at, subtly preserves the dominant/subordinate dynamic between advisor and advisee, i.e. “I know what’s best for you better than you do”. 

So you might wonder, what’s the problem with that?  Maybe the advisor does know better!  The problem is, most people resent the implication that they don’t know, and will therefore resist the advice given.  (I believe they resist it because deep down inside, they know their own truth and answers, although they may not be consciously aware why they resist.)

True, one needs to have some degree of faith in the process, and the advisor.  Otherwise, why consult someone?   However, the advising process is more effective when it honours the individual and their autonomy, or more importantly their inner knowing of what is right for them in that moment. 

Imagine what society would be like if we revered each others’ wisdom, and each person’s knowing what is right for them in the moment, even if it looks unappealing from the outside.  This is not to justify self- and other-harming behaviours, it is to really try to understand other human beings.

Most people would agree that in our very information and knowledge-based culture, we mostly live day-to-day “from the neck up” (unless of course you’re an athlete or dancer).  And few could argue that mental and emotional stress has a physiological effect on the body (e.g. tight jaw, tense muscles, heart palpitations). 

So, a number of activities and treatments exist that use mind-body integration for pain relief and stress management (e.g. yoga, osteopathy, Bioenergetics, Feldenkrais, Network Spinal Analysis, Somatic Experiencing).  It is said that other animals “shake off” the physiological stress response, but not humans (one explanation is here:

But how do you develop a…“mind-body connection”?  After all, it has to become more than just a nice-sounding theory that you agree with.  It has to be a real experience in your life. 

This can be difficult, because on first paying attention to your body (during yoga class, meditation involving body awareness, etc.), you may realize just how UNCOMFORTABLE it actually feels to be in your body!  The good news is a large portion of this ickiness probably comes from (learned) inauthenticity, not living your truth.   Not having the freedom to feel your emotions, move your body as you want to, think your own thoughts.

The good news is, you can learn to use your suffering (physical or emotional) as a gift.  No, I am not preaching at you to make lemonade out of your lemons.  Nor do I think that you simply need to make a “choice” for how to respond to your circumstances as many self-help gurus would have it.  This concept of choice is worth a full post of its own, in the near future.  For now, suffice it to say that as soon as all the preconditions to you being ready to make a choice occur, you go right ahead and do it.  We generally don’t decide to hold ourselves back in life on purpose.  I have more faith in people than that.

I’m using my career dissatisfaction to help others going through similar experiences, and I’ll be honest, most of the time I don’t see the blessings in the pain.  I still don’t understand why it had to go the way it did, and to be honest, attempting to understand that at this point would lead me into the “premature spirituality” trap (“you chose your parents before birth, your soul chose the experiences it ‘wanted’ to have”, etc.)  These meanings can’t be forced or even rationalized, only revealed. 

One of the ways I work towards that revealing, towards a state of being where I can use the suffering as a gift (or at the very least to process it and get through it) is mind-body awareness activities.  For me that is yoga and Network Spinal Analysis.  You can find your own that work for you.  I would go so far as to say that career change (or other life change) can’t take place without mind-body integration.  Hearing your own truth (as told to you by physical pain, stress, uncomfortable emotions) can be difficult.  But once you do, the change that results is lasting. 

What do you think?  Have you had transformative results from mind-body therapies or practices?  Or have you tried some that didn’t seem to do much?  What role do you believe that your body and its messages play in your career/life development?

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