Improve your emotional wellness - 7 practical tips from a psychotherapist
Guest post from Beth Scarlett (MA, RP) an amazing psychotherapist who has been working with clients for over 15 years.
I love story telling. It’s one of the elements that engages me most in my work as a therapist. So it’s not surprising that I’m drawn to narrative therapy techniques with my clients. Narrative therapy focuses on the stories people tell about themselves and how it shapes their identity, decision making, and work-life balance.
One popular narrative method is called “externalizing the problem”. It’s exactly how it sounds. Take something like depression, anxiety or stress, and personify it. Get creative. Give it a name, a voice, and an appearance. We often see “our problems” as a part of ourselves and in doing so, we can feel a sense of helplessness about how to manage those problems. By externalizing them, they are outside of us, and therefore we can cope with them in a more head-on manner.
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It was only recently that I did this with one of my biggest problems, perfectionism. I have always been one to deny my perfectionism. After all, most of the perfectionists I know are very concerned about their appearance, sticklers for punctuality, and generally pretty formal. I have none of these qualities. My perfectionism gremlins are sneaky. They disguise themselves as external expectations, which are a major motivator for me.
I chose the term gremlin rather haphazardly, but when I looked up the definition of gremlin, the Oxford dictionary defines it as: “an imaginary mischievous sprite regarded as responsible for an unexplained problem or fault”, I realized how spot on it turned out to be. It’s hard to identify perfectionism as a problem, because it’s only hurting me. Do you think my boss minds that I tend to go above and beyond? Or that my husband complains that I always seem to be thinking one step ahead? Or my children mind that I remember specifically how they like their peanut butter sandwiches? If anything, I get praised.
To some degree, my strong work ethic, conscientiousness, and desire to help others contribute to the gremlin chatter. These are all qualities that I consider strengths of mine. So, what’s the problem? The gremlins are never satisfied. There is no “good enough” for them. And these imaginary creatures manage to convince me that they are just messengers for the people whose opinions matter to me. I want to be a good employee, and the gremlins convince me that I need to take on more and more. They tell me that no one else can do it as well as me. And that if I don’t do it, other people will suffer.
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They become especially loud when I am already overwhelmed and have too much on my plate. They tell me not to delegate, not to ask for help, and not to show any flaws or weaknesses. Their primary lie is that I’m going to let people down and that they can’t handle being let down by me. And for the longest time, I didn’t even consider that this could be questioned. Whose expectation is this? What’s the evidence for it? Can I do something to verify it?
It was only upon the recommendation of my doctor and therapist to take time off work that it became clearer what a powerful force these gremlins are in every part of my life. Even during my work leave, they have been present and loud. The gremlins tell me what’s expected of me during this time off, and the disappointment others will have if I don’t get “everything” figured out - they get at deep questions of self-esteem. And yet, what I’ve realized is that the personal work is not about figuring it all out, it’s about being OK with things as they are.
Maybe you’re not a perfectionist, maybe you have a depression gnome, or an anxiety goblin, or even a foreboding fear banshee (I think we all have a handful of those that like to pop out at us from time to time). Here are some practical steps you can take to cope with whatever “problem” is getting to you:
Identify it. What is the problem that has become so engrained in you that you often feel stuck or uncertain as to how to tackle it? Even if it’s something that you have resigned yourself to thinking there’s nothing you can do about it.
Externalize it. Talk about it like it is separate from you. Have fun with it. Is it like a comic book villain? a personified object? A monster? How much space does it take up? What color is it? Does it speak and if so what voices or noises does it make?
Name it. Literally give it a name. It can be: Black Cloud of Doom, Sugar the temptation fairy or Phillis. Any name that isn’t yours.
Feel ridiculous and question this author’s sanity. (This step is optional)
Ask yourself what lies this problem tells you. When do they show up? Do they have any buddies they like to bring around? When are you most likely to pay attention to them?
Consider if this problem has a purpose. How can you befriend it and learn from it? Are you able to work with it in order to get your needs met? The goal is not to crush it. The goal is to keep the power in check. For example, my perfectionism gremlins can easily become ambition gremlins if I do some “fact checking” and zone in on putting my energy into my values.
Ask yourself who the nemesis of your problem is, and personify that. What can the nemesis of the problem teach you about how to cope? I’ve found that the perfectionism gremlins are no match for the self-compassion fairies.
Are you ready to find your happiness?
Feel ridiculous. Laugh at yourself a bit and notice if the power of the problem diminishes. We don’t have to be defined by our problems and internalize them as unchangeable characteristics of ourselves. Our problems are travelling with us, not in us.
What did you name your gremlin?