We do not
learn from experience;
we learn from reflecting
~ John Dewey
It is often said that we learn from our experiences, yet frequently we repeat the same experiences over and over again, like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day. We may be mystified as to why this is happening, as we continue to repeat or respond to situations or people in the same or similar ways that usually don't serve us. A popular saying is that the definition of crazy is repeating the same thing and expecting different results. Although stated in a crude and blunt way, it is true!
We don't in fact, learn from experiences themselves, but from reflecting on these experiences. A first step is thinking about them in an introspective way (rather than obsessively ruminating about them), wondering about their origins, looking at triggers, exploring how we feel during the experiences as well as while we are thinking about them. It is useful to inquire into why and how we repeat something that is no longer useful, productive or desired. Usually we will get to an early experience where we learned to respond in a way that was self-protective or adaptive at the time.
Reflecting on the experiences may at times be enough to learn from them and effect change. Sometimes deeper work such as psychotherapy and/or body therapies are needed to get to the root of the experiences in a way that will bring the repetitive cycle to an end, allowing you the freedom to truly have new and different experiences!
Storms make oaks take deeper roots
- George Herbert
Current stormy weather makes this a particularly fitting thought to muse about today. When I think about the rainstorms we have had recently in San Francisco I think about the wildness, the wind, the flooding, drains overflowing, roads closed; how everything moves more slowly as people drive more cautiously,yet there are traffic jams and accidents. The streets are empty as people stay inside when they can.
And yet, children love to play in the rain, running jumping and splashing in puddles. The parched earth soaks up the water, snow falls in the mountains and reservoirs begin to fill and continue to do so from the runoff as the mountain snow eventually melts. Plants germinate and thirsty trees roots soak up the water, creating deeper, stronger roots.
We owe our very existence as a planet to storms. I recently read that as the earth was forming, it literally rained for millions of years!!! And yet we often grumble about the rain, acknowledging its importance but annoyed but how it inconveniences us.
We have a similar set of "weather conditions" in our lives as well. Throughout life, we encounter a series of storms within and without. Similar to weather patterns created by climate change, many of the storms we encounter are not of our own making. They may be situations we encounter at work, with family and friends or even strangers we encounter. There are storms not of our making that are going on throughout the world with hunger, wars and all kinds of violence, the refugee crisis, political upheaval and ISIL.
There are also the inner storms that frequently soak us, ones that live within with roots in childhood trauma and/or family dysfunction taking many forms such as shame, low self-worth, anxiety, fear or depression. The inner storms that are the way we know habitually to respond to the outer storms we may encounter or to the old inner storms that flair up continuously or from time to time.
Do you become overwhelmed by the storms in your life, and overflow, flood, drown in the deluge? Or can you imagine learning to swim, to float to bundle up and splash and jump in the puddles, refusing to be overwhelmed or flooded? Can you imagine that the storms you face in your life can help you create deeper and deeper roots, connecting you more securely, more steadily to Life and to your life? Can you imagine that facing the inner struggles/storms can help you become more resilient and teach you about being firmly grounded and rooted in your journey? The next time it storms, I invite you to use this imagery and metaphor to think about your life!
Deep in the sea are riches beyond compare,
But if it is safety that you seek,
Stay upon the shore.
This is the human dilemma: stay where we feel safe and secure or take risks and dive deep to seek hidden treasure. Our brains are wired both for caution and safety and also for innovation, change, growth and risk. Finding or striking a balance between the two is the art of a life well-lived.
We are constantly presented with options to stay in our comfort zone or move beyond it, in both the internal and external worlds. It may not actually be an either/or but a both/and. It's possible to move between staying on the shore, relaxing and enjoying the view, and diving into the waves, with snorkel mask or scuba gear, to explore an entire world that is invisible from the shore.
The most important question may be what is your motivation for either option? Are you staying on the shore out of fear of the unknown or of challenging situations? Or are you truly in your element simply Being an observer, being at peace?
And is your motivation for diving deep a psychological imperative, the curiosity of an explorer, the desire to know and feel more deeply? Or are you driven by a restlessness, a compulsion to flee the peacefulness, the quiet of sitting on the shore?
Perhaps looking at these questions, being honest with yourself about your heart's desire and your motivations, what you may be running from or running toward, is the true diving deep!
The privilege of a lifetime
is to become who you truly are
- Carl Jung
Carl Jung's wisdom in this quote is almost deceptively simple. And maybe the key word is PRIVILEGE! There is no guarantee that you will become who you truly are. It often takes infinite amounts of courage to face who you are and who you aren't, to let go of all the ways you have been acting or living that are not true to yourself or no longer serve you. Usually it takes a lifetime to really figure that out; it is the process of living.
Jung distinguished between the self and the Self. The self ( small s) is the personality, the self that develops in response to family, life and circumstances including defenses and often including fear, worry, self doubt, arrogance, shame, guilt, etc. It also includes qualities like self-confidence, ambition, preferences, beliefs and ideas.
The Self ( big S) is the true Self at the center of your being. It may be thought of as the Soul or the core of who you are. It is the part of you that is connected to something bigger than your personality.
The task of early adulthood is to build a self focused on building a satisfying life which may include career, family and community. In mid to later life, focus may go more inward and the external accomplishments and ways of knowing yourself may no longer be enough. It is time to begin or deepen your inquiry into who you truly are.
Where do you find yourself in this process? Do you have some ideas about who you truly are? Is there confusion? How do you distinguish your self from your Self? How do you know what is the bedrock of who you are as opposed to parts of yourself that are expendable or that developed to protect yourself from harm?
Life is as good as
your relationship with yourself.
~ Cheri Huber
Many people are unhappy or dissatisfied with their lives. They often seek therapy to figure out how to have a fuller, more enjoyable life, with better relationships and more satisfying work. Often the first things people focus on that seem to be wrong in their lives are externals: job, partner, friends, family and other things outside themselves.
As time goes on in therapy, attention often shifts from the external to the internal world. Certainly there are many external circumstance in life that you have no control over that are challenging, difficult and tragic. Yet frequently over time there is a realization that how you relate to yourself effects how you relate to the external circumstances and world. If your inner world is inhabited by disconnection, judgement, self-doubt, distrust, low self-worth and fear, it is unlikely that anything in life will feel good.
In therapy a lot of time may be spent exploring how your relationship to yourself developed in this painful way. And then we undertake the often arduous, yet fulfilling and so-important journey of healing that most primordial relationship.
Your relationship with yourself is the only one you will have for your entire life. Many people try hard to avoid dealing with this essential relationship through endless distractions and addictions, but at the end of the day, you come home to yourself.
What better investment of time and energy could there be than in improving your relationship with yourself?And it comes with the added benefit that your experience of life will also improve substantially. As the quote above states, your experience of life is a reflection of your relationship with yourself.
Peggy Handler, MFT, is a psychotherapist in San Francisco's Noe Valley