Do you have a nagging issue that’s bothered you for years? Yeah, me too. I’ve spent decades experimenting with a cornucopia of ways to get rid of my issues. I’ve tried:
Personal development workshops
I could go on, but I think you get the point. Most of my adult life has involved a valiant effort to “fix myself.” This is because I’ve often assumed that I was broken and in need of fixing. After a few years of the “fix it” approach, I started trying to convince myself that I wasn’t broken – I was perfect – and that I should just flat out accept myself regardless of whatever issue was bothering me that day.
The problem is that neither approach really worked.
Don’t get me wrong – I’ve made a lot of “progress” through my dedicated efforts at personal development. I got off antidepressants and significantly reduced the anxiety and depression that used to plague me. But it’s not like these things completely disappeared. And therein lies one of the problems: I expected these issues to disappear.
At some deep level I believed that one day I would wake up without a single worry or issue – and maybe even ride off into the sunset on a unicorn.
The second problem was that when I tried the self-acceptance approach, I felt like I was being fake. I would repeat affirmation after affirmation, or force myself to come into the present moment to watch my anxiety or pay attention to my breath (a mindfulness approach that, while useful, also sometimes feels too much like I’m forcing myself to accept or ignore something that feels uncomfortable).
I’ll preface what I’m about to write next by saying that I don’t think I’ve figured out a solution to this problem. But lately I’ve been experimenting with an approach that feels different than anything I’ve ever tried before.
It involves play.
When is the last time you ran out of your house on a beautiful spring evening to go play? With no goal or purpose or task you needed to complete. Simply a desire to have some fun.
Can you access a part of you that remembers what play was like as a child? Personally, I remember wandering around my neighborhood simply being open to opportunities for magic. My imagination would run wild with stories, ideas, and alternate realities. Suddenly my backyard would become a medieval garden where I was the princess, or a tower where I was trapped. I would cast spells on caterpillars, plant time capsules in my garden, and throw bottled notes into lake Ontario. I didn’t plan these activities – they just happened, in the moment, through my willingness to be open.
I recently listened to online seminars by Sera Beak and Martha Beck, both of whom brought up a playful approach to handling our issues. Sera talked about names she gives to her complexes, and the ways in which she speaks to those complexes in a loving, playful, and compassionate way. I’ve heard of a similar approach before – mostly from life coaches who refer to their complexes as “gremlins” or other such beasts that need to be tamed and ultimately eliminated.
Sera’s approach was different. She wasn’t trying to get rid of her complexes. Instead, she gave them playful names, thanked them for what they were trying to do, and had some fun with them.
This inspired me to see if I could name my complexes and be playful with them. Here’s an example. I have a complex that I’ve decided to call “Frugal Fanny.” When I try to envision her, Frugal Fanny looks like an elderly spinster-type woman who lived through the Great Depression. She worries about, and hoards, every cent that she makes – to the point that she dies with millions of dollars in the bank – and feels like she never truly lived.
I’ve spent years trying to get rid of Frugal Fanny. In therapy, I tried to recognize and refute the irrational cognitions that often led to my financial fear. In the self-help world I repeated affirmations about abundance and posted these affirmations all over my house. I tried tapping away my financial fears. I tried giving to charity when I was low on finances. I tried repeating gratitude prayers while paying bills. I tried to access past lives to understand why I held so much fear about lacking money. I tried focusing on my breath when financial fears arose. I tried printing a fake check and writing a large monthly income on it, then pinning this check to my vision board.
But Frugal Fanny is still here. She is here whether I have $100 or $1,000 in the bank. She is here no matter how hard I try to make her disappear.
Lately I’ve been taking a more playful approach with Frugal Fanny. First, I named and acknowledged her existence – and I did this by giving her a funny name that makes me smile. Second, when she appears, I first thank her for her efforts. Then I gently let her know that her services are not needed in that moment. The conversation might go something like this:
“Thank-you, Fanny, for trying to protect me. Throughout my life you’ve helped me avoid making irrational financial decisions and you’ve prevented me from going into huge amounts of debt. I remember when I was eighteen years old and you helped me squirrel away all the tips I made at my waitressing job. Those tips helped me buy a used car, a computer, and paid for my first year of university. So trust me when I say that I appreciate you. At this exact moment, however, your services are not needed. I’m about to purchase a $10 bottle of body lotion, and I have more than enough money in the bank to afford it. So how about you let me take the lead here?”
Elizabeth Gilbert described a similar approach that she takes when fear tries to interfere with her writing process. She thanks her fear for keeping her safe in situations that are actually dangerous and then she gently lets it know that writing is not life-threatening and thus fear is not allowed to be in the driver’s seat in that moment.
I’ve created names for some of my other complexes, too. I have Work-Horse Wendy, who is a slave driver that tries to make sure I’m being productive during every waking moment of the day. I also have Humbleina, who tries to keep me humble and modest, and who wants me to play small in the world. And sometimes my complexes like to work together. For example, Frugal Fanny and Humbelina sometimes team up to warn me that I’ve set my hourly rates too high, or that I don’t deserve financial abundance, or that the money I have in the bank could disappear at any moment.
Being playful with these complexes doesn’t make them go away.
It also doesn’t mean that I blindly accept them with overflowing love and compassion. It just means that I talk with them. I acknowledge them. I play with them. I laugh with (and at) them. I don’t try to figure out where they came from. And I don’t try to eliminate them.
I’m taking an approach that Rumi recommended long ago in this poem:
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Which of your complexes are serving as your guides right now? What are their names? What are they trying to teach you? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
Bethany Butzer, Ph.D. is an author, speaker, researcher, and yoga teacher who helps people create a life they love. Check out her book, The Antidepressant Antidote, follow her on Facebook and Twitter, and join her whole-self health revolution.
If you’d like tips on how to create a life you love, plus some personal instruction from Bethany, check out her online course, Creating A Life You Love: Find Your Passion, Live Your Purpose and Create Financial Freedom.
Image courtesy of Frederic Frognier.