Lucy and the Chocolates
Warning: If you weren't thinking about chocolate before reading this, you will be by the end of this post.
There are more than a few reasons why I love this particular image and use it often. For those of you who did not spend as much time as a kid watching old episodes of I Love Lucy, I will give you a quick run down of this episode. The gang gets into a discussion about spending habits and in the typical tomfoolery of TV sitcoms, Lucy and Ethel get jobs at a chocolate factory and Ricky and Fred stay home to do the housework. In the process, hilarity ensues.
Now, for my purposes there are several aspects of this that I believe relate to the therapy process. When Lucy and Ethel first start out in this new role, things are going great! The task is easy, the pace of the conveyor belt is manageable, and they are able to keep up. When things in life are within our control, we are able to feel competent, confident, and capable. The task of living is one that we can handle and we tend to do pretty well. When the brain perceives that there is enough internal resource to accomplish the tasks in front of us, we can take a shower, go to work, feed the kids, pay bills, see friends, exercise, and do any number of other important tasks.
Unfortunately, life is not always so pleasant. The conveyor belt begins to speed up and the number of chocolates streaming by increases. We work longer than intended, are late to get the kids, forgot to pay the phone bill, haven't called mom in 3 weeks, and are just so exhausted all the time. Attempting to keep other people from finding out that we are entering a state of overwhelm requires some creativity and often some forms of dishonesty. Pulling chocolates off the conveyor belt, eating them, and hiding them in our hats to prevent being "found out". Each person has their version of "sort of holding it together": drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, video games, foregoing sleep, making plans then cancelling them, and telling half-truths. These types of actions work...sort of...for a little while...until they don't. Many people enter the therapy process at the point of realizing that however well they used to be keeping up and managing life, they now have a hat full of chocolate and are in danger of the world catching on.
How we get into this type of situation varies from person to person but there are a few key points I'll highlight. First of all, being in a state of overwhelm does not mean that someone is incompetent or has failed. For some people, this process happens more gradually. When things are going well and life is manageable, confidence builds and there is motivation to take on more tasks and they have the genuine belief that there is enough time and energy for all of them. However, as the conveyor belt speeds up, it's easy to quickly go from handling it to not handling it. For others, there is an aspect of trying to prove a point that is at play. Taking on more tasks than you can reasonably handle or accepting a challenge to make someone else think of you as more or less of whatever you want to be more or less of can become a point of pride or necessity. Beliefs about value and worth get mixed up with the amount that we are able to handle and so rising to meet ever increasing expectations is a way to prove to others (and ourselves) that we are valuable. Helping people evaluate the nature of their overwhelm is an important first step because the fears about making changes will vary depending on the functionality it serves.
Unfortunately, the answer to being overwhelmed and under-resourced is not to keep doing the same thing and hope that eventually what got us into this mess will get us out of it. One of the difficult parts about beginning therapy is that it often feels like being found out. Admitting to another person that you have been taking home a hat full of chocolates every day for the past year and a half can bring up feelings of embarrassment, shame, disappointment, and panic. Beginning to think about doing anything differently can bring up resistance and fear. Because people adapt fairly well to whatever means they're using to keep things functional, there is anxiety around doing anything else. This isn't a functional way to live but it's become familiar. This part of the therapy process requires some tough conversations about what values and priorities the person holds, what things they feel they "should" or "have to" do, and how it is working for them to try and do it all. Giving things up, altering the way time is spent, changing patterns of thought, and ultimately doing what is within our control to slow down the conveyor belt is not easy but often necessary. Reducing the speed of life does not make you weak, it makes you realistic and balanced. In those situations where a person's life circumstances cannot be dramatically altered -- loved one with chronic illness, financial need to work two jobs, academic stress from being in school -- the task becomes to find a balance between reducing or changing the things that can be altered and adding additional help where possible. One of our greatest resources in life is the help of other people.
The initial role of a therapist is to do exactly that. People include a new person who can help address the feeling of overwhelm, identify how it developed and provide some non-judgmental support around what to do now. Moving into a place of both acceptance AND change is challenging but provides great benefit to the pacing of our lives. I am doing the best I can today AND tomorrow can be better. I am really stressed out AND I am doing everything I can to not make it worse. Above all else, I am imperfect AND I am working to let other people to see that with less fear.