The Snow Globe
This is one of my favorite images to use, especially in the early stages of working with someone new. People coming into therapy -- especially for the first time -- have so much going on in their lives and in their heads that they tend to be completely overwhelmed. Feeling "lost" personally, relationally, and in life. More often than not, people also feel exceedingly alone. Beginning the process of talking about all of the areas in their life where there is pain or distress feels like tipping a snow globe upside down three or four times.
Existing in the midst of all that swirling snow and water is disorienting. It's hard to see anything clearly and there is no sense that it is ever going to subside. For many people, this type of experience is prompted by a major life change -- loss of a loved one, divorce, unemployment, physical illness, etc. Unfortunately, these types of changes often don't come alone and people walk through the door following a break up, having conflict with friends, AND being dissatisfied with work. Life can get turned upside down and messy easily.
Being inside the snow globe also mirrors the common experience of being separated or blocked from outside support and perspective. People often work hard to contain their experiences and keep others from being "burdened" or "worried" about them which serves to remove them from one of the few lifelines that is available in moments of chaos -- support. Their loved ones are stuck outside the snow globe only being able to see glimpses and can be lost from the view of the person inside. The layer of glass can create the painful experience of being unable to reach the other person and thus unable to connect meaningfully.
Because the person is in the center of the vortex, they have also lost perspective that as big and scary as this situation feels, it is -- in fact-- contained within a glass orb. In moments of extreme stress, the brain begins to go into the fight/flight response which activates the sympathetic nervous system. This physiological experience increases our heart rate and adrenaline and decreases our relational ability amongst other things. The brain perceives the level of threat in the environment and responds in kind with an attempt to protect the self from harm by increasing energy and speeding up response time. This is a lovely system when the threat is a mountain lion but can feel confusing when the threat is hearing your partner say "we need to talk." Feeling the need or obligation to figure things out alone heightens the experience of the threat because everything is harder when we are doing it alone. Cut to being scared, overwhelmed, and completely alone in the middle of the swirling blizzard that is your life but trying to act like everything's fine.
My role as the therapist is to help normalize this experience. Of course they're feeling overwhelmed -- anyone would be given the situation. I attempt to give hope through the knowledge that as chaotic and disorienting as it is to be in the middle of that snow globe right now, things will begin to settle. Our task is to be as patient as possible and provide an opportunity for the snow to settle around them. All feelings -- pleasant or unpleasant -- are temporary. This feeling will not last. Even though everything is swirling, they actually have both their feet firmly planted. The situation is chaotic, they are not. You can feel chaotic but that does not mean that you are chaotic. I also help them understand that if I am able to see something that they couldn't or offer what feels like a very simple perspective, this is because I am not inside the snow globe. We all tend to be better at seeing things and offering feedback when it is not about our life. If the answer were easy and clear, they would have already done it. I offer that my job is to help them with the skills they need to tolerate the process of waiting for the snow to settle and then to help take inventory once it has. Things will be different, the landscape of life may be changed, but there will be greater clarity and better ability to see and access support once the snow settles.
The other helpful reminder is that this is the function and experience of a snow globe. It happens. Even with all best efforts on our part to protect the snow globe, put it on a high shelf or behind cabinet doors, sometimes it's going to get shaken up. Life is going to continue to happen. There will be other times when the unexpected occurs and we feel thrown into the swirling snowstorm again. Finding a balance between the acceptance of this eventuality and the need to still do what is within our power to prevent unnecessary chaos is the work of therapy. Control what we can and accept that we can only extend so far. With practice, people can learn to remain more grounded in moments of transition, be mindful during the worst of the storm, and be prepared to adjust as needed once the snow settles. And that is the beauty of a snow globe.