NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Will” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.
Will: Break on through
Copyright 2014 David J. Bookbinder
There are many ways psychotherapists can help people. We can provide validation, emotional support, help formulate goals, encourage, motivate, identify dysfunctional patterns, devise strategies for overcoming them, and sometimes even inspire. But often, to fully surmount difficulties, there is a decisive moment when will comes into play.
Will is what enables us to get up and do it again, raises the apparently defeated fighter from the mat, enables the runner to move out from behind when at the brink of total exhaustion. Will is what keeps us going when everything in us says we can’t. Will is the difference between the triumphant and the failed hero, not only in myth also in our own personal struggles.
Will is the key to breaking through what one of my mentors, psychologist Jim Grant, called the “Spell ceiling.” Our collections of past injuries, and the mistaken beliefs and patterns we have created to protect ourselves from them, can be regarded as a trance-like Spell. This Spell subconsciously controls much of what we think, feel, and do. Until we awaken from it, it commands us to repeat our patterns. When we increase awareness and act in ways that defy our Spells, they weaken and we get stronger.
The Spell ceiling occurs just as the Spell is about to yield. At that point, the Spell – which doesn’t know we don’t need its protection anymore – puffs itself up and, like the Wizard at the end of The Wizard of Oz, tries to persuade us that there’s yet another job for us to undertake. Though we have killed our Wicked Witches, the Wizard tries to scare us into going on another mission anyway because that’s all he knows how to do.
But by then we have changed. Just as the characters in the movie have worked through their illusions – the “heartless” Tin Man has shown compassion, the “brainless” Scarecrow has demonstrated his intelligence, the “cowardly” Lion has led the charge, and “homeless” Dorothy now wants nothing more than to return to Auntie Em and Kansas – we have reached the threshold of our true selves without realizing it.
It’s not difficult to spot the Spell ceiling if you know it’s there. Old patterns reemerge. In therapy sessions, I hear clients suddenly using words like “overwhelmed,” “lazy,” and “just”: “I just couldn’t make myself do it. I was overwhelmed. Maybe I’m just lazy.” People who rarely have problems focusing space out in sessions. Those who have been on time for months forget their appointments. “It feels like I’m going backwards,” some of them say.
At this critical moment, will must come into play. If we succumb to the Spell now, we lose ground and it resumes its role of puppeteer. If, instead, we muster up our will to resist returning to old patterns, the curtain is soon pulled aside and the Wizard revealed to be merely an old man shouting desperately into a megaphone to bolster the illusion that he still has power. When the hold of the Spell is broken, we are free to redirect the energy we have been supplying to it, fueling our own growth.
We have broken through the Spell ceiling, but unlike the Wizard in the film, the Spell has not thrown in the towel. To continue to stay ahead of it, we need to continue to do what got us to the other side. Will is again the tool we need, coupled with awareness.
In 12-step recovery programs, the phrase “fake it till you make it” expresses the idea of using will to assume new, more self-actualizing behaviors and attitudes. By willing ourselves to act as if we are already living a sober life, we live the sober life, and its benefits become clear. Similarly, the socially anxious person who acts as if he or she is not anxious often becomes calmer and more outgoing in social situations; the depressed person who acts as if he or she is not depressed behaves in ways that can dispel depression; and so on. Faking it till you make it applies even on the bodily level. Willing ourselves to smile even when it seems as if everything inside wants to frown creates the same physiological response as spontaneous smiling, and that physiological response can improve our mood and our outlook. (Try it now!)
A tool I use with therapy clients to counteract the Spell is the Personal Craziness Index (PCI). Borrowed from the book A Gentle Path Through the Twelve Steps, by Patrick J. Carnes, the PCI provides a way to catalog, in each of ten major life areas, three indicators that remind us how we act when we are Spell-free. Then we track the most significant seven every day. If we are seven-out-of-seven, all is well. If we notice we are slipping back into Spell-influenced behaviors, chances are good our Spell is setting us up for another assault.
The preventive is built into the PCI. For instance, suppose that in the “Health” category we wrote that when we are doing well, we go to the gym three times a week, cook our own meals, and sleep at least seven hours per night. When we notice we are skipping the gym, or picking up junk food, or skimping on sleep, we become aware we are drifting out of the behaviors that helped us break our Spells. At this point, we’ve given up only a little ground, and getting back on track is easy: we will ourselves to go back to the gym, cook our meals, make sure we get enough sleep, and the downward slide reverses. By themselves, each of these neglectful acts may mean very little, but as early warning signs, they invaluable.
Catching the Spell before it gathers enough strength to pull us under is much easier than breaking through again once we have dipped below the Spell ceiling. The Personal Craziness Index lets us “fake it till we make it” at a fine level of granularity, where the amount of will needed to get back on track is minimal, and the results are evident, often within minutes.
As the old saying goes, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Use your will. Take the way.
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