The Tools

Transform your problems into courage, confidence, and creativity.

Talk About the War

Worrying almost destroyed her life.

I could tell Elizabeth was a worrier before she opened her mouth: she had a haunted look and wrung her hands together so compulsively I thought the skin would come off. With a loving, supportive husband, healthy children, a good job, and sufficient income, what did she have to worry about?

Everything, it turned out. In the first session it was a headache she was sure signalled a brain tumor. In the next session, she’d moved on to the polar ice caps melting (“shouldn’t we relocate to higher ground?”). Her inner world was a hellish place where incessant worries bound her in a web of doom.

You might not worry like Elizabeth. But most of us suffer from some version of negative thinking. For you it might be complaints about life or self-criticism. Whatever the content, repetitious thoughts create a negative energy that envelopes you. We call this the Black Cloud.

The Black Cloud screens out everything positive. All you can see is what’s wrong with life. Pretty soon you can’t enjoy anything. Elizabeth couldn’t settle in with a good book, take in a movie, or meet a friend for lunch. The Black Cloud also alienates people. Elizabeth’s husband was losing patience with her, and her college-bound daughter complained, “When you help me with my applications it feels like you aren’t doing it for me – you’re doing it to quell your own anxiety about me getting into a good school.”

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Before she came to me, Elizabeth had tried to solve her problem by thinking positively. “For three days I tried to substitute a positive thought for every negative one. But I ended up feeling like I was just sticking my head in the sand. I don’t know why they call it the power of positive thinking – the negative thoughts have all the power.”

Why are negative thoughts so powerful? We assume (because science tells us so) that the universe is indifferent to us. That means we must insure our own survival. We do this by forecasting every bad thing that might happen to you in an attempt to control (or at least prepare) for it. When I explained this to Elizabeth, it triggered an example of this mechanism. “When I was a little girl I would stay up all night worrying that my parents were going to split up. It became a ritual. I really believed that as long as I worried about it, it wouldn’t happen.”

My own grandmother became an advanced practitioner of this dark art. Whenever I brought her good news she would spit on the ground and growl at me, “Talk about the war!” In essence, my good news threatened her readiness for the next calamity.

There is an alternative worldview. What if on a level we can’t see, the universe is interested in our welfare, supporting us in ways large and small? It’s not that much of a stretch. Your body extracts oxygen from the air, digests complex foods, and allows you the miracle of sight and hearing. The earth supplies us with food, its temperature stays within a habitable range, and it gives us the raw materials with which to build things. If you could feel the universe loving and supporting you, maybe you could stop worrying.

But this worldview doesn’t come naturally. You need a tool. And the tool has to move you from your head to your heart. Your heart is where you know that you’re loved and cared for – you know it because you feel grateful. For that reason, the tool is called the Grateful Flow. Using it, Elizabeth was able to replace her negative thoughts with a flow of gratitude. She had to use the tool many times, but as she did, her mind began to relax. She started to appreciate the wealth of goodness in her life. When problems did come up -- her daughter failed to get into her first-choice college -- Elizabeth was able to keep them in perspective: “I was so happy that I could finally be the one to reassure her.”

In her final session I asked Elizabeth what she was most grateful for and her answer told me that she’d undergone a dramatic transformation: “I’m grateful that my mind was so out of control. Without that, I never would’ve learned the Grateful Flow or discovered how wonderful life can really be.”

-- Barry Michels

 

 

Based in Los Angeles, Phil Stutz (left) is a psychiatrist and Barry Michels is a psychotherapist.

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