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An Aphorism a Day Keeps the Heartache Away

When stressed out, pull an aphorism out of your hip pocket.

Source: Alexas_Fotos/Pixabay Commons

An aphorism is a short or pithy statement that expresses a general truth. Some aphorisms are truisms, obvious on their face, but they still convey useful ideas. One of the best known aphorisms is Ben Franklin’s “a penny saved is a penny earned,” which harnesses the power of pith to remind us about the importance of not squandering our earnings.

In therapy, aphorisms may be used as coping statements that patients pull from their hip pockets whenever they are needed. They may be self-generated expressions or familiar sayings collected from well known literary or scientific sources. I recall a patient with panic disorder who reminded himself whenever he started to feel panicky, “I’ve been through this before and I can get through this again.” In his case, repeating this self-statement had the effect of decatastrophizing the situation and he was able to respond to it as a manageable problem rather than a pending disaster.

Another patient used a familiar aphorism, “it is what it is,” to deal with the daily slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. By saying to ourselves, “it is what it is,” or reminding ourselves of the title of the song made famous by Frank Sinatra, That’s Life, we may come to accept that we can’t control every outcome in life and that all we can realistically expect of ourselves is to do the best we can with what we can control.

To harness the power of pith, allow me to offer a few aphorisms that may help keep heartache away:

"Two things are infinite: The universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe."

- Albert Einstein

Yes, people do dumb things. They do stupid things, and they do things that upset us. But if we recognize that people are people and that they will eventually disappoint us, frustrate us, and drive us to want to sequester ourselves in a cabin in the woods, then we will not get as bent out of shape by humans just being humans.

"Remember, no one can make you feel inferior without your consent."

- Eleanor Roosevelt

I’ve used this aphorism before in this blog because it addresses a fundamental truth about our capacity to make ourselves miserable. No one can push your buttons unless you let them. Emotions are internal mental experiences that are controlled by how we appraise and judge events in our lives. People may say harsh things, but that’s really a statement about their lack of sensitivity, not about your self-worth.

"If you judge a fish by its ability to climb trees, it will spend its whole life thinking it is stupid."

- Albert Einstein

Einstein was, relatively speaking , the prince of pith. Here, I read him to say we should not judge ourselves by the arbitrary standards that other people set. Why should other people’s opinions of our worth count more than our own? Applying other people’s standards is a dangerous precipice on which to hang our self-esteem.

"Tomorrow is another day."

- Scarlett O’Hara, in Gone with the Wind

Yes, Scarlett, tomorrow is another day. And yes, you don’t have to think about your problems in the here and now. You can postpone your worries, putting them in a worry bag you can open tomorrow (or the next day, or maybe never). With patients who continually ruminate about their problems, I suggest they set a limited time each day for “worry time.” During this scheduled time, say 15 or 20 minutes in the evening, they give themselves permission to worry, but for the rest of the day they keep their worries stay in their worry bag.

"Do, or do not; there is no try."

- Yoda

The Yoda character from Star Wars was a Jedi master, as well as a master of short pithy lines that convey deeper meaning. Yoda reminds us to “just do it,” as the familiar Nike slogan puts it. In “doing” we engage the world by acting upon it, whatever the outcome may be. If things works out, great. If they don’t, we can learn from the experience and move on. We learn from the “doing,” not from "trying" to do something.

“Your life is what your thoughts make it.”

“You are what you think.”

- Confucius

These wisdom statements from Confucius presage by some 2,500 years a central tenet of cognitive- behavioral therapy, which was also expressed perhaps even more eloquently in yet another pithy line by yet another famous sage, William Shakespeare, who penned, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Expressing a similar sentiment, the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov famously said, “Man is what he believes.” What we believe becomes our reality. But it’s a reality we can change by changing how we think.

"Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes."

"Please do not shoot the pianist. He is doing his best."

- Oscar Wilde

Wilde is yet another prince of pith. When faced with disappointment or failure, many people jump to the conclusion that they are stupid or incompetent or worthless, rather than thinking they are just fallible humans who make mistakes. All we can ever expect of ourselves is to do our best. Sometimes the pianist we shoot is ourselves.

"The wise only possess ideas; the greater part of mankind are possessed by them."

- Samuel Coleridge

The English poet Samuel Coleridge is perhaps best known, at least to school children, for his poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It’s one of the few poems I can recall from my early schooling. I believe Coleridge was saying that most people are bound to their ideas, blindly following them and not realizing how they can be prisons of their own making. The wise, he says, possess their ideas and are not controlled by them.

Let me end with a few pithy self-statements my patients have used to help them cope with the challenges they face in life. Perhaps you’ll find these useful as well and pull them from your hip pocket whenever you might need them:

  • One step at a time.
  • Accept what you can’t control and control what you can.
  • Think, don’t react.
  • Deal with it.
  • I can only do the best I can, nothing more.
  • It’s not the end of the world, it only feels that way.
  • Life sucks. Get over it.

© 2019 Jeffrey S. Nevid

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