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Feeling Sad? Learn to Spot ‘the Elephant in the Room.’

I am the greatest, I said that before I knew I was - Muhammad Ali

I like elephants!

In my office and consulting room there are some quirky objects. But by far the ones that attract the most comments are the little row of elephants which march their way across the mantle piece.

Some are made of dark wood, some are made of light wood and some are brass. The number varies according to how many my grand daughter, Mollie, loses or finds whenever she visits and takes them down to play.

Over the years, I’ve become aware there are many stories around elephants and I have often re arranged them according to the belief system of my client.

‘There should be seven,’ one client told me with some authority.

‘They should all be facing the door’ said another.

‘They should be arranged in order of size with the largest first’ I was told recently.

I always acquiesce.

I want my clients to feel comfortable, safe and positive. Their advice is well intentioned and, as I dutifully rearrange the elephants, there is a sense of restored harmony in the room.

Belief systems are strange things

I guess we’ve all heard that breaking a mirror gives you seven year’s bad luck and a black cat crossing your path gives good luck?

And you’ll certainly be familiar with the notion that treading on the cracks in the pavement means you get eaten by bears at the next corner, but did you know you must never put new shoes on a table?

In parts of America, there are diagonally placed bedroom windows known as ‘witch windows’. It seems witches can’t fly their broomsticks through diagonal windows!

And not so many years ago, thousands of innocent women were burnt at the stake after being branded as witches by ‘evidence’ such as being weighed against a stack of bibles.
If the suspected witch was heavier or lighter than the stack of Bibles, then clearly she was guilty. If the scales balance out, she was innocent. As you might imagine, a perfect balance didn’t happen that often!

Alternatively the alleged witch might be bound at hands and feet, with heavy rocks attached, and thrown into water. If the body floated to the surface, that was ‘proof ‘the accused was a witch and she’d be executed by some other means. If she sank to the bottom and drowned, she was innocent.

Yes, beliefs can be dangerous and powerful things.

The elephant in the room

There is a historically dark side to beliefs which are held to be truths. Wars have been fought for many centuries over differing belief systems where both parties ‘knew’ that right is on their side.

And some of the beliefs we may have held personally may seem laughable to us a few years later. Families are a rich source of ‘old knowledge and wisdom’ passed down the years by well meaning elders. I was told by my mother not to sit with my back to the fire as it would ‘dry up my marrowbone’ and sitting on a cold radiator would give me piles (mind you she may have been right on that score!)

Worryingly, I have had clients whose beliefs were actually endangering their lives.

One young Sicilian girl thought the man who visited her in her dreams was returning from the dead to bully her just as he had done when he was alive. She gave up sleeping and was on the verge of a nervous break down.

Another young man felt that, as he had dabbled in black magic in his teens, he was condemned both in this life and the next. He predicted he would not live past the age of 21.

Both those beliefs had to be challenged during our work together and replaced by more helpful and supportive ones. Sometimes we need to pull back to see the bigger picture and acknowledge that beliefs are not truths.

So, if you think you are too fat, too thin, too old, too ugly, too unintelligent, too lazy, too boring, too ill-deserving or any other self-limiting, self-imposed label, you might want to challenge those ‘facts.’

As I said to a client recently.

‘If your belief system means you’re feeling sad, go shopping for another one. Why hold onto negative ‘beliefs’ when you can choose positive ones instead?’

Seeing the bigger picture

There’s a wonderful old poem by John Godfrey Saxe which tells the story of six blind men of Indostan who wanted to ‘see’ an elephant.

The first, falling against its side declared the elephant was ‘like a wall’. The second felt his way along the tusk and decided an elephant was ‘like a spear’. The third approached the trunk and observed an elephant was very much ‘like a snake.’

The fourth reached out and touched a leg, and said that clearly an elephant was ‘like a tree’. The fifth, grabbed an ear and thought an elephant was ‘like a fan’ and the sixth had the tail and thought an elephant was ‘like a rope’.

The poem finishes with an insightful observation about perspective, context and ‘truth’.

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

So, if you’re feeling sad, perhaps it’s time to identify and challenge your own unhelpful beliefs.

But before you can stop the elephant in the room, you have to learn to spot the elephant in the room!

Frances Masters

Frances Masters is a BACP accredited psychotherapist with over 30,000 client hours of experience. Follow her @fusioncoachuk, or visit The Integrated Coaching Academy for details about up coming training.