Imagine yourself in a car with a terrified toddler. She’s in a full-blown panic about something that doesn’t really make any sense. The fear, for her, is real. But YOU know that she’s operating with a wee, unformed brain. She doesn’t have all the information–she’s two!
She’s sure that you’re doing the wrong thing, going in the wrong direction. She’s screaming for you to STOP! Let her take over! That if you don’t, you will all be killed by the giant squid-spider monster made of splintered bones and chocolate pudding!
What do you do?
Join the panic?
Screech to the curb?
Give her the wheel?
No. You do not.
You are not two. You are an adult. You know there’s no such thing as spider-squid monsters made of bone and mashed potatoes or whatever-it-is-she-said. You keep going, using the old distract and redirect, or cooing gentle reassurance that it’s okay, she’s okay, everything’s going to be okay.
Our thoughts are like that. Our thoughts are, frankly, like that and a slew of every type and age.
We all want agency. We want to feel free and able and capable of moving our lives where we want to go. Sometimes our thoughts are helpful. We think things that make us feel brave, confident, unconcerned about what other’s think–unstoppable. Other times our thoughts are like the two-year-old, sure we are headed for deep, dark danger.
There’s a metaphor in ACT therapy that goes something like this: Our lives are driven by thoughts. Our thoughts are like passengers on a bus. We are both the passengers AND bus. We can get stuck when we think we must get rid of certain difficult or dangerous or problematic characters before we can go where we want to go. But what if that isn’t true?
What if everybody gets to stay on the bus? But not everybody gets to drive.
Growing, becoming, unfolding–whatever you want to call it–is wonderful and right and good but perfectionism can masquerade as ‘self-improvement’ keeping us on the side of the road forever. Just as soon as I lose ten pounds, get a bit more information, pay off this debt, finish this project, get the kids off to college, stop being so reactive, feel less anxious, learn self-care, muster more courage, love my body, THEN I’ll do (fill in the blank).
What I love about this metaphor is that we don’t have to wait. We don’t have to kick anyone off the bus or work through workbooks or extract promises or assurances from anyone. We don’t even have to use only one driver. We just need to match the task with the talent and carry on through the noise and chaos that will surely arise. (Though, for sure, some people are never getting the wheel: See toddler story above.)
A few of the folks on my bus: A bawdy, brazen, badass. A maverick, rebel, revolutionary. One person racing up and down the aisles yelling WE’RE NOT GOING TO MAKE IT. Someone else gazing serenely out the window. Someone passed in the back by the toilets. Someone else gently offering assistance. A person unpacking delicious snacks for everyone. (Someone right next to her trying to steal it all away.) A body jumping from seat to seat. A face pressed up against the glass, silently sobbing. Hands opening a stack of maps. A couple of kids fighting. Others laughing. Someone painting the walls. A person right by the driver, correcting every move. Someone trying to escape. And someone else recording it all, harvesting the wisdom of a thousand years.
What about you? Where’s your bus headed? Who’s on it? Can you make room for the whole messy crew?