Of Parking Lots, Stress, Life and Psychotherapy
On a recent journey across the country, I had the experience of driving into many shopping centers and malls. On one trip it occurred to me that the parking lots in these centers are easy to enter but difficult or almost impossible to exit. I frequently found myself driving round and round in search of the exit. "Looking for the exit!" Wow, I suddenly had a brain storm. Perhaps this is what life is all about. Perhaps this is why so many of us seek the services of a psychotherapist. Let me explain:
When people come to a therapist they usually present a set of problems that, upon closer scrutiny, they have been unable to resolve. They cannot find the "exit." In this situation, many of us discover that our old coping skills no longer work. In a manner of speaking, we find ourselves driving in circles. We are unable to find a solution to the issues at hand. Just because something worked before does not mean it will work again. I was aware that as I drove around the shopping centers vainly searching for an exit, I was missing many of the signs that showed way out and I became increasingly angry, agitated and anxious. It did not occur to me to just stop, get my bearings, ask for directions and follow instructions.
Ask for directions? Oh, no, like so many people who want to "tough it out" by themselves, I was not going to ask directions, at least, not at first. When I did, getting out of the centers became easy. Isn't this what so many of us do? I have heard from endless numbers of people over the years, among both friends and family, that they will not consult a psychologist or clinical social worker. No, they insist that they can handle things alone. And, so, they continue driving around in endless circles just like I did in the parking lots.
Parking lots? At first, I blamed the designers of the shopping centers who, according to my theory, wanted to make it impossible to leave without taking a tour of all the stores in the center. Why? So that we might stop again and shop some more, I told myself.
Then I realized how easy it was to blame others for my inattention to detail and lack of logical thinking as I was driving. In other words, is it not possible that the problem was only partially due to the shopping center designers? Is it not possible that I was ignoring important signs and arrows that, had I paid attention, would have facilitated my exiting?
How many problems do we face that are really of our own creation because we will not or can not think logically in order to resolve a problem. Instead, we stubbornly go about things in the same old hopeless way we did before.
Let me give an example of someone close and very dear to me. One of my daughters was going on a camping trip with her boyfriend and two of his young siblings. This was a one day outing in the middle of the week. In point of fact, my daughter did not really want to go because there was so very much to get done at work. Instead of verbalizing her needs, she grumbled to herself and agreed to go. The camping trip involved bicycle riding along with the over night camping. Her decision to suppress her real feelings about going was not unusual for her. She is, and always has been, a "people pleaser." In many ways it is an endearing characteristic of hers but does not work when it goes against her real, but unstated, needs.
As a result of withholding her real thoughts and preferences she forgot to load the bike pedals with her other equipment. When she suddenly remembered, the were already headed out of town but turned back to get the pedals. By the time they arrived at their destination and unpacked she realized that she had left the front wheel of her bike at the bike shop!! While the others went riding the next day, she stayed behind and decided to do some yoga, one of her true loves. A good idea, right? Well, she crumbled into utter despair when the sky clouded up and it started to rain. With the tent and all their gear packed there was nothing left to do but curse...and get wet.
For my daughter, people pleasing is her repetitive way of avoiding dealing with her issues. Reader, do not feel superior. The whole point of this blog is to illustrate the fact that we all reach those times in life when we fall back on old and unsuccessful ways of coping with problems that demand different solutions. We become like myself, driving round and round the parking lot, cursing the parking lot designer and not stopping to think of new ways to solve the problem.
We go to therapy and seek help when we come to those periods in our lives when we need help in finding new and creative ways to solve problems.
If you find yourself stuck and driving in circles, do not insist on "toughing it out yourself." Instead, reach out for help. With therapy you will come to see all kinds of signs and clues that you completely missed before.
Your comments and questions are appreciated.
Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, PhD