In the weeds

She has an elephantine  memory.

She remembers everything, especially painful stuff.

She can describe every frustration, disappointment and betrayal that wounded her in the last twenty years.

She can (and does) recite conversations — especially hurtful ones — from a decade ago.

Listening to her I sometimes feel like we’re crawling together through an endless field of weeds.

The technical term for this is perseveration: the tendency of certain memories to persist even when they’ve stopped being relevant.

Bad habit, perseverating.

Because where you put your attention is what grows.

Keep your attention on painful memories, and you fill your life with pain.

Keep your attention on stuff you cannot change (like the past), and you fill your mind with helplessness.

Sometime you need to find a way to stand up and see beyond the weed field.

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8 responses to “In the weeds

  • Shankar

    Sir, when a client is reciting the painful past, should I fully listen or cut her short before explaining the idea of shifting the attention from past to overcome the pain.
    What is catharsis?

    • Steve Hauptman

      Catharsis is the process of discharging painful emotions — fear, anger, grief — by expressing them. Exploring painful memories can be an effective (even essential) way of achieving that. So at the start of a therapy I usually spend plenty of time encouraging clients to do so.

      The sort of perseveration this post describes is something else again. It’s the behavior of someone who’s (a) not getting any real relief from reviewing the past, and often (b) doing it to avoid any other kind of work in therapy — changing their own perceptions or behavior, for example.

      I’d never cut someone off who was engaged in healthy cathartic discharge. But I try not to enable clients who’d rather review their painful histories over and over and over.

  • d00fus

    I’ve noticed that I want to wallow (about my imploded marriage) when I have a difficult writing project at work (lawyer). I have found that writing is my monkey-trap–I have been a “good writer” since I was in school. How do I get less anxious and get work done, and go out to play?

    • Steve Hauptman

      Please clarify: By “wallow” you mean obsess or perseverate? And how is writing your monkeytrap — because you get insecure and perfectionistic?

    • Steve Hauptman

      Sounds like you’re anxious. (Obsessing and perfectionism are both symptoms of anxiety.) Which suggests you may not have processed all your feelings about the marriage. That’s understandable, since it ended not long ago and major losses like that take some time to sort through. If we were working together I’d be asking you to explore your thoughts and feelings about it on a regular basis, and looking for signs that you may be stuck in the grieving process.

  • d00fus

    Thank you–that was helpful. I don’t think I have “processed” all my feelings. But I wonder if that is possible–is there an end? So many feelings, so little time 🙂 To be fair, I suppose I’ve always been a perfectionist given to brooding. The failed marriage only adds to that 🙂

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