With the New Year under way I am taking this opportunity to write an article that I am hoping might inspire people to reflect on how they think and feel about themselves, others and life. The reason I say this is due to my experiences as a psychotherapist. A common theme that I encounter in my consulting room is how a high number of clients find it very difficult to understand that ultimately ‘thinking is not doing’. In essence for these clients they opt for Medusa thinking where they turn their thoughts, and life choices into stone rather than what I call ‘butterflies thoughts’ which can be transformed. In this article I will attempt to explain both this difficulty, whilst also describing a different viewpoint.
One of the key skills of a psychotherapist is being able to foster a relationship where patients can be curious about their internal world, i.e. how they think and feel about themselves and others, both in the past and in the present. I sometimes use the analogy of developing one’s internal radar system in order to detect one’s thoughts and feelings. In discussing this idea with one patient she was reminded of trying to catch butterflies with a net as a child. I thought this was a lovely metaphor to describe the transformation process of therapy. For example, the butterfly is associated with symbolism of change and transformation. The more butterfly thoughts and feelings we can catch and let unfold the deeper the transformation of both the patient and therapist.
Why do some people struggle to catch their butterfly thoughts?
There is an unconscious process at play. For some patients their thoughts and feelings do not contain the potential for transformation. They contain the seeds of an unthinkable pain, which has to be attacked, controlled and defended against at all costs. For example, a patient may be afraid to think because they then have to do something about it. For others the mating of thoughts increases the possibility of feeling out of control and needy, whilst also having to engage with painful feelings and realisations such as loss and guilt. Whilst also recognising that one has destructive feelings (envy, jealousy, hate) towards others and life. For some people the solution to this is either to see everybody else as having the problem or not to allow their thoughts to mate. A kind of internal celibacy, where psychological pollination is prohibited.
Therefore, it comes at a painful cost because thoughts for these patients end up being like caterpillars, that eat everything and only produce shit! Using the life cycle of the butterfly as a comparison it’s like the metamorphosis process. In that their thoughts become stuck at an early stage that is the lava stage of development. The ability to transform into a butterfly interrupted. Sadly, anything meaningful gets obliterated or attacked.
In these moments we might say that they find it difficult to transform their thoughts into something symbolic and meaningful, rather they opt for what I call the medusa perspective, which turns thoughts and life choices into stone. This usually manifests itself with obsessional routines and rituals. Unfortunately, when this happens the opportunity to understand ones mind and freedom of choice is greatly restricted. The challenge is to embrace our thoughts and feelings from a 3D perspective. This means staying vigilant to our internal world. A healthy mind, like a healthy garden or eco system needs attending to in order for psychological pollination and good growth to occur. What also helps is a free movement of butterfly thoughts and feelings. I stress we do not want to pin the wings of the butterfly thought/feeling by turning them into stone but rather we want to let them unfold and be set free.
The process is one of catching the thought or feeling and then letting it unfold and be transformed. Ideally we want a mating of thoughts not a crucifixion of thoughts. The mating of thoughts offers the potential for something new to be born.
How can we catch and let our butterfly thoughts unfold and be transformed?
The net or in psychological terms our own analytical curiosity is the key piece of equipment, without which we couldn’t seek out or catch our butterfly thoughts and feelings. I encourage my patients to be free with their thoughts and feelings. Although this sounds easy enough, in practice it can be one of the most difficult things to achieve. Reasons being embarrassment, humiliation, judgment and mistrust. I sometimes use the analogy of being joint detectives searching for clues to solving their personal mystery. The key skill for a detective is being able to look for important clues. The most important clues can be the ones that appear insignificant or innocuous. Generally, these are the thoughts and feelings that have been lurking around in the background of a person’s mind for a long time and have become part of the internal furniture. As a result, harnessing the spirit of analytical curiosity, without judgment is a crucial factor in identifying these thoughts and feelings.
Some patients start therapy with a broken net and find it very difficult to catch or contain any thoughts or feelings, whilst for others their nets are overflowing with all sorts of unprocessed thoughts and feelings. Finally, for some the use of their net is restricted to certain areas under their control. To begin with the therapist takes on the role of a lepidopterist (a person who studies butterflies) and uses his/her net as an auxiliary net. Over time with the help of the therapist/lepidopterist the patients net begins to repair itself and they learn how to use it to catch their own butterfly thoughts.
Giving form to these thoughts and feelings by naming, initiates the unfolding and analytical process. The term used to describe the next step in this unfolding sequence is circumambulation. Putting it simply it means walking around something that is under observation. In this context it means looking at the butterfly thought/feelings in detail from a 3D perspective. During this process of circumambulation we are then trying to instigate another process, which is differentiation. This is where we try and distinguish the past from the present or the underlying meaning from the overt content. If this unfolding process has been successful then it will generate insight or an emotional response. It can also feel like the penny has dropped or a good fit has been achieved. As a result, over time repeating this process leads to a better understanding of our mind. One patient described this process similar to creating some order to a very untidy room.
To facilitate this unfolding analytical process I encourage my patients to monitor and record their thoughts and feelings inside and outside of therapy. I have found that some patients assume that because they are engaged in personal therapy change and transformation will occur naturally. Unfortunately, this perspective is naive. My experience has taught me that change occurs from taking responsibility combined with regular and committed effort. I quite often use the analogy of attending a gym and keeping physically fit (please refer to previous article ‘Psychological gym: The work out for the mind’). There is a perspective which recognises and values the importance of integrating physical exercise and diet into our lives. If this is not followed then it is likely that weight will be gained and the body becomes susceptible to aches, pains and injuries. The relationship to our mind is just as important.
Generally, at the beginning of therapy the patient’s ability to cast their net is restricted by the fear of what they will find. For a lot of patients they have a presumption that what they will find and catch will be negative. This is usually due to very early experiences which have created an internal template/belief of mistrust in both themselves and the other. This results in a damaged net or a net that has reduced capacity. Unfortunately, this stifles internal curiosity and can lead to a sterile, and polluted state of mind where psychological pollination is restricted and attacked. However, being able to comprehend that ‘thinking is not doing’ and that thoughts and feelings are something to be nurtured and transformed, facilitates the process of understanding ones mind. Catching butterflies then becomes something to be embraced rather than feared.