Weeds, by David Kohanyi, LMFT
A number of years ago my daily commute would take me east on the I-8, past La Mesa and El Cajon, past Lakeside and Alpine and, exiting the freeway, onto the quiet, sloping roads of rural eastern San Diego county. One morning on my way to work I was surprised to see two men in severe-looking protective gear spraying the public roadside near the offramp.
Was the county really taking these measures-- hazardous chemicals, paid public employees-- for the sake of combating weeds here? It seemed like a perfect illustration of a culture obsessed with control, driven to the point of monitoring and removing unwanted plants on the roadside.
I remembered reading in Hugh Brody's book, The Other Side of Eden , about hunting societies whose languages lacked a word for weeds. Not being farmers with crops to worry about or fussy gardeners, the category of "weed" seems not to have arisen for them. Plants just were. Gardeners and farmers often have practical reasons to fight weeds, like food or profits, but if weeds bother the millions of us grooming our yards or public roadsides, we are generally invested only in the aesthetic problem of weeds. Doesn't look right, doesn't feel right, doesn't belong. I suggest that this is rather like our way of thinking about the unwanted presences in our psyches as well.
"Treatment" is a word that can be used for what the men described above were doing; of course to treat the weeds is to kill them. And this is often the kind of treatment that the client seeking therapy might expect: she seeks therapy effectively saying, " here is my pest… please destroy it for me"; this is what the psychologist James Hillman called the "extermination" fantasy of therapy. Individuals in our culture feel very comfortable in the extermination fantasy. It is present each time the client thinks that he would be ok if only he could remove some troubling circumstance or trait: lose weight, be happier, get rid of anxiety, make more money, be more confident, not worry so much, move to New York.
I would like to briefly propose a few ideas for the reader who says, indeed, "these things can be so uncomfortable--- if not extermination, blasting away the problem, then what?". Here are a few possibilities to play with. I offer them to the reader as a small garden of weeds to dig around in.
- Listening to the symptoms:
What might my unwanted feelings and thoughts have to teach me about myself? What would happen if I adopt an attitude of curiosity or even amusement towards them? How does my opening to the symptom change my sense of things?
- Challenging the self-concept:
Our unwanted psychic guests can expand our sense of who and what we are. Why don't my unwanted qualities and habits fit with the person I am 'supposed' to be? Perhaps I could try to take a step towards softening the boundaries of my self, admitting that the unwanted presences of my thoughts and emotions are a part of me too. Perhaps I can imagine myself less as an actor in a play than as a stage on which numerous and varied characters and plot lines are played out.
- Seeing maladies, pain, and conflict as part of a story:
We often have an ability to accept or even savor what is unpleasant and nerve-wracking when it is external-- at a far enough remove to appreciate it on a screen or in a book-- hungry zombies, faults in the stars, sad notebooks, being smitten by a surly, pale, attachment-averse stud with fangs. Would it be impossible to make a similar move with our internal 'drama'? In stories we find great appeal in unresolved longings, quirks and defects of character, irony, and mishap. What have we got in our own stories?
- Acknowledging our imperfections as gifts:
The dandelion is also a flower, as all small children know. The codependent may also be a person capable of deep love and affection, the melancholic person may see layers of meaning hidden to others, and the angry person may have success in standing up for things that matter. Our dysfunction or apparent dysfunction may be a more multifaceted part of us than we previously realized.
We could proceed with similar exercises, but I hope that even these few ideas will be provocative. Two final things:
I. When presenting ideas about acceptance like those above, I think it is important to stress that it is often much easier said than done, and it is important to do it with a spirit of gentleness and compassion that will help to distinguish mental exercises like these from telling oneself to simply 'get over' something bothersome. These exercises are aimed at helping the individual 'incorporate', not to ignore or invalidate, the content. Special sensitivity is also needed if an individual struggles not merely with weeds, but with poisonous and sticky thorns that still sting, left over from trauma or years of pain. In these cases special preparation and care may be needed before directly addressing the source of the problems.
II. Finally, I believe it is worth stressing that acceptance should not be seen asopposed to efforts that seek to cause purposeful change. Acceptance is neither pushing away nor pulling towards. Acceptance causes change too, but differently, by means of changing perception. As has long been recognized in psychotherapy, acceptance frequently has the paradoxical effect of changing a personal difficulty with a different kind of effort. Softening our resistance may take the energy out of the problem.
Enjoying this blog post? The author, David Kohanyi, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and is currently accepting new clients at the Therapeutic Center for Anxiety and Trauma. He can be reached by phone at 619-272-6858 x710 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org