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Hope and Healing for Anxiety and Depression


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Lesson 7: Life is a Journey, not a Destination

You’ve heard it all before, life is about being in the moment. And you may be thinking: “Blah blah blah, and if one more person says ‘stop and the smell the roses’ to me I’m going to shoot them – including you Mr. Fox”.

But have you really contemplated what this means and what the saying “Life is a journey, not a destination” is all about? There is so much wisdom packed into those seven little words that if you were able to truly dig deep into their meaning and live by just that one saying every day of your life, your life would be transformed before your very eyes. As my favourite author and psychologist, Dr Wayne Dyer, used to say, “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change”. Every time, without fail.

Our world is one of perception, interpretation and meaning. We first perceive something; whether it is a sound, a smell, a communication, an image, or our own thoughts and emotions. We then have to interpret these and finally provide meaning to them. When we are down and struggling with life and our minds are in anxiety or depression, our ability to objectively and rationally interpret the reality and experience of our lives becomes severely compromised. It is precisely at these times that we need to learn to disengage from our focus on the destination of life i.e. “where is this all going?”, and reengage with the experience and knowing that life is to be lived right now. And that if you can find something, anything to focus on – even if that focus is the blissful nothingness of meditation, then you will find the relief you are so desperately seeking from the pain and the struggle. Training the mind to find anything that will distract it from its own misery is a skill and something that we should all be practicing every single day of our lives. And the more we practice it, the more we find the great law of attraction bringing more thoughts, experiences and emotions like the ones we are deliberately trying to create. And as my new favourite inspirational speaker Esther Hicks would say: we are then building the kind of momentum that we would really want in our lives.

This is all certainly about our ability- or usually lack of it – to live in the now. To live peacefully with whatever is happening in our lives right now. I have often counselled people struggling with stress or anxiety to practice mindfulness. This word and practice is becoming as much as cliché to people these days as meditation but there is a reason that it has caught on and we now see endless adult colouring-in books in all the shops. It is because it works people! It is an eternal truth. We spend so much time looking at our lives analysing it to death that we completely miss the experiences we are having literally right before our eyes, ears and noses.

We live too much in the past and certainly too much in the future. We spend way way WAY too much time on the future in our minds. If what we are doing when thinking about the future is imagining a desired state or outcome then that is all well and good and it will lead you to what you want to be and where you want to go in life. However, where are most of us spending our mental time and energy? On pictures and words and imaginings of some terrible fate that may await us or our loved ones just around the corner or even in five, ten or twenty years from now. Can you see how unproductive and how “unwell” this can make you? Do you know that there are two specific distorted categories of thinking from cognitive behavioural therapy that are called “Fortune Telling” and “Catastrophising” and that we ALL get caught up in them? Yes, those with anxiety and depression get caught up in those mental traps more frequently and find it more difficult to break out of them or dispute those thoughts with more objective and positive reality. However, I know from my 40 years on this planet, and 17 years as a psychologist, that we ALL do it to some extent, every single day. And you know what, it doesn’t serve us one little bit.

I am not talking about thinking prudently ahead, watching for signs and perhaps taking some preemptive action to avoid an actual problem or danger. That is productive and what another author called “signal thoughts”. Thoughts about something that we actually need to do something about like complete our tax returns. But, what I am describing to you is more about what that same author called “noise”, every other thought that surrounds the reality. “Oh my God, what if I owe the tax office a huge amount of money?”, “What if I go bankrupt?” “What if I can’t make my mortgage payment or rent payment and land up on the streets?” “What if I can’t afford to send my kids to a good school?” “What if I end up lonely and alone for the rest of my life!?”

And I hear you saying, “But David, it COULD happen!” Yes, and you COULD also be knocked over by a bus in the street in an hour from now! And North Korea COULD decide to start a world war beginning with the invasion of South Korea and then they could launch nuclear missiles at all of us!

Okay, maybe that’s a bit dramatic for you. Well, how about this: “What if I stuff up at that interview next week and never end up getting a job?” “What if I go on a date with this woman or man and they don’t feel the same way I do and they reject me?” You get the point. The world is full of “what ifs” and I am here to tell you to CUT IT OUT OF YOUR LIFE! If you are going to play the “what if” game, why don’t you try something radical like: “What if he likes me and we hit it off and he ends up being the man of my dreams?” or “What if I just be myself at that interview and relax and feel confident that the job is mine and they see in me what they have been looking for and I get one of the best jobs I have ever had, working for amazing people!” or “What if I didn’t look at my age as a reason to stop this path I am on that isn’t working for me and head down a different road?” Meaning: a different career, a different relationship, or taking up a long held desire to learn to surf or study financial planning or whatever else you have felt you wanted to do deep inside you but just haven’t allowed? WHAT IF… you thought about, imagined and achieved those things? How would that make you feel? What would your life experience look and feel like then?

Enjoying your dreams and plans even before they have manifested and doing the best you can not to become disillusioned if they don’t happen “on time” when you expect them to is so important. You don’t plant seeds in the ground to grow a pumpkin and then immediately stamp on the ground demanding to see it grow and appear right now, because you know there is ALWAYS a time lag. And thank goodness for that because can you imagine what would happen if every thought and desire, good or bad, manifested immediately for you? One little thought of illness and you’re dead. One little thought of not enough money and you’re bankrupt! Of course it would be nice if you had one little thought of becoming a millionaire and then poof you’re a millionaire! That would be pretty amazing, but that is not how this Universe works. Somewhere deep down we already know that it is our own repeated patterns of thought and emotion that we practice, and have been practicing since you were young, that start to produce the outward manifestations of our lives. Haven’t you seen evidence of people who just seem to “attract” one calamity after another, one terrible relationship after another, one failure after another? And why is that? Are these poor souls so horribly unlucky that the source of all things decided they should live this way and others would thrive and be happy? How ridiculous! But, we somehow believe this don’t we? This nonsense that something is intrinsically wrong or “bad” about us and that is why we don’t get what we say we want.

Having goals is all good and well, but becoming a slave to your goals, or worse, not achieving something you had set down and then becoming frustrated and disillusioned will only hold it away from you even more. The key is truly to appreciate every moment, every step of the journey. It is in the process of creation that we find our greatest joy. To paraphrase Dr Wayne Dyer again, the point of dancing is not about where you end up on the dance floor, it’s about savouring that moment and enjoying your “beingness” with the person you are dancing with – even if the only person you are dancing and singing with is just you!

This doesn’t only have to apply to the fun things in life like dancing, singing, going on holiday or winning some great accolade for your work. Those are the obvious ones that would naturally make most people feel their enjoyment of life. However, it is in your moments of frustration when your path does not seem to be leading to the manifesting of your desires that you most need to learn to stop and refocus yourself into your NOW. We all have access to both what is wanted and what is not wanted. There is an abundance of negative things to focus on in your life or about the world around you or about the city you live in or your partner or your spouse, but there is a much greater and endless supply of things that are positive and just as real as the things that you perceive to be “bad” about your life experience. You truly have the most powerful capability in the world, the capability to choose what you focus on and what meaning you give to everything in your life. And in addition to this, you have the capability to choose to find something, anything to feel good about to help lift your emotional state upwards. And then just keep going and keep practicing that every single day. You cannot possibly do this and stay anxious. You cannot possibly do this and remain depressed. It defies law. You cannot simultaneously focus on two things at the same time. You may be able to flip very quickly between them but you cannot literally have two thoughts (good and bad) at the exact same moment. So choose which one you want to have. Do you want to feel good or bad?

Is it important to you to feel good? Then why aren’t you doing absolutely anything and everything to get you there? “Because I don’t deserve to feel good!” is what I hear you say. What a load of nonsense! You were born to feel good. God/Source/Spirit or whatever you want to call it did not manifest you into this world to feel bad. And if you have done things in your life that you are not proud of and are using that as a reason to withhold feeling good then you need to hear something and hear it well. NOBODY IS PERFECT. FORGIVE YOURSELF. Most of the saints started out doing things that we might refer to as “bad” or went down a path that was less than saintly and realised through their life experiences that they didn’t want to feel that way ever again and so they made up their minds to be “better than they used to be”. Dr Wayne Dyer himself stood up and apologised in public to his first wife for being less of a husband than he should have been. A man who I consider to have been one of the most advanced souls on this planet in our time – psychologically, spiritually and as a human being – and who has done more good through his books, talks and audio programs than we could possibly conceive, admitted to his own wrong doings earlier in his life. What would have become of Wayne Dyer if he had decided that he was inherently a bad person because of some past errors in his judgement? What if he chose to see himself as an unworthy person who didn’t deserve to be happy or successful? I will tell you what would have happened. Millions of people all around the world would have lost out on learning how to change their own lives for the better. They would never have been touched by his kindness, his generosity (he ended up donating millions), his amazing ability to write books that inspire and his talks and lectures that have elevated the lives of so many people. All of that good would have been lost if he had decided that he was not worthy. So, let us do our best to remove the “I am not good enough, worthy enough, smart enough, talented enough, good looking enough” from our lives forever.

It is also interesting to note how people like young Olympians can focus so intently and single-mindedly on a achieving a goal – winning the gold medal. And when they actually achieve it they find – at an age where most people are still trying to figure out who they are and what they want from life – that they are stuck because they believe they have achieved their greatest goal in life at the age of 17 or 18. This can happen anyone who achieves a significant life goal.  But if you can understand that there is always more to be done in life, and I am certainly not speaking about the achieving of material possessions but the eternal growth of who you are as a human being, then you would realise there is nothing to ever be bored about, nothing ever to be frustrated about due to the lack of something not having manifested in your life at this moment.

When you focus on this moment and make this moment the most enjoyable one that you can in whatever it is that you are CHOOSING to do, your life will become one of enjoyment of the ride and not so much about the destination. That doesn’t mean to wander around in circles aimlessly and not actually achieve anything that you deem to be worthwhile. It means set your intentions and ensure you remove the thoughts that would hold you back and enjoy this wonderful ride we call life. Enjoy it today, not tomorrow, or next week, or when you get that pay rise, or when you find that partner you have so desperately been wanting, or when you finally have a child or when you finally buy a house. ENJOY IT NOW. That’s all you really have anyway.


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Poker and the Spirit – Part One

Now this would seem to be an odd title for a blog by a psychologist and one might wonder, what on earth poker has to do with life lessons or wisdom of any kind. Let me begin by saying that one of my favourite authors in the field of psychology and self-help was M. Scott Peck who wrote the extraordinary book called “The Road Less Travelled”. If you haven’t yet read this classic, I highly recommend it.

Another book that M. Scott Peck wrote was a much lesser known book called “Golf and the Spirit”. It was a book that led the reader through a 9 hole golf course, with the actual layout of the courses created by M. Scott Peck and his son (who was a graphic designer). Each course provided a range of life lessons which M. Scott Peck described with his usual incredible wisdom. He obviously loved the game of golf and saw many parallels between his experiences playing the game and his work with people in his private practice as well as in his own life.

I have found very much the same thing happening to me when it comes to the game of Texas Hold’Em Poker (I will also refer to it as just Poker but I will always be referring to Texas Hold’Em as there are many other variations around today). This game has now become a major worldwide phenomenon. It is a game that finds young and old, male and female and every race, religion and nationality playing together and I would go so far as to say that it has become a worldwide sport. Some of this has been due to the incredible amounts of money people have won playing in events such as the World Series of Poker (WSOP)  and some of it is due to the way it is now shown on television with viewers being able to see the cards that the players have while the game is happening which makes for a much more exciting experience of watching the game unfold.

Matt Damon, John Malkovich, and Edward Norton starred in a movie called Rounders in 1998 which popularised the then little known variation of poker (Texas Hold’Em) which was about to take the world by storm. I did watch the movie around the time it came out but it wasn’t until 2008 that a friend of mine introduced me to the game and gave me a book to read about Poker strategy by Dan Harrington that opened up this incredible game to me and I have never looked back. Since that time I have played in hundreds of games. Home games with friends, pub games, poker league games including the APL (Australian Poker League) State Championships where I have played against a field of over 500 people to come 16th.  I have also honed my skills by playing hundreds of online games which recently saw me coming 4th in the 888 100K guaranteed weekly tournament out of a field of 650 players from all over the world. My fascination with Poker is as strong as my fascination about people and life and I guess you can see how these all come together and why I am writing a blog about it.

One of the first things I can imagine (or mind read) you are thinking right now is: Isn’t poker gambling? This is a question I have pondered very often and when I recently watched Rounders again I was amused to see that Matt Damon’s character tries to explain to his then fiancé the difference between the game of Texas Hold’Em Poker and gambling. I do not want to get into the whole debate as it is not of importance in this blog however I will just say one thing: If poker was truly gambling, how would it be possible for the same people to keep ending up towards the end of the major tournaments or for a range of them to consistently end up at the final table and winning money? There is only one reason and that is incredible amounts of skill. Some of the skills involved in this game are a combination of mathematical skill, emotional intelligence, perseverance, intellectual curiosity and the ability to take calculated risks. I personally have read over 15 books on Texas Hold’Em tournament strategy. What I didn’t see in these books however was the very obvious lessons that can and need to be learned in order to become a really good player in terms of psychology and indeed how these same lessons could then be applied to help you improve your life in general.

With that introduction,  I would now like to take you on a short journey into some of the aspects of playing the game and see if we can find some insights or correlations between playing the game of poker and playing the game of life.

You are unlikely to succeed in the game of poker or life without taking some risks

As I mentioned earlier, many people (including my ex-wife) believe that playing poker is gambling. And I might agree with that but only from the point of view that you are putting down some money and playing a game with the possibility of either losing that money or winning more money. And I will also concede that you generally cannot win without some luck. That is where the comparison ends.

My philosophy and belief about poker (and life) is that you will never get anywhere without taking some calculated risks. You take calculated risks every single day of your life. You know that when you walk out your front door there is a risk that you will get knocked down by a car, hit by lightning, mugged or any other manner of wonderful things that could happen to you. But, do you let these “risks” stop you from leaving your home each morning? Admittedly, depending on where you live of course, these risks may be very low and negligible, however there is still a risk.

Some people are very focused on “risks” and in psychological terms this can become what we refer to as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and as well as a range of other phobias. People with OCD and other phobias really struggle with pushing past these perceived risks. They may fear things like germs, being in wide open spaces or enclosed spaces, spiders, flying in an aeroplane, driving a car, public speaking or any other range of perceived “at risk” situations. Most of us, whilst we are aware on some level that these risks exist, do not allow them to stop us from living our lives.

In the game of poker, you may start out with a higher risk (luck) to skill ratio when you begin. I always say that when you first begin to play in order to win you would need 80% luck and 20% skill. However, as you learn more and more about the game, as you study the concepts involved and as your experience in playing the game against a range of different competitors increases, so does your skill to risk (luck) ratio. I believe that you can keep moving this ratio up and that you could possibly (if you were absolutely brilliant at the game) turn the ratio into 70% skill and 30% risk (luck).

Part of the reason I say this is different to gambling is that you are not playing against a casino or a machine, you are playing against other human beings. And other human beings can make mistakes! You may be dealt (in terms of luck) a really bad hand but your ability to read the situation around you and the people you are playing against allows you to force your competitor to “lay down” (meaning fold their cards) to a well-timed bluff by you. So here you have won the pot (the chips in the middle) without needing luck to help you do it. However, you have taken a calculated risk believing that if you bluff them in that moment they will fold their cards.

Cannot the same be said of life? If human beings never took any risks I believe the whole world as we know it would come to a grinding halt. No-one would every get married or have kids. No-one would ever start a business or invest in anything. No-one would ever try and create something. Thomas Edison took 10 000 risks before creating the light bulb. He “failed” 10 000 times but without his willingness to take risks and try we would all still be sitting in the dark – literally!

Sometimes you have to gamble and “bet” all you have on trying something new. For example, it could be leaving a job where you are being bullied or taken advantage of or it could be going to live in another country because the one you live in now is full of crime and corruption or it could be leaving your current partner because the relationship doesn’t serve you anymore.

What are the risks involved? In the first and third examples it’s that you won’t find another job or partner. In the second example the risk is that you will find it hard to assimilate and you will suffer setbacks due to having to start again from scratch in a new country.

So the question is: Do you take the risk or don’t you? “To be or not to be, that is the question” is the famous line that Hamlet asked. How do you make that decision? You certainly don’t know what the outcome will be…you don’t have a crystal ball do you? But what do you know right now for sure? Maybe it’s that you are unhappy. Maybe you are depressed. Maybe you don’t feel motivated in life or you just have this feeling that something isn’t right and something inside of you is urging you to take a risk and make a change but the only thing holding you back – the only thing holding any of us back is what?…. Fear of course. Fear that it won’t work out. Fear that you will lose everything you have. Maybe by that you mean your money, or your possessions, or your feeling of comfort and security. But as we continue to stay stuck where we are, we may start to investigate or at least contemplate our options. We would start to think about the pros and the cons,  weighing up the risks versus the rewards of taking action. Very much similar to what happens in every poker hand that you play. You have to assess the situation, use all the available information that you have as well as your own intuitive wisdom from your past experiences and then make a decision to take the risk or not. Your decision is a calculated one yes, but will it ever be a fool proof one or provide you with absolute certainty in terms of the outcome? No. However, people who succeed at Poker and in life in general are willing to take that chance because they know that the reward has the potential to outweigh the risk many times over and they also know how they will feel if they back themselves and win.

It was apparently Albert Einstein who said that in the Universe nothing happens until something moves. So, are you going to just sit there or are you going to move?

A chip and a chair

In Poker, there is a saying that most people who play the game are aware of and it is that you only need a chip and chair to win the game. I have been in that situation myself in a poker tournament on many occasions when I have taken a heavy loss and ended up with a very small amount of chips which – by all accounts – should have led to me being knocked out of the tournament. However, through sheer determination and taking a risk at the right time, I have come back to win the tournament. This would be something that most seasoned poker players would have experienced and hence why there is actually a saying about it.

I have often thought about this and loved the very real and clear connection it has to us in real life. I can certainly attest to this from my own personal life experience.

When life knocks us down and we get “a bad beat” – another Poker saying meaning when you do all the right things and someone ends up getting ridiculously lucky against you – we have two choices. Give up and throw the towel in and moan about how unfair it is or how unlucky we are or realise that as long as you are still in the game (alive) and you have the ability to think and act, you also have the opportunity to turn things around.

This reminds me of a book I read many years ago which speaks to this topic which was called “Tough times don’t last but tough people do!” by Dr. Robert Schuller. I think one of the most powerful attitudes to have in life is the attitude of never giving up. In that spirit, I would like to share with you one of my absolute favourite poems on the subject which I first came across at the age of 10 or 11 years old. It was a page in my homework diary that all kids were given at my school and it had a daily calendar and quotes of inspiration dotted throughout its pages. However, the poem called Don’t Quit was right at the front and I loved it so much that I cut out and pasted it into the very front of what later became my personal quote scrapbook. The poem was not attributed to an author, it just said “unknown’ but I eventually found out that it was written by Edgar A. Guest. Here it is:

DON’T QUIT

When Things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill,
When the funds are low and debts are high,
And you want to Smile but have to sigh.
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest, if you must, but don’t you quit.

Life is queer with its twists and turns,
As everyone of us sometimes learns,
And many a failure turns about,
When he might have won had he stuck it out,
Don’t give up though the pace seems slow,
You might succeed with another blow.

Often the struggler has given up,
When he might captured the victor’s cup.
And he learned too late, when the night slipped down,
How close he was to the golden crown,

Success is failure turned inside out,
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell how close you are,
It may be near when it seems afar,
So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit,
It’s when things seem worst that you mustn’t quit.

I still have that scrapbook of quotes today and at various times in my life when things have been particularly tough I would print out a copy of Don’t Quit and place it on my refrigerator or next to my mirror in the bathroom. I have never read this poem and not felt some relief, some peace of mind and also the resulting increase in motivation to take a breath and keep going.

Let me provide another example from my own life in terms of this attitude of not quitting. I practiced Tae Kwon Do for 7 years in South Africa from the age of 19. I had a coach who was like Mr. Miyagi from the movie Karate Kid but about ten times tougher on us. His name was Master Fabio Ghobadi and he was, at the age of 30 at that time, already a 5th Dan Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do.  He had also been the trainer of the French National Team. He had come from France to South Africa through a range of difficult and interesting life experiences and started a Tae Kwon Do school. He was very unorthodox and whilst he was a very caring and empathic human being, he was also a very hard task master and sometimes played favourites. There were many times that I thought of quitting Tae Kwon Do. Right at the beginning it was more from the tortuous physical training regimens we had to undertake. I’ll never forget my first lesson in the dojo where we had to run up and down, do push ups and sit ups as well as so many frog marches that I left the class, went outside into the parking lot, and threw up. My friend who had introduced me to the class came out and asked me if I was okay and I said “If I wanted to join the army I would have joined the army!” I wasn’t going to return but something inside me told me not to quit and so I did return for the next lesson and for the next 7 years. There were many times I wanted to quit throughout those years. Sometimes it was due to what I felt was the mistreatment and unfairness I received from Master Fabio but I knew that even though he always seemed to be delaying the achievement of my black belt, there was probably a method in his madness and I was continuing to improve anyway.

After 6 years, I did my black belt grading. It was a very proud moment however, very soon after that Master Fabio left the country and never sent my grading off to South Korea so that I could be officially listed as a Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do. After 6 years with him – and then carrying on teaching classes with another black belt for another year after that – I never received my official black belt or certificate. In 2004, I was told by one of the other black belts that Master Fabio had suddenly passed away from stomach cancer. I was deeply shocked to hear this and very saddened by his passing because even though I had struggled with some of his ways, he had been like a father figure to me for 6 years of my life and I had learned so much from him not only in terms of Tae Kwon Do but of his philosophy of life. What this meant was that I would not be able to get my official black belt. However, I continued to practice my Tae Kwon Do on my own when I emigrated to Australia and eventually, in 2008, I joined a Tae Kwon Do school near my work and had to regrade through each of the belts in order to prove I could do it and eventually after a year the Master of that school graded me to black and I finally received my official black belt certificate and designation from Korea. This was a very proud moment for me and as I think back to it now I can see that it indicated to me that not only was I was capable of achieving my goals but more importantly it showed me how very important it is to live by the philosophy of not quitting.

As I said, life can sometimes really throw you a curve ball and knock you off your feet. But, as Sylvester Stallone says to his son in Rocky Balbo – the final Rocky movie – “you, me or no one is going to hit harder than life, but it’s not how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much you can take and keep moving forward…that’s how winning is done!”

And so, when you get knocked down by life or suffer a setback always remember: All you need is a chip and a chair and the determination to keep moving forward and you can make it back, you can change your life around and get back into the game and succeed.

In the next part I will talk about something called Going on Tilt or how detrimental it can be to allow emotion to control our thoughts and behaviours.

David Fox is a psychologist and author of the book Change your Life! Hope and Healing for Anxiety and Depression. He is currently working on his second book called The Top 10 Sayings that can Change your Life!

Get his first book by clicking on any of the links below.

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Lesson 5: Birds of a Feather Flock Together

NOTE: This is the 5th and final FREE chapter from David’s upcoming book called “The Top 10 Sayings that can Change your life! – Life Lessons for teens and young adults”

To receive notification of when the final eBook with all 10 sayings/lessons becomes available please email me at david@foxpsychology.com.au. I hope you enjoyed the stories and welcome your feedback!

Angela

Angela swiped her access card and walked into the call center at exactly 7:55am and was at her desk and logged in by 7:59am and the day’s work began. She was now in her second month at her new job in a call center and was starting to enjoy her new environment and getting to know some her new colleagues.

At the age of 22, it hadn’t been an easy life and she had been through quite a few harrowing experiences including child abuse, experimenting with and struggling with illicit drugs as well as a few failed and abusive relationships. Some of these has been physical, some emotional – but either way it just seemed to her that life just didn’t want to give her a break or allow her to find a decent guy, who didn’t either end up constantly putting her down, cheating on her, or abusing her in some way.

She had also been struggling financially with some credit card debts and had done a few jobs as a waitress but had decided she wanted something more permanent and a career which could offer her some more financial stability and independence in her life. Her father had left her mother when she was very young and she did not know much about him or whether he was in fact living or not. At the moment she still lived at home with her mother and things between them weren’t going particularly well either. Either it was constant bickering or her mother would often moan and complain about her various physical ailments, how terrible her estranged sister was – Angela’s aunty who Angela was actually quite fond of – and in general how men could not be trusted and so she should be very wary of them. And, up to this point in time it did seem that her mother was indeed right – although Angela was aware in the back of her mind that she didn’t really want this to become her own belief system too about men.

Coming into work was generally something Angela looked forward to each day. She was learning new skills and she enjoyed the interaction with customers over the phone, even though she sometimes really struggled with the ones who would get really rude or abusive.

The call center that she worked at was a debt collection call center in the Western Suburbs of Sydney. This was not an easy environment to work in, and you needed to have the gift of thick skin to handle not only the customers but some of the staff and team leaders who worked there too. Typically, if an employee got rattled by a customer some of the more abrasive staff would mock them and Angela had seen that happen so many times that she would try and not show her emotions and would sometimes have to run off to the toilets to cry in solitude.

Aside from these difficult issues, Angela had started to make friends with some of the employees and they would on occasion go out together for a drink after work. She wanted to be popular and well liked and so she would often go out with some of the women and men who seemed to be very outgoing, exciting and who often seemed to win favour with the team leaders.

Invariably, after a typical night of excessive drinking, someone in the group would pull out some ecstasy or cocaine and pressure the others to have some.

Angela had been clean for the past year and it had taken her going into a drug rehabilitation center to get her back onto the path she was now trying to go down. However, the temptation was just too great – and wanting so much to fit in and be well liked – she would often give in. Needless to say, this started to affect her emotional well-being, her relationship with her mum deteriorated, and then her performance at work started to suffer too.

She found it harder and harder to handle the difficult customers. However, she was a very attractive woman and had caught the eye of one of the team leaders and he had been covering for her with management when she didn’t handle a call well or if she came late. Angela had become anxious and concerned as she moved closer to the end of her three month probation period as this was a crucial time for her because she could obviously lose the job if her performance or conduct was not satisfactory.

At the same time that Angela had started in the job, a new human resources manager had also taken up his new position overseeing the 100 or so employees at the call centre. Word had it that the previous HR Manager had left after only a few months because she couldn’t handle the culture in the company. The new HR Manager, Ray, had said hello to Angela and chatted briefly to her every now and then when they were in the office lunch area and he seemed to her to be a genuine and caring person.

One morning, after another long night out with her new circle of friends, Angela was late for work yet again and when she sat down at her desk at 8:30am, she was chastised by Brett – a team leader who she was not very familiar with. Brett took his role as a team leader seriously. He was known by others in the team as someone who was firm but fair and who would be willing to support you as long as you were open with him and put your best effort in.

Already feeling quite rough from the night before, with a headache and the stress brewing from her tardiness and then the dressing down by Brett, Angela was starting to feel quite anxious and emotional, and felt her confidence and insecurities began to unravel.

Thoughts started to rumble in her mind about how her life once again seemed to be moving in the exact opposite direction from the one she had intended herself to go down.

She had made such a firm commitment to herself after coming out of the drug rehabilitation clinic that she was going to turn her life around. Now, she started mentally beating herself up for being so weak and stupid. She couldn’t believe how quickly she had let herself go sliding down the old familiar pathway. As these thoughts began to swarm around inside her mind, she found it almost impossible to focus on her work or concentrate on what she had to say to the clients.

When an angry customer call came in at 10:30, she simply couldn’t handle it anymore. Angela cut the angry customer off mid-sentence, put her head-set down and ran off in the direction of the ladies toilets, barely able to hold back the river of tears.

Brett, immediately noticed her running off and went over to an older female team leader named Tahnee and asked if she wouldn’t mind going to have a check on Angela. Tahnee gave it a few minutes and then went into the toilets. She could see one stall door closed and could hear muffled sobs coming from the cubicle.

“Angela? Are you okay?” she asked.

“Yes, I’m… fine… thanks. I will be out in a second”, said Angela trying as hard as she could to sound confident but not doing a very good job of it.

“It’s okay if you’re upset about something honey, you don’t have to hide in the cubicle. Come on out”, Tahnee said, hoping Angela would hear that she was being sincere and trust her enough to come out.

Angela decided it didn’t matter now, if she was going to get fired then too bad. That’s just the way her fate-filled life always seemed go, no matter what she did. She wiped her blotchy eyes with some toilet paper, stood up and slowly exited the cubicle.

Tahnee could see immediately the sadness and fear in Angela’s eyes as she opened the door and stepped into the main area of the toilets.

“What’s going on honey? Brett and I are concerned about you” she said.

“It’s nothing. Just something going on at home that has put me off today”, she Angela.

“We all have things that affect us that we bring with to work sometimes. We’re only human. Brett and I have noticed that you started off so well and seemed to be enjoying it here but then something changed and you have been coming in late a few times and also running off to the toilets every now and then” said Tahnee.

Angela recognised the genuineness of the look of concern on Tahnee’s face and made a snap decision that she would trust her.

Tears again welled up in her eyes and she told her a bit about what had been going on. She didn’t say anything about the drugs but told her of the late nights drinking, trying to fit in and struggling with the myriad of rude customers.

When she was finished, Tahnee gave her a quick hug and advised her to take the rest of the day off but that she must first ensure that she made an appointment to speak to Ray, the HR Manager.

Tahnee explained that she had had a few discussions with Ray since he started and was very impressed with his way of handling people and situations. She also felt he would be a good source of support for Angela.

Still feeling embarrassed, Angela said “If it’s okay with you I will try and stay at least until lunch time. I don’t want the team thinking there is something wrong and then we can say that I had to go home because I wasn’t feeling well?”

“That’s fine. I will let Brett know. But just pop past Ray’s office. I am sure he was free when I walked past earlier” said Tahnee and she turned and went out of the toilets.

Angela felt quite relieved and surprised at the response she had gotten. She was really thinking that she was going to lose her job and was still very worried that this would be the case given her recent drop in performance and now admitting to Tahnee that she had been going out drinking with the others quite often.

Angela went out of the toilets and walked straight to Ray’s office.

Ray was focused on his computer screen when Angela walked into the office. The office had a bookshelf filled with human resource and psychology books and an L-shaped desk with two chairs in front of it.

“Hi Ray. Tahnee suggested I come and talk to you. Can I chat to you for a minute… or make a time to come and see you?” she said.

Ray noticed her demeanor and immediately got up and motioned her to sit down as he closed the office door. “Of course Angela, that’s what I’m here for. Have a seat”.

“Thank you” said Angela and sat down in one of the chairs while Ray went back around and sat in his chair.

“What’s happening?” asked Ray.

Angela hesitated for a moment, looking down at her hands and twisting the tissue she had been holding around and around. “I am struggling with a few things at the moment and I’m worried about passing probation. Some things have been happening and I’m not sure how to handle them or change them” she said.

“Well, why don’t we talk about it? I will keep everything confidential and between us unless there is something illegal happening at work in which case I have a responsibility to take action. Is that ok?” he asked.

“Yes, that’s fine. It’s more personal and outside of work, but as I said it’s impacting on my emotional state and my performance” she said.

Angela’s eyes happened to look behind Ray for a moment to some of the certificates on his wall and she saw that one showed he had a degree in psychology. She immediately started to worry about how much to say.

Ray noticed where her eyes had gone and smiled, “Don’t worry I’m not going to psycho-analyse you or ask you to lie down on my couch. As you can see, I don’t even have a couch”.

Angela smiled for the first time that day. She relaxed a little more and again decided she would trust that talking about what was happening would be better than trying to pretend everything was alright.

“Well, things haven’t been easy for me in my life so far. I’ve been through a few things and the last few years I have been trying my best to straighten things out and get my life back on track. Getting this job was a huge step in the right direction for me and I was so excited when I got the offer. I  don’t have a lot of friends and so I also liked the idea of making friends with some of the others here and I did and started to join them socially when they would go for drinks after work. I have been trying to avoid alcohol and to exercise and stay healthy and fit but it all seems to be unravelling now. This has impacted on me at work. I’ve come late a few times and my performance hasn’t been what I know I’m capable of plus I have been struggling with some of the clients when they react badly” she said. She couldn’t bring herself to mention anything about the drugs at this stage.

“Well, firstly let me just say that this isn’t an easy work environment Angela. So number one, don’t be too hard on yourself. It takes quite a thick skin to not be affected by how some of the customers can react to the work we do. We do suffer from high turnover rates in the call center, it’s something that I was asked to address as part of my role here. Second, this is new for you and it will take time for you to get the hang of how to deal with these situations. We can definitely look into getting you onto a course on how to deal with difficult customers if you’re interested?” he asked.

“Thanks, that would help” said Angela.

“Okay I will speak to your team leader about it. So, what do you feel might be the best thing to help start turning things around for you, especially in terms of this group of employees you are spending time with after work?” asked Ray.

“I don’t know Ray, I want to make this work but I also want people here to like me and I have enjoyed being social again after withdrawing from people for a while” said Angela.

“Well, I get that. But here’s the thing; birds of a feather flock together and sometimes we need to take a closer look at the people that we are spending time with and think more carefully about whether they are the right sort of people we want to associate with. Does that make sense?” said Ray.

“Yes, it does. But I always seem to gravitate to people who aren’t good for me somehow. Even when I am trying to change my life, it seems these people keep showing up who at first seem right and then I end up in a bad situation” she said, looking a bit defeated.

“Well, I know this may sound weird but you know this is a very common occurrence that we keep attracting the same kinds of people into our lives because maybe we haven’t learnt a lesson from before about who we are and what we really want and deserve. Sometimes it is because we have some belief that we can only attract certain kinds of people into our lives” said Ray, wondering if Angela was now thinking he was the one who should be analysed.

“I guess I have heard stories about women who keep leaving one abusive relationship and think they have found someone different but that person ends up being abusive too. Or people attracting partners with similar character traits”, said Angela. She had read a bit about these kinds of cycles after having gone through her previous relationships.

“Exactly. So it becomes really important as we go through life and start to understand more about ourselves and who and what we seem to be attracting that we think and believe about ourselves is a big part of who and what keeps showing up.

“In some way, we are attracting or even just allowing those kinds of people into our lives. Sometimes, we think we have figured it out and then someone shows up and we start to see, or mostly refuse to see, the same issues we had with someone else before. But we still allow those people to be in our lives or for a relationship or friendship to develop with them. And somewhere down the track we realize we are right back where we started or we are living the same relationship over again” said Ray.

Ray continued watching Angela closely – he suspected there was more to her story and it was not merely friendships she was concerned with, but potentially impacts from a negative or abusive relationship from the past. Angela continued to listen intently to what he was saying and he could see she was relating it to her own experience.

“So are you saying I need to end the friendships with the group that goes out drinking?” she asked.

“Well, I’m not saying you have to do anything. I am saying that you need to think about the kinds of people who may be good for you and who can support you on the new path you say you want to go down and also the kinds of people who are likely to be the opposite of that. I’m not saying you have to just cut them off, you could still be friendly to them at work but maybe not go out with them too often. Cut back on it and start to look around and see if there may be others in the call center you can start to build friendships with” said Ray.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. It’s going to be hard though and some of them might start to avoid me or treat me differently” said Angela, thinking about the team leader who liked her and had been covering for her.

“I know it won’t be easy but you have support here too. You have Brett and Tahnee and you have me too. I have the feeling this might apply not just to your work but other parts of your life too. So maybe it’s a good lesson to learn now that will stand you in good stead for the future. Especially in terms of your work and career” said Ray.

“Yes, but I don’t want to feel uncomfortable at work. What if they say something to me or do something to me?” she asked.

Ray considered her question for a moment.

“You know, we all want to be liked – well most of us anyway. Most people want to be accepted and liked and this is why high school can be such a difficult time for so many people. Trying to find out exactly who you are, going through changes and moving from your youth through your childhood to an independent adult is challenging. Throw in trying to deal with peer pressure and fitting in and you have a recipe for disaster for many people’s self-esteem and ability to be individuals” said Ray.

Ray continued, “Seems to me that once people leave high school and go on to other environments they come into their own and feel much more able to just be who they are. University or College is usually a good place for that. But sometimes, people go into work environments and the same dynamics play out. You can’t avoid the dynamics of human interactions in groups. Hierarchies, politics, who is seen as “popular”, unfortunately this does still happen in the workplace. But you don’t have to conform to this Angela. There was a famous psychologist named Abraham Maslow who studied people who were seen to be very successful in their chosen fields. He called these people ‘self actualisers’ and said that those people who self-actualise in life – in other words they become the full potential of who they can be – are mostly people who are ‘independent of the good opinion of other people’. Notice he said, the good opinion of other people because they don’t even care if people think they are good or right in what they are doing and they certainly don’t care if people think negatively about them. This is not an easy thing to achieve but you can see examples of these types of people all over. Steve Jobs was one of them” said Ray with a smile, lifting up his iPhone.

Angela was absorbing all that Ray had been saying to her and felt a lot better about herself and the relief now showed in her face. She could see how she had fallen into the trap of wanting others to approve of her and how that had often just led to frustration, heartbreak or worse. She also realised that if it’s true that birds of a feather flock together then she should probably think more carefully about what kind of bird she was or wanted to be.

“Thanks Ray. I really appreciate your help. Going to try my best to think about what you have said and start implementing it more in my life” she said.

“You’re welcome Angela. I’m here if you need moral support while you make these changes. You have potential and talent. Brett and Tahnee have both said this to me” he said.

Angela looked quite surprised and she smiled. “That’s really nice to hear, thanks again. And thanks for not judging or analysing me Ray – God knows I’ve had enough of that in my life”.

“Like I said, no couch to lie on here and besides if there was I may end up on it myself and you may have to counsel me so best I stick to a desk and chairs”.

Angela smiled and walked out of the office with a feeling of hope that maybe, just maybe, things could finally start to work out for her.

 

David Fox is a psychologist and the author of Change your Life! Hope and Healing for Anxiety and Depression.

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Lesson 4: Where there is smoke there is (usually) fire. 

Twenty year old Sheri Dyer walked into her apartment sobbing. She threw down her back pack and ran into her bedroom, slamming the door closed.

Layla, her older sister by 5 years, looked up from the book she was reading in the lounge with surprise. Sheri and Layla had always been close and had been living together in an apartment while they did their studies in Sydney’s eastern suburbs so that they would be closer to the university they both went to. Layla was finishing her degree in veterinary science and Sheri was studying sociology and psychology.

Layla put her book down and went to see what may have gotten Sheri so upset. She wondered if it was one of the results of the exams she had recently taken. She knocked on Sheri’s door gently.

“Sheri, are you okay? Can I come in?” she asked, hearing the muffled sounds of Sheri crying.

“Yes” came the almost inaudible reply from inside.

Layla opened the door and stepped into Sheri’s room which was a bright and sunny east facing bedroom. Sheri’s study desk was on the right-hand side of the room with some of her books and trinkets lying on it and in front of it she had a white board with various pictures, sayings and timetables attached with colourful magnets. Layla noticed that some of the photos had been taken off the whiteboard and lay torn up on the desk. She started to realise what may have caused Sheri to be so upset.

“Is it Gary? Did something happen?” she said as she sat down on the bed next to Sheri. Sheri was lying on the bed weeping into her pillow face down. She was wearing her gym outfit as she usually went for a gym workout after her lectures at the university gym. Her auburn hair was tied up in a ponytail.

“Yes”, came the muffled reply.

Layla sat there, rubbing Sheri on the back to comfort her. “Tell me what happened. Do you want a cup of tea or something and then we can talk about it?”. Sheri and Layla’s grandmother would always offer cups of tea in times of distress to anyone. This had now become their own little tradition that Sheri and Layla had continued since living on their own together and seemed to always lighten the load a bit.

Again a muffled, “Yes”.

“Okay, I’m going to make us some tea but I will need you to remove yourself from that cushion so I can actually hear what you say and not have to interpret it through your Emoji pillow”, said Layla, trying to lighten the mood a bit. Sheri had recently bought the Emoji pillow with the smiley face and tears of laughter coming out of its eyes which she was currently sobbing into. Layla had a quick thought of that being somewhat ironic as she went to make two cups of tea.

When Layla came back into the room five minutes later with the two cups of tea, Sheri was sitting up on her bed cross legged with the Emoji pillow on her lap. She was blowing her nose with a tissue.

Layla set Sheri’s cup of tea next to her on the bedside table and then sat down next to her blowing into her own tea to cool it down.

“Okay girl, give it up. What’s happened between you two?” Layla asked.
Sheri threw the tissue into the wastepaper basket next to the bed and grabbed a few more tissues from her bedside table. “He’s cheated on me”, Sheri said and broke into tears again.

“Oh no sweetie, that’s terrible.” said Layla and put her own cup of tea down on the side table so that she could give Sheri a hug. Sheri cried for a little while longer and then pulled away to blow her nose and wipe her eyes again.

“I saw some messages on his phone today while we were having a drink at the juice bar next to the gym. He had gone back into the gym to ask some questions about putting a hold on his membership and left his phone behind. While I was sitting there his phone beeped and I saw a message from a girl I haven’t seen before on his Facebook messenger. I didn’t want to pry or invade his privacy but the message was right there in my face, so I clicked on it and then I saw the whole history. She’s someone from his philosophy class. They have been chatting for the past two months and it’s clear that something is going on between them. Some of the messages are very explicit” Sheri said.

“I’m so sorry”, said Layla. She wondered whether this may not come as a complete surprise to Sheri based on some of the things Sheri had been telling Layla she had noticed about Gary all along since they first met about six months ago.

“I’m such an idiot,” said Sheri, throwing the tissues she had in her hand forcefully into the bin. “Why did I believe him when he said that he wasn’t interested in someone else? I told you three months ago I had noticed changes in his behaviour and that I had a feeling something was up. Why didn’t I listen to my own intuition?” Sheri said in frustration.

“You’re not an idiot! Do you know how many people do exactly the same thing as you? Do you know how many couples get into a relationship for the wrong reasons and ignore their intuition? We all know the saying where there is smoke there is fire Sheri, but we choose not to notice those signs or if we do notice them we rationalize them away. We all do it sweetheart so I don’t want to hear you say that you’re an idiot or any other self-blaming label okay? This has everything to do with who he is and nothing to do with you, okay?” Layla said.

Sheri picked up her cup of tea – a South African herbal tea called Rooibos – and took a sip of it. It did seem to calm her down a little. She took another sip and then held it in her hands on top of the smiling Emoji pillow.

“Yes, where there is smoke there is usually fire, so why didn’t I pick it up earlier? Why did I stay in the relationship when I felt so insecure so much of the time? He was always looking at other women when we were together and when I would confront him about it he would just make excuses or say that everyone looks at the opposite sex. I know we all do but he was clearly doing more than just noticing, he was fixating on some of them and his head would literally turn sometimes while I was with him. I mean it’s one thing to do that when I’m not around but with me right there! And I ignored it so much of the time, telling myself it was normal and that maybe I was overreacting to it. Even my counsellor was trying to help me work through the thoughts and make sure I wasn’t just reading into everything”, said Sheri.

“I know. But you cannot blame yourself. If you take responsibility for the behaviours of others or what happens outside of your own control then you are doing something called personalising. Have you covered that in your psych classes yet?” asked Layla. She had come across something called “the ten distortions of thinking” in her elective study of psychology as part of her degree and had found the use of cognitive behaviour therapy concepts to be very helpful in her life. She had been practicing the use of CBT ever since.

“No, we haven’t come to that yet”, said Sheri.

“Well, personalising just means that sometimes we take on too much personal responsibility for things that we did not have any actual personal control over. You couldn’t control his thought processes or how he chose to behave. Yes, you could bring to his attention what you didn’t like about his behaviour and ask him to not look at those other women the way he did but that’s all you could have done, aside from breaking it off with him”, Layla said.

“There were other signs as well,” said Sheri, thinking about a few other instances where she had noticed something about what Gary had said or done that she had felt was out of place or just struck a chord of discomfort in her.

“What other signs?” Layla asked. She had known about some of the issues Sheri had raised but there were clearly more she hadn’t mentioned.

“Well, he would sometimes do things that I felt uneasy about. He would walk out of a store sometimes holding something that he forgot to pay for and when I said we should go back he would laugh and say that it doesn’t matter and that it happened to stores every day. I always felt uneasy about that and always tried to get him to go back but he would just look at me like I was mad”, said Sheri.

“Wow, okay you never told me that one. Definitely a bit worrying in terms of his moral compass for sure”, said Layla looking quite surprised at this new revelation. She had spent some time with Sheri and Gary together over the past few months and had also had a strange feeling about him that she just couldn’t put her finger on. She also hadn’t wanted to alarm Sheri unnecessarily and felt that it was best for Sheri to make her own decisions and come to her if she wanted to talk about anything that was bothering her. They had always promised to be there for each other and this was no different.

“You knew that I shouldn’t have stayed with him didn’t you?” said Sheri as more of a statement than a question.

“Well, no that’s not true. I didn’t know anything for sure and you are the only one who is living your own life and who knows how you feel about what is going on in a relationship. Of course, others might be able to see things more objectively but not always. Family and friends will usually back you up anyway in what your own thinking is. That’s why I suggested you go see the counsellor a few months ago so that you could hopefully get a clearer and more objective view from someone who is not involved emotionally in your life”, Layla said. She finished her tea and then set it down on the bedside table.
Sheri looked down at her own tea which she had hardly drank but she was enjoying the warmth of the cup in her hands.

“Why didn’t I listen to my own intuition? I noticed these behaviours, I even saw how often he commented on other girl’s Facebook posts and how we would often comment that they looked nice and I would get upset about that and tell him. He would tell me I was just overreacting. Yeah, right! I just want to punch him in the face!” she said, picking the Emoji pillow up and punching it.

“Don’t take it out on poor Emoji! He didn’t do anything wrong,” said Layla with a smile. “Actually on second thought, maybe punching a pillow is not a bad thing, get that anger out a bit”.

Sheri laughed a little at this. “Yeh, maybe I need to enrol in the boxing class at the gym for a few weeks” she said.

“Not a bad idea, and if he happens to be at the gym he would see you in there and probably realise if he knew what’s good for him he should not be around when you come out of that class!” said Layla.

“Yes!” said Sheri with a look of defiance and glee in her eyes.

“Well, anger is certainly a more powerful emotion than despair so feeling that is okay. Just don’t stay in anger too long gorgeous because in the end it will be you who continues to feel the pain and suffer the consequences of maintaining your anger and not him”.

“What do you mean? I need to hold onto this anger! I can’t just let him get away with it and be all Zen about it like nothing happened!” said Sheri.

“Well, think about it. What good does anger do you? Will it solve anything for you? Will it make the relationship repair itself or make Gary a better person if you take out your anger on him? Most importantly, will it make you feel good about yourself?” Layla asked.

“I guess not,” said Sheri, contemplating what her sister was saying to her, “but I still prefer feeling angry at him for now. What he did was wrong”.

“I’m not saying what he did wasn’t wrong. I’m not condoning his behaviour but I’m trying to get you to a place of acceptance of what has happened and also to a place of learning.” said Layla.

Layla had been through two significant relationships in her life and had done a lot of reading around the subject as well. She was fascinated by the way people came together, what attracted them to each other and what made for significant and long lasting relationships. Having seen how some relationships seemed to be full of conflict and how some people seemed to stay together regardless of how bad the relationship seemed for them, she wanted to make sure that she never made that same mistake. She had decided she would never settle for anything less than a relationship she felt was perfect for her. She wasn’t looking for a perfect person, just someone who was perfect for her.

“What do you mean learning?” asked Sheri.

“Well, I mean it has taken me a long time to work through some of this stuff about relationships and like I said earlier I have come to really understand what it means – in terms of relationships – that where there is smoke there is usually fire. I say usually because it’s not always the case and we need to monitor our own issues and triggers to make sure we are not overreacting to things. But, I also know that when we start to notice things about someone we are dating or looking at getting into a relationship with and we start to try and minimize those things or rationalize them away, then we may be getting ourselves into trouble. Remember when I was dating Justin and we kept butting heads and fighting about so many different issues?” asked Layla.

“Yeah, I remember.” said Sheri.

“Well, I kept telling myself that we were just two very strong personalities and that the attraction we had for each other was more important. I hadn’t felt that kind of attraction before with a guy and although we clashed and fought nearly every other day, I rationalized it away and said that we would eventually iron out all our differences and see eye to eye. I thought that if we could just do that, then it would be the perfect relationship. Not that I think any relationship is perfect but I really thought he would change. I also thought I would be able to change myself and adapt myself to him so that we could be the perfect couple. But, as you know, it just didn’t work out that way. He wanted what he wanted and was not really willing to adapt his behaviours. He said he wanted to and at times he seemed to get it right and change his behaviours but in the end he always reverted back. And you know what, for the most part so did I. After we broke up I had to come to the acceptance that what we wanted in a relationship and who we were as people just didn’t match. I have also had to learn that I need to pay more attention to my warning signals earlier into dating someone and not try to squash them down or ignore them because every time I do that it doesn’t seem to go well” said Layla.

“Yes, I guess I can now definitely relate to that one. It’s so hard isn’t it? It makes me wonder why we do that so often in life as human beings” Sheri remarked.

“Well, we are certainly complicated creatures! Our ability to think rationally can so often conflict with what we feel emotionally and even spiritually at times. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to know which part of ourselves we need to listen to. But, little sis, one more thing I can say I am starting to understand is that our emotions are our greatest guidance system. I guess people who are struggling with anxiety or depression may need to realise their emotional system may be completely off and should not believe what they are feeling is reality. However, if we are doing well emotionally and we sense something in our emotional reaction to a situation, a thought or a person – we should listen more intently. If what we really feel is good then we can act on our good feeling with trust. If what we feel is discomfort, fear or frustration – we should probably think more carefully about what it is we are truly feeling so uncomfortable about and then do something about it.”

“I guess I learned my lesson!” said Sheri.

“You may have a few more goes at it before it’s truly learned, it’s certainly not an overnight skill you can magically develop. But then again, what important skill is?” said Layla.

“Thanks sis. You know, for a 25 year old Loskop (Afrikaans slang for someone who is a bit ditsy), you’re pretty wise”.
Layla stood up, smiled as she went to leave the room and said in the best imitation voice she could, “Much to learn you have, little Jedi”.
Sheri smiled and threw the Emoji pillow at her. “Whatever, Yoda”.

David Fox is a psychologist and the author of Change your Life! Hope and Healing for Anxiety and Depression.

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Lesson 3: You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink!

“I’m really worried about my friend Amy, I think she is getting more and more depressed and doesn’t seem to realise what’s going on.”, said Gwen.

Her school counsellor, Mrs. Wright looked at her with some concern and asked, “What makes you think that she is depressed Gwen?  Have you noticed something different about her lately?”

“Well, she used to be very outgoing and social. She would come to all the school parties and loved going out on the weekends but lately she just says she doesn’t feel like it and is staying at home a lot”.

“Ok, that is a possible sign of depression, but is there anything else you have noticed?” Mrs. Wright asked, sitting forward in her armchair and writing down a few notes from the conversation.

Gwen was a very intelligent sixteen year old girl with ginger hair and bright green eyes. She had a kind and caring nature and was quite sensitive to the behaviours and emotions of others and so had come to see Mrs. Wright originally because she was suffering from some social anxiety. She had a propensity to really worry about what other people thought about her and spent hours agonising over whether she had said the wrong thing or looked or sounded stupid in front of her friends at school.

It always amazed Mrs. Wright over the past 16 years that she had worked in counselling how many people would do this – both teenagers and adults – and never question the validity of their own assumptions about what other people were thinking. It so often led to feelings of poor self-esteem and disengagement with people socially when there was no real reason for it. So many people at the core of their psychological issues seemed to her to have the underlying negative belief that somehow they aren’t good enough.

Mrs. Wright had been teaching Gwen some CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) to help her challenge her thinking and to engage with people without worrying about what they thought about her too much. This had allowed Gwen to express herself more and she had begun to enjoy socialising again and had indeed developed some close friendships in the school.

“Well, you know last year when I was feeling quite depressed about my social circle and you told me about some of the signs of depression?”, Gwen asked.

“Yes, I remember us talking briefly about it”, replied Mrs. Wright.

“Well, Amy has lost a lot of weight lately, I hardly ever see her eat at school. She brings lunch but takes a few bites and that’s about it. I think she has lost about 5 kilograms at least. And it isn’t from exercising or netball because she has pulled away from that too. She used to run two or three times a week and I asked her the other day how the running is going and she said that she hadn’t been feeling up to it lately”,  said Gwen, her concern for her friend showed clearly on her face.

“Yes, another possible sign of depression. As we discussed last year, generally people’s weight can fluctuate up or down with depression but when it gets to be moderate or close to severe it tends to lean more towards people losing weight because they start to not bother and that can be very concerning. You also mentioned a loss of interest in activities that she used to enjoy and this is another major sign of depression. When people withdraw from life and that withdrawal can be from exercise, social activities and very importantly from things that they usually gain enjoyment from then this is a sign that something is wrong and we need to be on the alert for the possibility of depression. Has anything happened in her life recently that could have caused her to feel this way?” asked Mrs. Wright.

“Well, she broke up with her boyfriend last year but she seemed to be recovering okay from that but then her grandfather passed away quite suddenly a few months ago. I know she was very close to him, they would talk on the phone almost every day and she confided everything to him about her life, he was a big support to her”.  Gwen looked down at her hands, a tear began to roll down her cheek.

“I guess you know how that feels Gwen and I can see how much you empathise with her,” said Mrs. Wright moving the box of Kleenex closer to Gwen who took a few tissues and wiped her eyes.

Gwen had lost her mother when she was 9 years old and although that was now 7 years ago, she would still struggle with the loss from time to time and be triggered by certain events or situations. They had discussed this as part of the counselling process over the previous few months and although Gwen had had some previous counselling before she had still needed some more closure as part of her counselling. This had also helped Gwen with some of her social fears as she came further out of her introverted shell and began to engage with the people around her without fear of judgement. She was now becoming quite popular with her school friends and building a strong social circle.

Gwen continued, “Yes, it does touch on that place of sadness inside me but I feel I am handling that better now and I want to reach out to Amy and help her. I can see that she is spiraling and it’s really hard to see her going through this. I have suggested to her that she come and see you but she won’t do it. She says counselling is for crazy people and she’s not crazy. I did laugh at that and say ‘thanks for that’.  When she realised and remembered I had come to see you she laughed a little and apologized but still won’t come”.

“You know Gwen, as hard as it is sometimes to accept, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”, said Mrs. Wright with a look of understanding and concern for Gwen but also for Amy.

“What do you mean?” asked Gwen, not quite sure what the saying actually meant or how it applied to this situation.

“Well, it’s a saying that has been around a long time and like most of those simple sayings we’ve heard so many times before, there is a power in them. If we take the time to really understand what they mean and apply them to our lives they can help us cope better with some of the events and situations that life can throw at us sometimes. I can’t tell you how many people have come into counselling and told me about a friend or a relative who really needs help and support but who for some reason or another won’t go and get that support. Men are usually worse than women when it comes to this as they think counselling is for sissies, or they have grown up being told real men don’t cry. But we know that it’s the opposite and that real men can access and understand their emotions and know when to reach out for help before it’s too late. Unfortunately it seems women are not immune to this either as you have seen with your friend Amy”.

“I am still a little unsure about the saying though” Gwen smiled as she brought her counsellor back on track. This could happen from time to time with Mrs. Wright but she liked her quirkiness.

“Oh yes! Well, it is absolutely true of course that you can literally lead a horse to water that is thirsty and needs to drink in order to stay alive, but you can’t make it drink. Imagine trying to grab a horse by the mouth or neck and pushing its head to the water. No matter how hard you push, if that horse doesn’t want to drink, you aren’t going to achieve anything aside from maybe straining your muscles and being incredibly frustrated!” said Mrs. Wright.

Gwen couldn’t help but smile at the image of someone trying to force a horse to drink water.

“And so it is with people too Gwen. We can tell them what we know is good for them. We can give them information and material to read and explain how others have been helped by doing certain things but all the best intentions and efforts in the world will amount to nothing if the person is not ready to get help. If the person is not ready to admit they need help and then seek that help, there is not much we can do but just be a gentle reminder to them and keep reaffirming the message that help is available when they are ready”.

Mrs. Wright thought of another client she had helped a few years before who had come to see her only after he had been driving drunk and had ‘wrapped his car around a tree’ and miraculously survived. It was only then that the young twenty-three year old had decided that he needed to do something about his depression before it took his life. Mrs. Wright chose not to share this story with Gwen as she didn’t want her to worry unnecessarily about her friend.

“Do her parents know what is going on?” she asked.

“I’m not a hundred percent sure but I think they must know as they would have seen her withdrawing from netball and social outings. I guess I could try to talk to her mother if I get a chance when I am at her house?” Gwen asked.

“That may be a good idea, you may know things that are happening with Amy at school that they don’t but be prepared for Amy to not be happy about it. However, if you feel it will be in her best interests then go ahead”, Mrs. Wright suggested.

“The other thing I noticed is that she is sleeping a lot and always seems exhausted even though she tells me she has more than 8 hours of sleep a night and will often sleep in on the weekends” said Gwen.

“Yes, another major sign of moderate to severe depression Gwen. The problem with that being that unfortunately lethargy breeds lethargy. The depressed person has lost energy, pulled back from physical and enjoyable activities and thus feels less active and less energetic and so wrongly feels that more rest or sleep will help. Sometimes they don’t want to face the world and sleeping is a way of escaping. But this is what I call one of the major traps of depression. You must keep trying to encourage Amy to get out and do something, anything to get her out of the house. Unfortunately, what happens when people get depressed is their friends and family don’t know how to handle it so they stay away and that is the worst thing that you can do as a friend. This only increases their sense of isolation”.

“What if she gets suicidal?” Gwen asked, frightened by the prospect of this or even having to broach the subject with Amy.

“I know it may seem a very hard thing to do Gwen, but as a close friend, if you feel there is any possibility that she may be thinking about it, you must ask her. Just ask her if she has had any thoughts of self-harm. We call these thoughts ideation. They are very common with moderate to severe depression and while alarming to the people around the depressed person and sometimes quite alarming to the depressed person themselves, it is not unusual. It’s a cry for help. The time to get worried is if you ask the next question which is if they have a plan to carry out their ideation and you know they have the means to do it. If the answer is yes you need to get them immediate help from a doctor and psychologist. It doesn’t sound like Amy is at that stage of things but it doesn’t hurt to check. This is what you can do as a concerned friend if she is not yet willing to get help.”

“What if she doesn’t get help?” asked Gwen

“Another saying I like Gwen is: ‘When the student is ready, the teacher will appear’. She needs to be ready. She may need to hit bottom before she realises that she is the only one who can change her life by getting the help and support she needs. You can certainly reaffirm how counselling has helped you and that it has made a difference to you and helped you get on with your life. Sometimes a bit of self-disclosure can help because people realise they are not alone and that plenty of people go for counselling. Everyone needs to talk to someone who is not emotionally involved in their lives and that includes us psychologists! Someone who they can tell their deepest darkest secrets to or just say anything they need to say and express their feelings without fear of being judged or preached to”.

Gwen noticed Mrs. Wright was getting a little worked up on this point.

Mrs. Wright realised too and said, “Sorry, that’s my little soap box speech for the day” and smiled.

Gwen smiled too. “You’re right though, Mrs. Wright”. They both laughed at that.

“Okay, so how about you have a talk to her…” said Mrs. Wright.

“But I don’t know what to say to her, I don’t want to set her off” Gwen cut in.

“Well, it may be best to approach it by saying that you are concerned about her and that you have noticed some changes in her behaviour and any other changes you want to acknowledge. She may not even realise that people have noticed some of the changes. Then you could tell her again that you found counselling to be really helpful and how it has helped you get through a difficult time in your life. Tell her that you care about her and maybe offer to talk to her whenever she wants and encourage her to take up some running or netball sessions again. Explain to her how this will improve her mood because it will increase her serotonin levels which could possibly be part of why she is feeling depressed”.

“What are serotonin levels?” Gwen asked

“Serotonin is one of the chemicals in our brain and body that is involved in the creation of feelings of peace, happiness and enjoyment in life. Another important one is called Dopamine.”, explained Mrs. Wright.

“So are you saying Amy may have a chemical imbalance?” asked Gwen.

“Goodness no! This is a big issue in the field of psychology and psychiatry at the moment Gwen and it is so important to understand that depression and anxiety can be healed through natural means. And just because someone may have lower levels of serotonin does not mean they have a chemical imbalance that requires correcting through drugs. There are so many more options available to people before they should consider taking something like an anti-depressant” said Mrs. Wright, clearly showing this an issue she had some fairly strong views on.

“Like what?” asked Gwen.

“Well, there are so many things really. Most doctors and psychiatrists would not think of suggesting these things to people but I really recommend that you do mention them to Amy. She may feel more comfortable trying these natural ways first anyway and it is certainly the better way to go. We know through scientific evidence that cardiovascular exercise, something like jogging, swimming, cycling or anything that gets the heart rate up and works up a sweat will help to combat depression by increasing serotonin levels. Most people know this but it can be hard, as I said before, for depressed people to get going and do this. But it’s still very important and they only need to do this for 15-20 minutes, two or three times a week. This has been scientifically proven to increase serotonin levels so that’s always a good start. There are a few nutritional things that people don’t usually know about that can also contribute to depression. When we have been under stress for a long period due to any number of stressful life events, our levels of serotonin can be lowered. Stress releases cortisol into our bodies and this chemical can lower serotonin levels over time. The stress reaction can also deplete our levels of the essential B vitamins, especially Vitamin B6 and B12. These are essential for healthy brain function and are actually involved in the body and brain’s process of creating serotonin out of protein. So you could definitely recommend that she start taking a high potency Vitamin B complex” said Mrs. Wright.

“Oh okay, wow I didn’t know that. Maybe I should start taking Vitamin B too?” Gwen asked.

“Absolutely, it’s important for all of us. I take it every day without fail,”, said Mrs. Wright. “the other thing that is essential for effective brain function and mood regulation is getting enough Omega 3. The best way is through high quality fish oils and people who are depressed need to take about 600-800mg of EPA everyday”.

“I feel like I’m in biology class! This is a lot of information,” Gwen laughed.

“Yes, I know. I will write it down for you if you like.” Mrs. Wright offered.

“If you could that would be great. What is EPA?”

“Each capsule of fish oil has both EPA and DHA in it which are both types of fatty acids our brain and bodies need. It’s not really important what it stands for – I couldn’t pronounce it even if I wanted to! –  but most of the commercially available ones have only about 180 EPA per capsule. People with moderate to severe depression need 600-800mg a day so they need to take about 4 capsules a day. There are higher potency ones with more EPA in them so you don’t have to take so many capsules. I take them each day at mid-morning with a fruit and then again after lunch. Best to take them with some food in the stomach”.

“Right. Well, that’s another one I will think about trying myself too” said Gwen.

“She should begin to see some results within a week or two but if not, she may need to add in exercise and counselling too. But again, you can take her to the water, you can tell her what will help her but unless she recognizes the need for help or trying something to help herself, it may not work. But Gwen, I want you to really get this. You can only do your best to help her. You can even go and buy her some fish oil capsules and Vitamin B but you can’t force them down her throat, just as you can’t force the horse to drink”

“Yes, I guess I can just try be there for her as you say and make sure she knows I am there to talk to whenever she needs”, said Gwen – looking a little more encouraged about what she could do to help her friend.

“That’s all you can really do and that may make all the difference in the world to her too. Never underestimate the power of having even one person show kindness, interest and caring towards someone who is suffering in order to help them heal and recover from emotional difficulties”, said Mrs. Wright.

“Absolutely. Once again Mrs. Wright, you are so right”. They both laughed again.

Gwen got up, stretched and thanked Mrs. Wright. She spontaneously gave Mrs. Wright a hug on the way out of the counselling office. Mrs. Wright blushed a little but was very touched and thought once again how lucky she was to do the work she did every day. As tough as it could be at times, making a difference to someone’s life always made it all worthwhile.

David Fox is a psychologist and the author of Change your Life! Hope and Healing for Anxiety and Depression.

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Lesson 2: Let’s cross that bridge when we get to it

Reece wandered into his psychology 101 class, looked around at the theatre like room with the hundred or so chairs leading upwards to the ceiling and smiled as he reflected for the umpteenth time how much the room looked much more like a movie theatre than a classroom. He walked up a few flights of stairs to the middle row and excused himself as he passed a few of the other students and finally sat down next to Rachel.

“Hey, how was the weekend?” asked Rachel.

“Not bad, how was yours?”, asked Reece, trying to act as nonchalant as he could in front of the woman he had had a crush on for the past 6 months. He tried to remain calm and slow his breathing a little. He was so attracted to this woman and was so scared of letting her know how he felt in case she rejected him outright and his mind would race picturing how awful that would be, how utterly mortified he would feel if she didn’t feel the same way and how he may lose her as a friend in the process. He hoped she couldn’t see any signs of his anxiety and kept facing forward.

“Mine was good thanks. Spent some time with the family and went with Eva to see Love Actually 3. Wasn’t as good as the first two”.

“Yeah, sometimes they need to leave a good thing alone hey” smiled Reece.

Rachel laughed out loud and jabbed him in the ribs playfully.

“Ouch, crazy woman”, Reece pretended to be shocked. His mind racing with images and ideas. Did she like him more than a friend? Did the poke and physical contact mean that she may be keen for something more? How on earth would he find the courage or the right time and place to make it obvious to her that he would like to date her and not just meet up in class and spend time cramming for exams together in the library? His thoughts trailed off as their lecturer walked into the room.

Professor Fisher walked into the room with the usual hustle of a man who had too many things to do and not enough time to do them in. He was a middle aged man, in his mid to late forties with a full beard that was beginning to show some grey. He was about 5ft8 with light brown hair and wore rimless glasses. The class would always be intrigued by what he might turn up wearing that day. He appeared to have an endless supply of checkered shirts and sleeveless pullovers that he would invariably wear to his lessons. The university students loved Professor Fisher’s lectures. He had a way of bringing the history of psychology to life. When he spoke about Freud and Jung it was as if he had known them personally and his own person centered approach to dealing with people shone through in how he described the process of therapy. Many of the students would go to him for advice either right after the lecture or they would make an appointment to see him and he always made time for them, no matter how busy he appeared to be.

Reece had also gone to see Professor Fisher on a few occasions when he had been struggling with some of the course work or a particularly difficult essay. In his first few weeks in psych 101, Reece had felt quite overwhelmed and had given serious consideration to dropping out of University and becoming a beach bum. He could see himself living the life of Bodhi from Point Break played by Patrick Swayze, surfing all day and robbing banks behind the mask of a US President for cash and living expenses. Reece’s imagination would sometimes get the better of him!

“Morning class, I hope you all had a good weekend and you are ready for another wonderful week in the land of intellectualism and all things psychological”, said Professor Fisher with a wide smile as he scanned the lecture hall to see who had decided to attend the early morning class. Many of his students would often skip the first lesson on a Monday morning for various reasons he could only too easily imagine. They would often ask their fellow class mates to either record the lesson on their smart phone or to take notes for them and make copies. Reece had never had anyone ask for his notes once they had seen his hand writing. Everyone told him he should be studying to become a doctor.

“As we are nearing the end of term as well as the end of your first year in psychology, I thought it would be a good idea to let you know about some of your options for next year. As you know, you will need a pass mark of at least 70% average in your psych 101 class in order to take Psychology again next year. There are actually quite a few electives next year within psychology and those who are seriously considering making a career out of this will need to do most of these electives as well as their other major for their degree. As part of the requirement to become a psychologist and complete your undergraduate in psychology, you will all be required to complete Psych 202 – Research Design and Analysis which include Psych 202A – which is statistics…” the Professor continued but at this stage Reece’s face had gone white.

Reece, stared at his Professor in an uncomprehending way for a minute before whispering to Rachel, “What the hell? Statistics?!”

Rachel turned to look at Reece and noticed that he looked a distinct shade of pale as she confirmed, “yes, didn’t you know that it was required?” She looked at him with concern, wondering why he was looking like he had just been told he had 3 months to live.

“I’m screwed, that’s it. It’s all over for me”, said Reece, staring once more at his Professor who had gone on to tell the students that they may also want to look at taking electives such as organizational psychology if they were interested in taking the path towards working as a psychologist in business. Reece didn’t even hear that part. He was so preoccupied with the thought that his dream, his vision of becoming a psychologist had just been blown out in one fell swoop. His mind raced with thoughts about how he had just wasted a year of his life, loving a subject and thinking of a career in psychology to only be thwarted by a subject that he couldn’t for the life of him see how it related to sitting down and counselling people through emotional difficulties. Yet, here it was as a prerequisite to becoming a psychologist.

“What are you talking about Reece, you will be fine. Everyone has to do it. I have heard that it’s hard going but you’ll be fine”, reassured Rachel. She rubbed his arm a little.

“You don’t understand, I almost failed maths in school. I hated it so much. When I wrote my last math’s exam, I was so overjoyed. I still have nightmares about having to write my final maths exam where I haven’t studied all year and completely forgot that I was going to have to write a final exam. I’m just no good at it. I’m right brained for God’s sake Rachel, aren’t most people who study the Arts? If we were left-brained people we would be studying accounting not psychology!” said Reece, becoming clearly more agitated by the minute.

“Calm down, maybe you should just go and talk to Professor Fisher about it. I’m sure he will give you a better idea of what’s involved”.

“Yeah, I think I will have to pay him a visit. I will chat to him after class to see when he is free”.

For the rest of the lecture, which was about Freud’s views on dreams and dream interpretation, Reece was there in body only. He tried to bring his concentration back at times and make some notes but eventually gave up and just hit record on his mobile phone. His mind was once again preoccupied with all the possible paths that now lay before him, including changing subjects, looking for another career path, leaving university and getting a job somewhere or taking a year off and heading to South America to reevaluate his life. He felt like a huge weight had been put on his chest and feelings of hopelessness and despondency fluttered through him as they had often done at many other times in his life.

Professor Fisher finished the lecture with a homework assignment for the class to keep a dream journal for one week, explaining how the students could best prepare their minds and their subconscious minds to remember their dreams each morning by keeping a pen and paper next to their beds and keeping very still just as they became aware of becoming awake. They would then need to mentally rehearse as many details of their dream as they could before moving and then go directly their pen and paper and just write whatever details of the dream they could remember without over thinking it. He then wanted to them to try and interpret what their dreams were indicating to them about what was going on in their lives and write a short five page essay on their dream interpretation.

As the last of the students left the lecture hall, Reece waited behind two other students who had some questions for the Professor. When they moved on, the Professor smiled when he saw Reece and then, noticing the look of consternation on Reece’s face, immediately asked him what was wrong.

“Can I come speak to you in your office either today or tomorrow please, Professor. I am really concerned about this statistics course we have to pass next year. I’m really worried this could be the end of me becoming a psychologist” said Reece with a look of dismay clearly showing.

“I know this probably doesn’t help to say right now but you will be fine Reece. But, yes come and see me first thing tomorrow morning. I have some time at 8:30 before my tutorial class”.

“Great, thanks Professor, appreciate it” said Reece as he hitched his backpack over his shoulder again and headed out the lecture hall.

That night, Reece struggled to fall asleep. He lay in bed going over in his mind all the possibilities for his future, none of which seems to be appealing outside of him pursuing his dream of becoming a psychologist. He just couldn’t imagine what else he would do with his life at this point. It taken him long enough to figure out that psychology was the road that he wanted to go down and then committing himself to at least 5 years of ongoing study. His mind also wandered to Rachel, thinking about how much he liked her and also rerunning how he had reacted to hearing about the statistics course. He was quite sure that she must think he is a total idiot now and there was no way she would go out with someone who was so terrified of completing a course in statistics. Rachel was very bright and he knew that she would ace the course with no problem. His thoughts rumbled around trying to convince him he was no good for her but he fought back, trying to use some of what he had learned through his own self-study about negative thoughts. He reminded himself that being highly intelligent from an IQ point of view wasn’t everything and that emotional intelligence counted just as much, if not more.  After a long time of tossing and turning he finally fell asleep entangled in the bed sheets.

The next morning, Reece was waiting on a chair outside Professor Fisher’s office looking at his phone, flipping through Facebook status updates. He heard steps coming up the foot well at the end of the corridor and looked up to see Professor Fisher step into the corridor with his leather briefcase in his left hand and a coffee that he usually got from the canteen in his right. He saw Reece and smiled. When he got to his office door he put his briefcase down and asked Reece if he wouldn’t mind holding his coffee while found his keys. Professor Fisher opened the office door and Reece followed him in. Professor Fisher asked him to take a seat on the couch as he put his briefcase down and then came to sit across from Reece on his high back chair that he often used for counselling students.

Reece put his backpack down and sank into the couch, looking fatigued and quite despondent.

Professor Fisher studied Reece’s demeanor and then said, “Ok young man, out with it then, what’s troubling you about the statistics course?”

“Professor, I all but failed maths in high school, I hated it with a passion. I still have nightmares about it. I’m just not intelligent enough and I don’t want to put myself through having to study something that I am just ultimately going to fail. I’ve been seriously thinking of needing to change courses or something” said Reece.

Professor Fisher studied the young man for a minute and then said, “Reece, you will just have to cross that bridge when you get to it”.

“But I really think I am just going to fail Professor so what is the point?”

“Reece, have you ever thought about what that saying really means in life and how you can apply it? Did you know that it directly relates to a psychological distortion of thinking in CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) called Fortune Telling?”

Reece thought about this for a moment, remembering reading a book by Dr. David Burns that had discussed this distortion of thinking that causes anxiety and sometimes depression. He remembered thinking that the book was very good but he had never really tried to apply the practices in it.

“Yes, I think I remember it. It’s when we try to predict something in the future and we often worry about things that haven’t happened and aren’t likely to happen. Is that what you mean?” he said.

“Yes, that’s right. The saying ‘we will cross that bridge when we get to it’ is age old advice that has been handed down through the ages and has survived as a saying for a reason. As have many other sayings that we have heard so many times before but never really stopped to contemplate why they are still around and how to apply them effectively in our lives. Tell me something Reece, can you remember something in your past that you were worried about happening that eventually got resolved? Something where you were worried that things wouldn’t turn out but they somehow did?” asked Professor Fisher with a little bit of a smile showing in his eyes and lips.

Reece had to smile a little in response and thought back to a few events and occasions in his life where he had worried unnecessarily about things that had eventually worked themselves out. He remembered being worried about how he was going to pay for repairs to his car and imagining what would happen if he couldn’t manage to pay for it. His parents didn’t have much money and he had been working as a waiter to have some money to cover costs of his car and doing Tae Kwon Do, which he had only started the year before. But the repairs had ended up not costing as much as he had feared they would and he managed to arrange paying off the bill over 3 months with the mechanic. He remembered being awake for a few nights worrying about it and losing sleep over it.

“Yes, that has happened a few times Professor but this is different. This is huge. If I fail this course, I cannot become a psychologist which is one of my biggest dreams in life. That would be awful”.

“Well now Reece, what you’ve just said there is actually one of the other distortions of thinking! It’s called catastrophizing. You know, blowing things out of proportion. It may not be the way you saw things happening in your life, but I firmly believe that where there is a will there is a way. You may not take the traditional route but you will get there if you have enough desire and passion to keep going for what you want. And that’s assuming that you can’t pass the course. Reece, you’re an intelligent young man, if you need to go for extra lessons or support I’m sure we can arrange that. That’s IF you actually need the support. Statistics is quite different to mathematics. It is very much applied and if you concentrate in lectures and study hard I cannot see why you won’t get the 75% average that you need. And by the way, the minimum requirements is to complete Statistics 201 in the first half of next year but there is also a highly recommended Statistics 202, in the second half of the year”.

Reece looked a shade paler. “You can’t be serious Professor, this is a nightmare”.

“Reece, do you know what worry is?”

“Yes, it’s something I’m very skilled at!” exclaimed Reece, trying hard to maintain his look of dismay but cracking a smile anyway. He felt his state change a little as he was able to laugh at himself a bit.

Professor Fisher chuckled and said, “Well, that may be true Reece and certainly something you should be working on, but I have always loved the description of worry as paying the interest on a debt that you probably don’t owe”.

Reece reflected on this for a bit, realizing how true that had been in his life. How much energy and time he had spent worrying about things that never eventuated, or certainly didn’t turn out as bad as he feared. In fact, he could remember quite a few times when things worked out in ways he could never have imagined. How certain people or events had arrived in his life at just the right time to help him along his path.

“I like that description”, said Reece.

“Yes, it’s quite good isn’t it? Like I said Reece, if you were walking along a pathway and someone told you that there was a bridge up ahead on your path that was difficult to cross and a little bit dangerous due to how old it was, you could do one of a number of things. You could stop in your tracks, imagine that bridge and what it would be like to fall to your death in the ravine far below and you wouldn’t take another step forward. You would give up on your goal of getting over that bridge and getting to where you were travelling to in the first place. You might try and immediately think of all other possible routes to get to your destination without having to cross the bridge, which in and of itself isn’t a bad thing as that is just problem solving, but the issue is that you haven’t even seen the bridge yet! It’s purely in your imagination as is the image of you falling to your untimely demise. None of it is real. That is why we call it Fortune Telling. You know, it is very much a human thing to do. We are geared to looking for danger and that comes from our very primitive beginnings and needing to be wary of our environment. It served a real purpose in keeping us alive in the days where we may have ended up some wild animal’s dinner if we didn’t keep our wits about us. But in today’s world, most of what we fear are our own mental creations and imaginings of some horrible misfortune happening to us. Sometimes these imaginings are based on real events that have happened to us, such as your previous experience with maths making you feel as if you will not be able to handle statistics. The same as someone who has lost their job in the past becoming quite fearful and worried about losing their job again if their organization announces a restructure or the economy takes a turn for the worst. But in most cases it is the fear of what may happen and not what has actually happened that causes so much angst for people. And we really all need to learn that trying to cross the bridge before we actually get to it serves no other purpose other than to make us afraid and prevent us from continuing down our path with the faith and belief that we will handle it when we get there. We have handled many other things in the past so why wouldn’t we be able to handle this too?”

Professor Fisher sat back in his chair, taking a sip of his now luke warm coffee, thinking he should warm it up in his little microwave he had bought for just such occasions. He monitored the look on Reece’s face, searching to see how his words had impacted the young man, hoping that they had actually made an impact. Reece certainly appeared more relax and more contemplative than when he had first seem him waiting outside the office.

“I hear what you are saying Professor. Makes sense I guess not to worry about things that haven’t happened yet. I guess I should try live one day at a time and not try and tackle my whole life at once”, Reece remarked.

“Now you’re getting it lad. And keep this in mind too, I am not saying that you shouldn’t think ahead and try to plan your life, set goals or reflect on the consequences of your actions. I am just trying to get you to see that there is a difference between thinking ahead in order to plan and worrying needlessly about things that may or may not happen”.

Reece felt a lot calmer and much more confident about continuing with his goal to become a psychologist. While he still had some concern about how he would cope with the statistics course, he realised that he had been overreacting and catastrophizing, thinking the worst and that this was not helpful. One more question flashes into his mind. He wasn’t sure whether it was appropriate to raise with the Professor but he felt comfortable enough and he had never had a father figure to talk to about such things.

“Professor, can I ask you something unrelated to my studies?”

“Of course you can, although I only have a few more minutes”

“There is this girl in the Psych 101 class…”

“You mean Rachel of course”, said Professor Fisher with a mischievous and knowing glint in his eye.

Reece looked very surprised and smiled, “Yes, how do you know?”

“I observe people for a living my boy, just because there is a class of 100 people doesn’t mean I don’t notice what’s going on in it. You like her but you don’t know if she feels the same way you do”.

“Yes! I’m really worried she just sees me as a friend and I worry that she will reject me or that I will lose her friendship. I also think that she’s maybe out of my league and thinks I am a bit of a dork”, said Reece.

“Well Reece, here is yet another example of thinking that can you wrong. What you are doing is something called Mind Reading as well as Fortune Telling. You are trying to imagine what she thinks of you rather than testing reality by asking her and then you are imagining what she may do if you told her how you feel, which is of course Fortune Telling. You know, you always have a choice about which way you imagine or predict things may go. You may be right on either count. She may respond negatively or she may respond positively. You may as well picture a positive outcome. Why scare yourself with all the negative possibilities? Just ask her out on a date.”

“But what if she says no?” asked Reece.

“I’ll give you one last gem I learnt many years ago. Playing the little game of ‘what if’ with yourself in life rarely leads to a good time and it certainly doesn’t achieve much. Sometimes, a better question to ask yourself is so what if? So what if she says no? Will your world come crashing down? Will you never find another woman you are attracted to? Will you never get married and have kids? You get my drift?” said the Professor as he stood up smiling broadly at Reece. He remembered well his own fears and insecurities about dating in his early twenties.

“I like that one too Professor”, said Reece as he stood up and slung his backpack over his shoulder. “Thanks Professor, you really helped me. Don’t know what I would do without you”.

“Well, you would either be fine or you wouldn’t, which one do you choose to think?” said the Professor.

Reece laughed and left the office with a noticeable spring in his step as he walked down the psychology unit hall and headed for the canteen where he knew Rachel would be having her first coffee of the day.

One year later, not only had Reece passed the statistics course with 75% for the first course and 76% for the second, he was asked by the psychology department to tutor first year students for one afternoon a week. Reece would often smile when he remembered his conversation with Professor Fisher and committed to doing everything he could to not cross any bridge until he got to it.

David Fox is a psychologist and the author of Change your Life! Hope and Healing for Anxiety and Depression.

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Lesson 1: Don’t Cry Over Spilt Milk

A class of teenagers are all waiting patiently early one Monday morning for their biology teacher to arrive for the morning’s lesson to see him walk in wearing his customary lab coat with a glass bottle of milk. He walks over to the lab experiment table and asks the class to come and gather around him. He holds the bottle of milk over the sink where they usually pour out the remnants of their biological experiments and all the kids are looking at him and wondering what interesting discovery they could possibly make about something as benign as a bottle of milk when he suddenly drops the bottle into the sink and its smashes with a loud crash, the glass shattering instantly and the milk gurgles down the drain. Some jump back with fright, and others look at him with mild surprise wondering if his hand slipped, looking for some sign of embarrassment on his face but see a slightly surprising wry smile and questioning glint in his eyes as he looks at them and says rather loudly, “Don’t cry over spilt milk!”

The class laughs for a bit, thinking their teacher has gone slightly mad or maybe had one too many last night. Their teacher continues: “You’ve heard that before haven’t you?” Some nod, other’s say “yes” out loud. “But what does it really mean to you?” he asks.

One of the girls says “It means we shouldn’t get upset if something happens that we can’t change”.

“Very good”, the teacher says. “Yes, that is true. But how do you not get upset about something that happens that is actually quite upsetting? I really wanted to drink that bottle of milk! I saved up all week for it and was so looking forward to drinking it and now it’s gone. I’m devastated. It’s so unfair! Why did it have to slip through my fingers and break? Why is God always punishing me? What’s wrong with me anyway? Why am I so damn clumsy? It’s all my fault, I can never get anything right. Just when I finally look like I’m going to get what I really want it gets taken away from me. I’m such a failure, a complete and utter failure and this is just another example of it!”

The class looks at him, some smiling, some not quite sure how to react. Is he being serious? Is he “taking the piss” or has he truly lost his marbles altogether?

“But, it’s just some milk, Sir” one of the boys in the class says.

“Yes, but it was MY milk and it’s not fair!” he replies.

“But you can just go get some more Sir” one of the other girls in the class tries.

“No, I can’t. I used up the money that I had saved for this. I have to wait for another whole week. It’s so unfair. Life is so unfair!” he says in mock dismay.

He asks the class to resume their seats and as they do he hoists himself onto the experiment table and sits with his legs dangling over the edge as he would often do when discussing something with the class.

Once they are all seated he says, “So again, why do you think we have the saying ‘Don’t cry over spilt milk’?”.

One of his thoughtful students who doesn’t often speak up in class raises his hand.

“Yes, Wayne”.

“Well, Sir. The way I see it is that the saying is trying to teach us how to deal with some of the accidents in life or when things just don’t seem to go our way. It is also there to teach us that once something is done, there is nothing we can do that will undo it. All our moaning and crying won’t bring the milk back again”.

“Not one drop of it, Wayne. Not one drop”, says the teacher smiling. He goes on, “There is another quote that is quite famous that you guys may not have heard of which was written by Omar Khayyam which says: ‘The Moving Finger writes; and having writ Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel even half a line; Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it’”.

“It’s the same idea isn’t it? When Omar says all thy piety he means that no matter how humble you try to be or how religious you are, or even how funny you try to be about it, when it’s done, it’s done. And you know what, feeling guilty about it is actually useless too. I have always thought that guilt is a useless emotion. You know why? Because unless there is something you can do about what has happened it actually serves no purpose whatsoever other than to make you feel bad. However, if you are rude to a friend and yell at them because you are in a bad mood and then feel guilty and that leads you to go and say sorry then your guilt has served a healthy purpose. But again, if something is done and it is in the past now and there is nothing you can physically do it about, then it is best to tell guilt to take a hike”

“What we need to take from this and the saying ‘Don’t cry over Spilt Milk’ is actually very philosophical and also very practical and useful for day to day life. It also means that we need to be very careful about how we interpret things in our lives. Remember how I reacted earlier saying all those things about myself and my life and using the spilt milk as more proof about how terrible my life was and how stupid and clumsy I am and what a failure I am? Well, do you think people really do this?” he asks.

“I think maybe some people do Sir,” says Lily from the front row, one of his star pupils with strawberry blonde hair, “Some people I know seem to blame themselves for every little thing that happens to them when sometimes it is clearly not even their fault.”

“So true Lily and there is actually a name for that in psychology you know,” says the teacher, “It’s called personalisation. It’s actually quite common and very tricky sometimes. I could easily blame myself for dropping that bottle of milk, couldn’t I? After all, I’m the one who dropped it. But, the thing is, it’s not so much what happens to us in life as it is how we react to what happens that makes a huge difference in how people respond to and live their lives, isn’t it? It’s how we choose to interpret the events of our lives and the meaning that we make from them that will determine not only how we respond to them emotionally but how we actually interpret the meaning of that event in our lives. Sometimes things just happen right? You all know that other old saying right? which I won’t say in class because I could get in trouble,” he smiles at the class and a few laugh back with a knowing look.

“Shit happens!” comes a shout from the back row of the class. Everyone bursts out laughing and Brandon, a blondy-brown haired, freckle faced kid who is usually a little unruly in the class smiles with a bit of smug look on his face and taps his pen on the desk looking down.

“Indeed, it does Brandon, indeed it does” says the biology teacher, unfazed by Brandon’s reaction today because Brandon just happens to be spot on and willing to say what he – their teacher – couldn’t say in front of the class.

“There is a fine line between looking for meaning in things that happen in life, which I do believe we can and should do when it is appropriate but there is also a time to try as hard as we can to just let the event happen and move past it as quickly as we can without giving it too much of our energy or attention. We also often  find in life that we don’t know the reason behind why some things happen to us until later on. Sometimes we find out soon and sometimes it may be years or even decades before we realise why something which we thought was so bad at the time actually happened. Sometimes it happened because we needed to learn something or we needed to meet someone special or experience something in order to fulfill our mission in life, whatever that may be”.

“I guess some good questions to ask ourselves when something ‘bad’ happens in our lives,” the teacher uses his fingers to show the quotation marks, “is whether it is worth getting upset about in the first place and also whether there is anything that we can do about it right now? Has getting upset about anything ever helped someone move on in life or solve the problem that they are now facing because of the thing that just happened?” Most of the kids seem to agree by shaking their heads that it doesn’t seem to be a very helpful approach to dealing with life’s upsets.

“But Sir, does that mean that we shouldn’t get upset if we fail at something? What if we don’t get our HSC  (Higher School Certificate – Australian final high school exams) or fail to achieve the marks we need to get into the University we want to? That would be quite devastating and we couldn’t just say oh well ‘Don’t cry over spilt milk’ could we?” Wayne asks.

“Good question Wayne. Not an easy one to answer is it? But I would still point you back to the two questions. Let’s say you did study hard and you failed your HSC or didn’t achieve the marks you needed to get into a University you wanted to get into. What then? Being upset about it would just be human of course. You would likely feel emotions of being sad, upset, demotivated, angry, or even depressed but in the end, how would feeling this way help you achieve what you want in life? And how long do you think is appropriate to be upset and experience all those horrible emotions before you are ‘allowed’ to pick yourself back up and move on with your life?” the teacher asks with a sincere look of questioning and deep emotional understanding of the fears that could well be felt by the majority of the class in this regard.

“I don’t know Sir”, Wayne says “How long do you think?”

“Well, again a very good question and one that is clearly very personal for each human being in terms of their personality and their usual or habitual way of dealing with things in their lives. Some people may never recover from something like that and use it for the rest of their lives as a reason why they are inferior to everyone else and why they cannot succeed and just how stupid they are and unfortunately this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And some people may actually take this as a challenge to think about the direction of their lives and what it is they really want to do and then think about other ways to go about achieving their life goals. Did you know that some of the wealthiest people in the world that many people consider to be geniuses, never finished high school? If you do a little research and study some of the great inventors, business moguls, famous sporting legends, artists, writers and musicians, you will find they didn’t all do well or even finish high school. So again, it’s not so much what happens to us Wayne ‘spilling the milk’, as much as it is how we choose to react to it and how quickly we can recover and get back up and keep pursuing our dreams. Sometimes we just have to pick up the pieces (literally and figuratively), clean up the mess, and do the very next thing that we can see we need to do to keep moving forward in our lives”.

At this point, the biology teacher jumps down off the table, stretches a little and moves to the front of the classroom to his desk to begin the day’s very important curriculum based lesson about the anatomy of a tadpole.

“Sir, I have one more question about all of this”, to which the teacher turns around to see Jake with his hand in the air.

“Yes Jake?”

“Are you saying that if someone we love dies we shouldn’t get upset?”

“God no, Jake. I am definitely not saying that. There are things that happen to us in life that are absolutely real and are very much part of being human and being alive on this earth. Experiencing loss or going through any major life event will definitely cause us to go through sorrow and grief. Grieving and being very sad about losing someone in our lives actually requires that we are emotional and upset and that we express these emotions in any way we need to. We may need some help and support during that time too from family, friends and even a good counsellor. In fact, if we ignored it and suppressed our emotions about something like that and just pretended we were okay, we would probably not really get over it and it would have some negative impact on us psychologically and emotionally now and in the future. That kind of stuff needs to be felt, expressed and moved through with help. And all of you please remember you never need to suffer alone. There is always help, you just need to ask for it or look for it. It is always there. It may come from a surprising place sometimes, not from family or close friends. It may come from someone you thought was only an acquaintance, or a teacher or sports coach or someone new you just met. But it will be there if you’re open to it. It will be there.  I hope that answers your question Jake?” he says smiling fondly at Jake and then the rest of the class as he picks up his chalk and gets ready to start the lesson.

“Yes Sir, thank you” says Jake and a few other students nod.

“You’re very welcome, you’re all very welcome”.

David Fox is a psychologist and the author of Change your Life! Hope and Healing for Anxiety and Depression.

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