How much time do you spend ruminating on the past?
While many of us spin our wheels on things like the co-worker that threw us attitude and the line-jumper we wanted to chew out but instead made room for, living in the rearview mirror doesn’t do us any favors. Instead, it has a habit of fueling frustration, self-criticism and even shame.
Luckily, there is another way.
The psychoanalyst Hans Loewald described psychotherapy as a process that allows the “ghosts” of the past to be transformed into “ancestors” who positively impact our thinking and behavior. I’ve seen how this can work firsthand.
As my practice grew, I sometimes felt the effects of the pressure to “perform.” Occasionally I became a little impatient, even harsh, with some of my more challenging clients. And not only that, I was also visited by a recurring, bad dream in which a great white shark swam towards me as I was swimming in the deep waters of the ocean.
When I spoke to John, my own psychotherapist about the dream, he advised that I try to find meaning in it and learn from it. As I struggled to understand how a great white could teach me anything but to avoid murky waters, John shared the following story with me.
One of his clients had been suffering from depression, but on one particular occasion came into his office in a much more positive frame of mind. He explained his sudden optimism by describing a dream.
“I was swimming underwater surrounded by every type of exotic fish imaginable. Sunlight dappled the ocean bed and the water felt warm on my skin. I felt at peace in this idyllic setting. All of a sudden the fish darted away and the sun was replaced by shadow, and my feelings of peace were replaced by those of dread. Looking behind I saw a sea monster swimming toward me. Despite swimming as fast and as far as possible the monster gained ground. Finally, I was trapped in an underwater canyon. The monster swam slowly toward me.”
“What happened?” I interrupted, thinking of my own nightmare.
John replied, “He turned around and taught the monster how to sing.”
I loved the story. What John was trying to tell me was that I needed to reframe the threat of the shark. Rather than the aggression and power of the great white haunting me, I needed to see it instead as an ancestor I could learn from and accept as part of myself.
And eventually that’s what I did.
One night I dreamed that I was entering a dark basement, with a window inset into the opposite wall. Through the window I could see the ocean. I approached it just as the shark swam up. This time, though, instead of cowering, I put my hand on the window and looked it straight in the eye. I never had the dream again.
Still, I have it in me to lose patience, be hypercritical, and threaten the very people I am trying to help. It’s a side of myself I guard against but accept all the same, and there are times with some executives where the shark can come in very handy.
Over the years I have discovered that it is far better to teach our monsters (or ghosts, or sharks) to sing than to slay them, as they are part of us. They are our imperfections, and rather than ignore them we must recognize that they can provide important information about our past, present and who we want to be in our future.