Refrigerator Therapy

She’s explaining her recovery in the way a scientist would describe a physics experiment. Everything is cause and effect. She is beyond frustrated because none of the changes she’s made resulted in feeling better. I point out to her that every change she has made is external and suggest that what she needs to change is internal. She stares at me blankly and asks what that would consist of?

I explain that the way she treats herself sucks. She’s living her life by the rules and expectations of her family of origin. She is endlessly frustrated that she cannot do everything. I ask her if she really wants to do everything. She changes the subject. I ask what she will get in return if she does absolutely everything for absolutely everyone and does it absolutely perfectly. She tells me that this would result in being happy and feeling good enough. I point out that her self acceptance depends on everyone in her life liking her, accepting her, and approving of her. She looks sad and changes the subject again.

She’s read too many self help books. She’s talking about cognitive behavioral therapy, dissonance, regressive themes, relentlessly pursuing external validation, and self affirmation. If she were a therapist talking that way I’d fire her. She’s intellectualizing. She’s explaining away her feelings and analyzing her fears. I lose patience with her. I tell her, “Here’s the thing – your fears don’t give a fuck about rationality, logic, or paradigms. The bottom line is you’re mean to you and I’m asking whether you are willing to change that?” She stares up at the ceiling because she believes that that’s where the answers are. I’m wishing I had a mirror to place in front of her. She shakes her head and tells me she’s not sure whether she is willing to “make the type of change you’re describing.” I rip off a piece of paper and write, “I’m considering whether I am willing to stop being mean to myself” and hand it to her. She reads it and looks uncomfortable. Her eyes go to the floor. I suggest that she put the paper on her refrigerator and look at it every day.

My friend Ardis always says, “Gimme the guys from the wrong side of the tracks. Those guys know they’re screwed up. You can have the intellectuals – they think they’re too smart to be screwed up.” As near as I can tell, no one has ever left a conversation with Ardis wondering what she meant by what she said. This is the value of saying things simply and in a way that conveys feeling. Intellectuals have the illusion that no one understands them. The truth is they don’t know themselves. What they understand are the illusions they’ve created. Add to this the fear of vulnerability and shame and the result is that no one gets to know who they really are. Discovering our authentic selves must always be the goal. In the heart of every person who avoids discovering their true self is the fear that who they really are will not be good enough for those they love.

She tells me, “I just want to be like everybody else and I don’t know why.” I tell her that she perceives everyone else as being happy and good enough. She agrees. I point out that there seem to be no shortage of insecure, depressed, anxious, and miserable people in the world. She knows this is true and that her illusion of wanting to be like everybody else is not. She’s frustrated. When we get to the core of our selves we find false beliefs. We wrestle with the fact that these beliefs drive our behavior and perspective and yet simply are not true. The pitfall for intellectuals is they rationalize and justify better than most. Rather than accepting that what they believe simply doesn’t work, they get lost in trying to think of a way to make their false beliefs work for them.

“We can’t think our way into a new way of living. We have to live our way into a new way of thinking.” – Heard in the halls of AA

Overdoing anything means we’re not doing enough of something. Thinking too much is an attempt not to feel. Thinking becomes circular and leads to alternating patterns of total avoidance through pleasurable distractions and unpleasant distraction through obsessive thinking. The only way to break patterns is to consciously choose to do things differently. We learn to externalize our thoughts and false beliefs, as opposed to maintaining an external focus on other people, places, and things. As long as change exists only in our heads it’s not going to happen. This is why journaling is so effective. Things look different on paper or on a computer screen than they do in our head. If we are to make changes in any part of our lives we must pay more attention to what needs to change. In this way we become more mindful.

Mindfulness is not thinking. Mindfulness is simply being aware of self. It’s necessary because it’s ourselves that we hide from, run from, and treat badly. We learn to notice our self talk and harsh judgments of self. We learn to share our struggles because two heads aren’t just better than one; they are a million times better than one. We become more willing to make the changes we need to make because we become more aware of the cost of not making them.

We favor simplicity. Keeping things simple facilitates change. Making conscious choices breaks patterns. We have seen remarkable results from simple and consistent steps toward change. We call it “refrigerator therapy.” Grab a piece of paper and write down the one thing in your life that needs to change. Stick it on your fridge and notice it. Whatever you choose share it with trusted others and ask them to hold you accountable for making that change. If you’re not sure what to choose we offer these simple choices just for today:

– Today I choose to not lie to myself. I will practice rigorous honesty if only with myself.

– Today I will not be mean to myself in my self talk or choices

– Today I will ask God to save me from myself

– Today I will not live by the rules or expectations of those who abused me

– Today I will deal with things as they happen

– Today I will call one person who cares about me

– Today I will look in the mirror and not be hateful. I will just notice me.

– Today I will not procrastinate because that is not how I want to deal with fear.

– Today I will not use food to stuff my feelings

– Today I will not isolate (if you must isolate do it with at least one other person)

– Today I will not cut. If I need to destroy something I will – but it won’t be me.

– Today I will not purge. Instead I will release one negative feeling through expression.

– Today I will hold my head high because no one can take my dignity from me.

Jim LaPierre

About Jim LaPierre

Jim LaPierre LCSW CCS is the Executive Director of Higher Ground Services in Brewer, Maine. He is a Recovery Ally, mental health therapist and addictions counselor. He specializes in facilitating recovery (whether from addiction, trauma, depression, anxiety, or past abuse) overcome obstacles, and improve their quality of life. Jim offers a limited amount of online therapy to those with very flexible schedules.