How Mental Health Is Like Pulling Weeds
Yard work has ben one of the banes of my existence, and this was especially true when I was young. I hated yard work so much that I would rather have had dental work done in a back alley van than work in the yard.
One of the activities I detested the most was pulling weeds. My parents told me that I had to go around and pull the weeds out of the ground by hand — I had to bend down and play tug-of-war with them until the entire weed finally gave in and let go of the earth. Then I discovered another way: I could run them over with the lawn mower. It was a genius plan! No bending, grabbing, or pulling!
I had really saved myself some time and effort; except there was one tiny problem. I didn’t know the reason my parents wanted me to yank out the weeds by hand (I assumed they were just torturing me).
You all probably know this, but it was a revelation to me. If you don’t extract the root the weed will grow back. In fact, you can actually spread seeds and create more weeds by just cutting off the top. Just like that, my life-changing yard plan backfired big time. What I had thought would save me time and energy was actually costing me more of both — I wasn’t getting to the root of the problem.
So what does this have to do with mental health? Whatever problems you may be having — in your life, marriage, job, etc. — dig a little deeper. Most people are fairly adept at identifying their issues, and you may have the self-awareness to acknowledge the potential causes of your problems, but most of us don’t dig deep enough. We spend so much time and energy mowing the stuff we can see that we miss the root, and, without addressing the root, the problem will come back. It might even spread!
I was working with a young man who was experiencing a great deal of dissatisfaction with his job. He was working in a service profession (social work, counseling, etc.) and felt like he wasn’t making a difference. He worked and worked, studied and studied, but never saw any tangible fruits from his labors. When asked what thoughts and feelings he experiences when he is upset about his work he said, “I feel like I am not good at my job, like I am not actually helping people.”
That is fairly insightful, and he identified his problem — but it was the surface problem. We needed to go deeper. “What would it mean for you if that were true?”
He thought for a minute and said, “It would mean that I have wasted the last five years of my life.”
One more question, “What would it mean for you if that were true?”
“It would mean that my life is worthless.” Whoa! That’s it! That’s the root of what we were dealing with! He was facing a serious existential crisis — the meaning of his life was in question. If we had begun cognitive behavioral therapy aimed at his surface problem (job dissatisfaction), his problem would have sprouted somewhere else.
One more example: I was working with a young man who was fighting with his wife over their Xbox (seriously). They would constantly bicker, and their fighting seemed to be centered on the gaming system. He was playing too much, she was playing too much, he had too many Xbox friends that were women, she had too many friends that were men, and so on.
His solution was to get rid of the Xbox, and he did. Guess what? They started having problems in other areas of their marriage — they weren’t digging deep enough!
So I asked him, “What thoughts do you have when you and your wife are fighting?”
“I think that she doesn’t respect me as the man of the house,” he responded. We could have stopped there and worked on ways he could earn his wife’s respect, but we were still on the surface.
I asked him, “What would it mean for you if that were true?”
“It would mean that I am not a real man.” And there it is.
When you are having a problem ask yourself, “What thoughts do I think when I am experiencing this issue?” Then ask yourself, “What would it mean for me if this was true?”
When you identify a core distortion, here is how you attack it:
- Write it down.
- Rate it! On a scale of 1-to-100, write down how intense this thought is (1 is no intensity and 100 is the most intense level possible).
- Honestly evaluate the thought: write down real evidence that supports the thought and real evidence that refutes the thought.
- Write down a more balanced thought that is based on the facts you wrote down in the previous step.
- Rate it again! Put it back on the scale of 1-to-100. See what the difference is?
Get at those “root” thoughts; you may be surprised at what you discover. If you continue to cut off the issue at the surface you might not ever truly get rid of it. It takes a little more work and you might have to get your hands dirty, but you will ultimately save yourself time, energy, and heartache.
Pulling weeds photo available from Shutterstock
Winterman, T. (2018). How Mental Health Is Like Pulling Weeds. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 23, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-mental-health-is-like-pulling-weeds/