I learn so much from my clients as we sit in my office and explore their histories and current day issues. Many are well-educated professionals and others have street smarts in abundance. Yesterday, one of them introduced me to a concept that is used in leadership trainings. I dove in with enthusiasm when I got home and found myself nodding and agreeing to incorporate it in my personal life and utilize it with clients and students. It is called Above the Line/Below the Line and was described in Carolyn Taylor’s book Walking The Talk. My client used it in reference to a person in her life who exhibited the lower half of the diagram I am about to describe.
Take a sheet of paper and draw a horizontal line. Consider that above the line are all things positive, forward thinking, affirming and responsible. Know that below the line stand blame, shirking responsibility, denial and deflecting. Already, you see where this is going. Can you say that anyone who wanted to achieve a measure of success would want to fall below that line? And yet, many do and justify their position.
There is not a person on the planet who has not experienced pain (physical or emotional), loss, death, job changes, illness, financial limitation, or unhealthy behaviors. These are factors over which we have no control. What we can take charge of, to the best of our ability and willingness, our response to any catalyst.
I recall a conversation with a patient I was working with on an inpatient acute care psychiatric unit. Although tormented by psychosis at times, in a lucid moment, he asked me if I knew the difference between responding and reacting. I asked him to tell me more. He presented a scenario in which a patient in a medical hospital was given a medication by their doctor. A few days later, the doc comes in and says, “You’re reacting to the medication.” He asked if I thought that was a positive or negative message. Of course, I replied that it would be considered negative. On the flip side, if the medical professional told the patient, “You’re responding to the medication,” what would that indicate? Naturally, it would seem that a positive outcome was forthcoming. He smiled and told me that I got the message.
When we react, it is usually impulsive and not well thought out. We are likely to fall below the line. When we respond, we are more inclined toward mindfulness and above the line choices.
To assess where you stand:
- In your relationships, do you play the blame and shame game or play out win-win scenarios?
- When an experience has not turned out as you planned, do you sink down or bounce back?
- If someone disagrees with you, do you plummet into victim mode or rise above into a resilient thriver state of mind?
- Can you let go of past chains that might have kept you imprisoned, or do you attempt, unsuccessfully to move ahead with them holding you back?
- Do you have a go-get ‘em attitude, or a why bother mindset?
- Are you burning in resentment or basking in the glow of memories?
- Is your body mirroring those emotions?
- Do you speak in absolutes such as using self-fulfilling prophecies like, “I always or never…”?
- Are you able to be a possibilities thinker, rather than a problem seeker?
Once you have determined your place on the paradigm, you can utilize these portable skills to keep you on the high side of the line.
Deal: We don’t always get to choose our circumstances. You’re called on to deal with the aftermath of situations, such as growing up in an abusive or otherwise dysfunctional family. It helps to remember that you’ve survived everything that’s happened so far. Is there anything that says you won’t make it through what’s happening now?
Conceal: Protective mechanisms kick in to cover up trauma we’re not ready to cope with. Think of it as makeup that covers blemishes: We know what’s underneath, even if other people can’t always tell. Sometimes we’re afraid to remove these layers because we wonder if others will run screaming if they see who we truly are.
Peel: Imagine removing the skin of an orange or banana to uncover the fruit. Take a deep breath, inhaling the fragrance. Life can be that sweet all the time. The skin’s meant only to be a temporary covering, and the fruit can’t be fully appreciated if it remains. Our lives are limited if we keep our beauty, power, and even our pain hidden. It takes tremendous courage to uncover our fears.
Reveal: Think of a time you felt excited to open a gift. “Revealing the real” can create the same sense of anticipation. Is there something you want to share that you’ve been withholding out of fear? Remember this 12-step adage: “We are as sick as our secrets.”
Heal: However long it takes, healing comes from a process of refining and redefining our experiences. But healing isn’t the same as curing. A person can be free of the bondage of addiction and still understand that it’s part of their experience. Just as someone with an injury or illness might maintain lingering reminders of their suffering, our life events are part of us, but they don’t define us.
In Native American tradition is a story of the Two Wolves. A grandfather is speaking to his grandchildren and tells them that there are two wolves battling for supremacy in his heart. One is about anger, greed, violence and darkness and the other is about love, and healing, goodness and light. One child asks him which one will win. His wise response is, “The one that I feed.”
You are encouraged to find supports and accountability partners such as family members, friends, mentors, therapists and sponsors to help you remain on top of the line and feed the wolf that will empower you to live your best life.