In Parts 2 and 3 of this article I want to illustrate the mining and bookshelf metaphors by revisiting Dave and his dealings with grumpiness (from one my first entries in this blog). You may recall that Dave struggled with grumpiness in the evenings at home with his wife and two kids. He described grumpiness as a fog settling over his house and we identified the effects of the fog on Dave and his family (increased tension, distance, feeling “on edge,” a sense of heaviness and sadness).
Our conversation eventually helped Dave to name his preference: He preferred to be happy, upbeat, and pleasant rather than grumpy.
He then was able to identify some skills and abilities he could use, and some experiences that reflected his preference, which could help him achieve the lightness, engagement, and playfulness he desired. But to explore our two metaphors, we’ll back up to when Dave was stuck in grumpiness.
THE MINING METAPHOR AND GRUMPINESS
If we look at Dave’s experience of grumpiness using the mining metaphor we think about layers, and digging down through them to get at that “core” or precious nugget of truth that lets us understand the cause of Dave’s grumpiness. From this perspective, grumpiness exists on the “surface” or top layer, but it’s just a manifestation of something more essential, deep down or at the core. So we might ask, “What’s really going on underneath all of this grumpiness?” We would probably think something like, “Grumpiness isn’t really the problem, we just have to figure out what the real problem is.” Or, “If we dig down through the layers of Dave’s grumpiness, we’ll find what’s really driving it.”
With our thinking guided by the imagery of layers arranged in a hierarchy, and an inner or deep-down, hidden truth, our answers about the causes of, and solutions for, Dave’s grumpiness might look something like this:
- Dave has so much unresolved anger toward his own parents that he’ll never be at ease around his kids until he resolves it. His grumpiness is a way of expressing in his current family what he could never express with his parents.
- Underneath it all, Dave is just a very insecure person, so he’s never really comfortable in his own skin. He just gets grumpy when he feels stuck in a situation that makes him feel insecure and inadequate. It’s his underlying inadequacy and insecurity that he has to address.
- Dave is an introvert. He can take only so much “togetherness.” He can put on a brave, false front for a while, but then his real self, his real introversion, his inner need to be alone gets the best of him, and he starts being grumpy as a way of getting out of a painful situation.
- It’s really Dave’s unhappiness with his job that is causing him so much stress and unhappiness. He’s never been good at knowing what he wants and being able to pursue it, so he just keeps finding himself in these work situations that cause him stress, and it’s that stress that seeps into his family life.
The imagery of the mining metaphor both guides and reflects the thinking behind it: It leads us to think that to truly resolve grumpiness Dave has to get to the root cause, which is often hidden and deep (we might even use words like “denial” or “repression” or speak of the “Unconscious” to indicate how difficult it is to accurately identify such root causes). Once identified, the root cause must be “addressed” and the “issue” be “worked through” or “resolved” for Dave to have a real solution to grumpiness.
This kind of thinking is so pervasive that I’d be surprised if most of us don’t automatically go down the path of asking, “what’s at the bottom of all this?” when trying to deal with some personal or relational difficulty. And I’d be equally surprised if most of us haven’t gained valuable insights by applying such thinking. We’ve probably been helped by reaching conclusions like: “I wasn’t really mad at you, underneath it all I was just so stressed from being humiliated at work that I was really ‘on edge’ and taking everything too personally.”
I also assume that the mining metaphor has helped most of us by leading us to do the mental and emotional work of “excavating” our own lives: looking more closely at a tricky situation to understand it better, and sorting through possible explanations to find the one (underneath it all) that really rings true.
LIMITS OF MINING
Despite its potential benefits the use of the mining metaphor can be a real liability. Being convinced that there is one truth, and that it is hidden beneath other more superficial layers, can get us stuck in some frustrating patterns. Here are some of the limitations of the mining metaphor I encounter often, both personally and with the people who consult with me in therapy.
First, the “one truth” or “one root cause” perspective is usually unhelpfully simplistic and inadequate given the complexity of our lives. How does Dave meaningfully decide whether his grumpiness is “really” caused by stress at work, parenting challenges, financial worries, marital misunderstandings, physical ailments, family-of-origin memories, the latest news about war or economic meltdown, or some biochemical, neurological, or genetic factor, when the most accurate answer is probably, “all of the above”?
Second, to find that “one truth” in the face of so much complexity, we often engage in a process of dismissing as irrelevant many of the factors or variables that might be helpful. If there’s room for only one, the rest has to go, and we can easily dismiss something that could be quite helpful, just because it’s too obvious or not sophisticated enough, or because we don’t actually give it enough “airtime” to point us in a helpful direction.
A third limitation shows up often in my work with couples: the limitation of the zero-sum game. If there’s only one truth about the cause of problems in a marriage, then the table is set for nearly endless arguments about whose explanation is correct. Couples often show up to my office with the emotional scars and exhaustion of such battles. (I think one of the most important things I do with couples is to provide them a place in which the “multiple truths” of what they’re saying can be heard and respected by one another.)
Fourth, the mining metaphor can leave people feeling isolated. If there’s one true, real cause of the problem, it’s usually “located” inside the person. It’s an internal problem in his or her own “psyche,” or “personality,” or “unconscious,” or reflects an “unresolved issue” in the person’s life. The work, then, is for the individual: alone. The battle is an individual one of facing the truth and “working” on one’s issues. The shame or frustration of even having such an internal flaw in the first place, or the feeling that one’s friends don’t want to hear about it anymore, makes the isolation even more pronounced.
Fifth, trying to identify the one thing that’s “really going on” can take a ton of effort and is often exhaustingly elusive. Usually the people who consult with me in therapy have lots of ideas that help explain, and could even help solve, their current particular difficulty, but the underlying-root-cause-nugget-of-an-explanation remains elusive, and they continue to dismiss explanations that don’t quite explain it all. Often I see real suffering in people who have become desperate to find that one truth or root cause, pressing on in an earnest attempt to “get to the bottom” of the problem while also kicking themselves for not having already figured it out (or being ashamed for having such an entrenched problem in the first place, or for having to talk to a stranger/therapist about it).
ONLY ONE CORE TRUTH?
Since so much of what I see as the limitations of the mining metaphor have to do with its implication that there is one core or essential truth about ourselves and our problems, it would be fitting to ask whether the mining metaphor inevitably leads to this one-truth or one-real-cause kind of thinking. My answer is that I suppose not: it is, after all, a metaphor. We could, for example, use similar imagery of layers and digging down, but expect to find a “mother lode” of explanations or causes or perspectives rather than just one. And the literal layers of the mine don’t necessarily have to imply that the bottom-most layer is the most precious. I can imagine a literal mining situation in which one valuable mineral is found near the surface while another is found a few layers down.
But my use of the mining metaphor in this article is intended to reflect what I find to be that very common and almost automatic way of thinking that so frequently shows up in my therapy room: a way of thinking that makes distinctions between “surface manifestations” and “underlying real causes,” and that tends to believe that there is “one” truth or cause or “real self” underneath it all. It is that version of the metaphor that makes it hard to imagine “mother lodes” of explanations, or a multitude of precious nuggets. It is that version of the metaphor that so often has my clients feeling frustrated with themselves for not being able to resolve or fix their deep-down flaws and limitations, and feeling stuck in their search for helpful solutions to their problems.
I find the bookshelf metaphor a simple, but powerful, alternative – taking the useful ideas from the mining-led explorations, but turning them on their side to free up creativity and provide more options to people stuck in entrenched problems. In Part 3, we’ll look at Dave and grumpiness through the lens of the bookshelf metaphor.