The video* of David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech starts with the tail of two young fish swimming along when an older fish swimming in the other direction says “morning boys, how’s the water?”.
The younger fish look confused and one says to the other “what the hell is water?”.
Sometimes I get to be the older, wiser fish and sometimes I’m one of the young ones.
This is water is about all of us
It takes me real conscious effort to see the water and occasionally when things are going wrong and I’m feeling anxious or scared I don’t see it at all.
That’s the most natural thing in the world. We tend to take for granted those things that have always surrounded us.
When I saw the video of Foster Wallace’s speech it moved me hugely.
I’m blogging about it because in so many ways it sums up the work I do with clients; I help them to see the water.
Different ways to see the same thing
I’m reaching the stage in my work as a therapist where I am beginning to see the connections between concepts within the modalities I work in and between the modalities themselves.
It’s a lovely place to be.
It has allowed me to language Foster Wallace’s message in a few different ways.
Often our problems are created by engaging in old behaviours that served a purpose and helped us survive as children but are outdated and counterproductive as adults.
In Imago Relationship Therapy I would talk about moving away from the unconscious behaviours that you carry out in an attempt to heal your childhood wounds and make a deliberate, conscious choices about how you behave in your relationships.
Sometimes it may be difficult and feel uncomfortable for you to do this and the payoff is a deeper, more loving relationship with your partner.
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy I might talk about noticing.
Pressing pause on the autopilot behaviours that are taking you away from what’s important in your life.
You are carrying out these behaviours to “get rid” of thoughts and feelings you don’t like but the cost is moving away from what’s important.
the bad news is that pain in our lives is inevitable. It’s the price we pay for being alive. Whether you suffer, however, is up to you.
All three modalities are advocating the same thing. That you stop and notice the water around you.
Like David Foster Wallace talks about in the video, this gives you choice and the ability to notice how your automatic behaviour may be helping to soothe feelings of discomfort in the short term but is costing you dearly in the long term.
Getting rid of pain
The vast majority of clients who come through my door want me to magic away uncomfortable thoughts and feelings they are having.
Of course they do, I’ve been asking my own therapist to do this for years!
I’m no different. This is human nature, we don’t like pain.
But the bad news is that pain in our lives is inevitable. It’s the price we pay for being alive. Whether you suffer, however, is up to you.
I encourage my clients to notice the water. To see how their autopilot behaviour which is often carried out to avoid pain leads to prolonging it; to suffering.
Whether it’s withdrawing from your friends to avoid being rejected; drinking yet another glass of wine to dull your feelings of sadness or shouting at a loved one to release the pent up frustration you have with them, your behaviour often helps you feel better in the short term but kind of screws things up over time.
Autopilot behaviour takes us away from what’s important.
And I have been guilty of doing all of the above because all of those behaviours make sense. They work, at least for a bit.
Start to see the water
So what would it be like to step out of the game and see the bigger picture? If you have found yourself feeling stuck or frustrated and carrying out the same old behaviours and feeling like you are getting nowhere then maybe it’s time to press pause and notice the water.
It takes practice and it can change your life in amazing ways.
*The video shows an abridged version of a speech made by David Foster Wallace, an American author. Wallace made the speech to the graduating class of Kenyon College and it became widely known as one of the most memorable commencement addresses in history. The glossary made a video to illustrate the speech to great effect.