Navigating change and problem solving your life

‘What happens when there is a mismatch between the life you want and the life you’ve got?’

Dr Clive Williams

A mudmap for living?

For most of us, when we experience a mismatch between the life we would like and the one that we have, the story we tell ourselves is that someone, something, other than us, is the cause, the problem. We want them to change, them to desist, them to take a long walk off a short cliff. To this end we complain, blame, persist in finger-pointing. We might get some relief from this venting or we might even gain some improvement from the other for awhile, an hour, a day, a week, but before long, we’re back in the same place. Arguing. Blaming. Finger-pointing.

Naomi sat in the chair for the first 25 minutes describing in some detail the coldness of her husband, his silent moods, his nightly drinking and occasional parenting that he engage in. Her distress was genuine, her exhaustion evident. She was certain he was the problem and that she had tried every avenue.

She had no idea that much of what she described as the problem, she had allowed, sometimes even encouraged.

Psychology is the exploration of being human. When you sit in a therapist’s chair, we are not there to hand out solutions. We are looking for patterns, recurring behaviours, a way of thinking where you shoot yourself in the foot (usually whilst blaming others). It’s an all too familiar pattern. It’s the all-too-human response to life not going the way that we want. And it’s all a complete waste of time.

When Naomi had first felt alone in her marriage, she had told her husband. He defended himself and as their argument grew, he had left the house for a couple of hours and spoke little on his return. In an attempt to reconnect, Naomi would usually begin to make small talk, and with time they would fall back into their old pattern. This was the way of most of their arguments. No progress. Stalemate.

Clients test out a therapist when at some point the situation becomes too much. As they sit there, doubting whether any amount of talking is going to change anything, we’ve already started looking for the recurring patterns. How long has this been going on? Why is it your job to keep the peace? Why are you so determined to avoid conflict? How long have you been fighting to be heard?

And then we ask possibly the most important question of all. When did you first start living like this? Where did you learn that strategy? It’s at this point clients will often look stumped. You can see their brains working. Thinking. Remembering. ‘I don’t know’. ‘Maybe at school?’ ‘For as long as I can remember.’ ‘Maybe after my father left?’

And then we ask ‘Did it work back then?’ ‘How?’ ‘What happened when you did that?’ ‘Do you think this strategy is still working for you?’

Therapy is a wake-up job!

Often, by this point, clients might be a bit more confused but also more intrigued. Hopefully, you’ve added another piece of the puzzle to their problem. Some will acknowledge they harboured suspicions about the effectiveness of their behaviour for awhile. Some will just be confused. ‘Have I really been using the same strategy to solve problems since I was 5 years old?’ Some will argue ‘there’s no other way to do it’.

In that doubt, we are trying to find if you’ve had some blinkers on that blind you to the whole problem, that limited you in dealing with unique but similar problematic situations over the course of your life.

, and give you other ways of living. The way to do this is to first and foremost, acknowledge your stress and distress. We want you to know that we hear you, that parts of your life or maybe all of it, have become too much. Almost every client relaxes even a little, once they feel heard. The reality of life is that while you’ve been blaming someone or something else for your predicament, they’ve been blaming you. To then feel heard feels like something foreign. You don’t have to keep arguing your point. We get it.

Now we start the exploration of what’ve done to address the problem.

You’ve been told that you’ve got it wrong, you have the wrong take on it, that you’re over reacting. feel heard you, you may begin to slightly relax, begin to think maybe this therapist has something to offer. And then we’ll ever so gently begin to look at what you’ve done to solve the problem and inevitably find things that while well intentioned, actually made things worse.

That can’t be trueIf that’s true why can life sometimes feel chaotic and overwhelming? Campbell’s quote is a gentle, possibly frustrating, reminder that life does not always go to plan. It’s a reminder that all the complaining, blaming and distress about not having the life we want is simply a waste of time and effort. This simple quote to encourage us to accept what is, is often a really difficult lesson to learn.

A Roadmap for living
Roadmap for living …

I wrote this book as a response to making what I thought at the time was an incredible discovery, yet one I was too ashamed of to share. When you read the preface of my book, you will see that I had spent a lot of time and effort trying to create the life I thought I wanted and it just wouldn’t fly.  Doors kept closing in my face.  Expectations were dashed.  People I wanted to impress weren’t.  People I wanted, didn’t want me.  My life felt like a continuous exercise in huge effort with little reward.

I came to understand Campbell’s idea of the Hero’s Journey when I was learning how to write plays.  I had previously heard of Campbell from his interviews with Bill Moyers: The Power of Myth, completed just before Campbell’s death in the early 1980s. I was captivated by Campbell, initially by his idea of ‘following your bliss’, but also by his persona. This was a man near the end of his life and he appeared fully alert, much involved and genuinely engaged. His words contained a simple insight to the complexities of living a full life.

Avoidance is probably the most popular coping skill on the planet … and the least effective.’

Dr Clive Williams
A Mudmap for Living

When I eventually came to read Campbell’s book ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’, I found much of it as if speaking directly to my own life, yet other parts were challenging to read and comprehend.  So much information.  In his book, Campbell suggests that one familiar storyline underpins a particular story found across the millennia.  Initially, I thought this idea stupid. 

But by this time however I needed to write a play so I needed to cover all my bases. Chris Vogler’s book ‘The Writer’s Journey’ explained the ideas of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and lay them out in a clear and concise manner.  It was this book that provided me with a solid underpinning to then more fully understand Campbell’s.

So off I went to write my plays and become world famous but every now and then, I thought recognised bits of this storyline, the Hero’s Journey, happening in my own life.

Being a psychologist and adhering to evidence-based approaches with which to frame life and problem solve, I dismissed these thoughts as silly. But these moments of recognising aspects of the hero’s journey  happening in my own life continued more and more.  I soon found myself considering my life as a hero’s journey.  If I was the main character what was my story about?  If events in my life were a Call to Adventure, what was I going to do?  How would I resolve my significant life problem? If the hero’s journey is essentially a series of increasingly more difficult tests for the main character to resolve, what were the tests in my own life? What would I need to do to address them?

Treating my life as a hero’s journey turned out to be exactly what Campbell had promised.  Doors opened where previously I had only seen walls.  I made progress with my life problems, not usually in the way I had hoped, but still real progress and then many rewards.  I began to create a life, that resonated with who I really was, what I was really interested in and that adhered to my own values and not those that others wanted me to have or thought I should have.

None of this was easy but it was worth it! Without knowing it, I had left the familiar path and wandered off on my own hero’s journey.

Using the Hero’s Journey to navigate your life won’t make you rich or famous or perfect.  You will still make mistakes, get frustrated, have bad things happen to you.  It will however give you a clear idea of what to do to resolve your life problems.  Whether it’s work, studies, family or relationships, significant life problems require us to navigate change in a manner that is true to who we really are and that is the true gift of the Hero’s Journey.  It will help you identify where you are in your own Hero’s Journey, what to expect and what you will need to change and how.

It was an incredible discovery to make and now I hope to share it with you.

Clive Williams PhD

Find out more about the Stages of the Hero’s Journey here.

discover your heroes journey A mudmap for Living the Book
The oldest storyline of all time turns out to be a mudmap for navigating everyday life

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