Marie says she needs to stop eating sugar. Enid says it’s time to get a job. Mike says he really needs to cut down on the booze. Danny says he should break up with his girlfriend. Each week, they, and thousands of other therapy clients, come into their therapist’s offices and it is Groundhog Day all over again.
“So how did the plan go this week?” the therapist asks.
Marie, Enid, Mike, Danny, et al, all get the same look on their face, and say, “What plan?”
Then they shake their collective heads and slap their foreheads. “Of course I didn’t do it. I know I really should. . .”
Soon we discover there are at least two of them in the room. There’s one part of them that wants to change, do the harder thing, accomplish something, make their life better. Then there’s the other part, who takes over as soon as they leave the office. By the time they are down the elevator, there’s about as much chance of them doing something different as there is of winter ending on February 3rd.
Fritz Perls, the inventor of Gestalt therapy, called this the Topdog/Underdog game. Inside of our heads there is a tyrant and a rebel. The tyrant shames the rebel, telling him he’ll never get his act together. The rebel says, “Fine, I’ll show you,” and promptly cuts his nose to spite his face, proving the tyrant right. The tyrant gets increasingly frustrated, the rebel feels worse and worse, but digs his heels in more and more. “I know you are right,” he says, “but I’ll start after the Super Bowl . . .”
The problem, you see, isn’t the booze, or the sugar, or the job, or the girlfriend. It’s this conflict of mind. The person needs couples therapy – all for him, or herself.
The problem with the problem is that there is no way out of this circular way of thinking. Couples can get a divorce, but we can’t get that pesky bugger out of our mind. Every attempt to find a solution just brings you right back into the same old argument. “I know!” we say, “I just have to DO something!” And you are right back in it.
You see, this is the way the mind works. It’s like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof: “On one hand, but then on the other hand . . .” Mind dichotomizes. The human mind is the only one we know of that can imagine what doesn’t exist. As soon as we think of one thing, we automatically think of its opposite. Good, bad. Black, white. You should go to the gym, who cares when we’re all going to die?
Once you recognize that this is simply the way our mind operates, it becomes clear that there is no way out of this trap. It’s like the movie Groundhog Day. No matter what the lead character, played brilliantly by Bill Murray, does, he keeps waking up on the same day.
When my client gets this, he or she inevitably says, “Well then, what should I do?” When I point out that they are back in it with that question, they hit despair.
When Phil Connors (the Bill Murray character) gets to this point, when he realizes there is no way out, he attempts suicide. The problem is, even that doesn’t work. After every attempt, he just wakes up to find himself back at ground zero – it is Groundhog Day all over again.
So if suicide is not the answer, then what is? Oops, there we are looking for an answer – snagged again!
Paradoxically, there is an answer, and that is not to ask the question. But how do you do that? You can’t!
Instead of an “answer,” that is, finding the way out, there is “acceptance,” acceptance that there is no way out, that there is no answer. Once we can rise up a level, and look down at ourselves trapped on this “wheel of illusion,” and accept that this is just the way our mind conceptualizes, something happens.
What happens you ask? Ah, still looking for the answer, are we? The only way to really know, to really find out, is to sit in the impossibility of the situation; to suffer the discomfort of not knowing, to experience yourself in the trap without trying to get out of it. To simply be aware of what is.
“Who has the time?” you say. “I’ve got problems and I’m suffering and I need it to end! Give me the goddamn answer,” you implore! “Isn’t that why I’m reading this friggin’ blog???” “What are you saying? If I just accept, I won’t do anything! I’ll just sit on the couch and waste away!”
Re-read the last paragraph. Do you get it, yet?
You win. I’ll answer the riddle, though it won’t help. Once Phil Connors surrenders – once he fully accepts his fate – that he is trapped in living this one day, over and over, once he stops trying to get out of his problem because he knows he is totally powerless over changing that, he lives as if that isn’t true. When a guy in the restaurant where Phil is eating starts choking on his steak, he gives him the Heimlich maneuver ever though he knows the guy will choke again the next day.
Paradoxically, when he accepts his powerlessness, when he stops focusing on changing himself, the struggle ends, and with that he doesn’t do; he becomes. Instead of trying to change himself, he focusses on making the world a little better for everyone around him, who are also trapped and suffering. He becomes the person he is meant to be. He becomes a good guy.
Strangely, when he does this, he becomes happy. The woman he wants falls in love with him. When we get that the trap we find ourselves in is of our own making, the bubble pops, and the whole problem simply evaporates. Phil wakes up, and it is the next day.
But whatever you do, don’t try to figure out what this means and try to do it, or, for you, it will be Groundhog Day all over again.