I was talking with a client earlier this week and he was explaining why it is so hard for him to make a decision about what to do next – even when the options are all relatively simple things. He reported feeling paralyzed by anxiety about possibly choosing the wrong thing – making a mistake. I asked how he visualized this options, he described a pile of apples at the grocery store. He shared that if he selected the wrong thing, he would upset the whole pile, causing an avalanche of apples which would overwhelm him and make a horrible mess. Once he described this to me, I could completely see his feeling frozen and unable to make a choice. It was like he was playing a giant game of Jenga and pulling the wrong piece might mean “game over”. You know Jenga, right? See the picture below. Google it if you can’t figure out how to play (it really is pretty basic).
My client and I then agreed that he needed to change the way he is visualizing his list of tasks in order to make it easier for him to select one. He came up with a new visualization strategy I thought was absolutely brilliant. In order to reduce his anxiety, he decided to no longer see his tasks as being piled on top of one another, but instead as being pebbles on the bottom of a calm pond. My client can look into the pond from above and select whichever task he might like and have no concern his selection will create a chaotic event. We discussed how sometimes he might choose a large pebble, while other times he might select a smaller one. If he selects a pebble, it is perfectly acceptable to work on it for a while and put it back and move on, if needed. We even discussed using the natural elements around the pond (i.e., perhaps birds are singing and the sun is shining) to help to relax him and reduce his anxiety.
My client is unlikely to report immediate and permanent reduction in his symptoms based on one visualization activity, but, if he continues to work on this activity, he will likely feel better gradually over time. This goes to show how, sometimes, it isn’t the problem itself we need to change, but simply the way we look at it and the meaning we take from it.