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Stepping Out of the Shadows/[Re]Connecting With
Your Life's Journey

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Transforming the Mindset

By Dr. Steve Frisch, Psy.D.

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Shifting from Victim to Survivor

The girl who can’t dance says the band can’t keep time.
-Yiddish Proverb  

Taking responsibility for our emotional and spiritual well-being requires that we let go of the past by taking ownership of the here-and-now.

A few years ago, I went to a party with a good friend of mine, Beverly. It was quite cold that evening so Beverly  wore her full length fake fur coat.

Now this coat is the biggest, furriest thing that you have ever seen. When we arrived at the party, our host took Beverly’s coat and put it in the spare bedroom. As the evening wore on, Beverly came up to me and told me that she was ready to leave. Next, she went upstairs to get her coat out of the spare bedroom.

A few moments later, I heard the loudest, shrillest, shriek I had ever heard. I recognized immediately that it was Beverly who had begun to scream hysterically. 

Well, naturally I went running up the steps to see what had happened. There I saw Beverly, her body trembling, her hands glued to the sides of her head, screaming at the top of her lungs.

It wasn’t until I was able to help her calm down that I could even understand what she was trying to say.

You see, Beverly was deathly afraid of dogs. She had been her whole life. When she was three years old, while sitting in her stroller one day, she was viciously attacked by a huge dog. She received over one-hundred stitches and was obviously very traumatized by the whole situation.

Well, evidently when Beverly went into the dark bedroom, she saw this huge pile of fur laying on the bed and immediately assumed it was a dog. She became overwhelmed with fear and anxiety and bolted from the room.

I didn’t want to upset Beverly any more than she already was, but, I was somewhat confused. You see, I knew that the people who had given the party didn’t have a dog. So I spent a considerable amount of time trying to assure her that there wasn’t a dog in the room.

The funny thing was, the more I tried to convince her that there wasn’t a dog in the room, the angrier she got with me. In trying to be helpful, it seemed I was making matters worse.

I finally convinced her to come with me into the room so that I could show her that there was nothing to be frightened about. 

She finally agreed. We slowly crept up to the doorway and peaked into the room. Sure enough, there on the bed sat this big furry, lumpy creature. Now I was really puzzled.

I cautiously stepped into the room, fumbling around in the dark, searching for a light switch. All the while Beverly was peeking over my shoulder, nervously clinging to my back. Finally, I found the switch. After the light came on, we both began to laugh uncontrollably. For when the light came on in the room, what do you imagine we saw laying on the bed? That’s right! It wasn’t a dog at all. It was Beverly’s very own fur coat!

Dogs, fur coats, transforming our mindset? The connection? As I said earlier, transforming our mindset is a giant step towards personal empowerment. Just as Beverly discovered, we can be brought to our knees with fear, not by what we encounter in our life, but by our perception of what we encounter in our life. If we want to reclaim our personal power, we need to be able to tell the difference between the dogs and the fur coats that we encounter on our path.

Here’s another way to think about that. If the dog represents our past and the fur coat symbolizes the here-and-now, we need to start to distinguish between what is the here-and-now and what is the past leaking into the here-and-now.

You can see from Beverly’s experience that when we become more clear about what we are reacting to--either the present or the past leaking into the present--we can more clearly assess what is happening to us in the moment. The value of this is simple to understand. Our fears don’t have to overtake how we react to any situation when we are grounded in the moment, for we are clean about what is happening with us in the moment.

We only need to discover how the past colors our perceptions of the present. You can think of how that may be true for you, can’t you? Something may be happening to us now, but that circumstance may become supercharged with the past leaking into the moment. Just like Beverly’s strong reaction when she thought her coat was a dog.

Once she thought that her coat was a dog, it was all over for her, because the trauma she experienced at the age of three immediately colored how safe she was feeling in the present moment. Once Beverly was able to shed some light on the here-and-now, she was able to see that her misperception of the coat was the cause of her fear. Then she was able to laugh it off, feeling silly for her overreaction.

By transforming what we see with our mind’s eye, we can empower ourselves to live a life in the present that is clean and unencumbered. In order to transform what we see with our mind, we need to learn how to clean the lenses through which we view the world.

Clean the lenses through which we view the world. Does that mean that we have to accept the notion that our way is not the only way to see the world? In a word, yes.

You see, we have one thing that is always intruding on our perception of the present moment. That one thing is our past. Our past colors everything we see. Our past colors the judgments we make about the present. Ultimately, our past colors the way we relate to the people and circumstances we encounter in our present.

We work hard in our Relationship Bridge Building groups to develop the skills necessary to separate the past from the present. What I tell the group members is that we need to clean the mud off our windshields before we can start to have a relationship with people in the here-and-now. Quite simply, we need to learn how to view the circumstances and people in our lives through the lens of the here-and-now, aided by the understanding of how our past can distort our perception of the present.

Paradoxically, it is often this very tenet of personal growth that stops people dead in their tracks. Surrendering how we view the world. Transforming how we think about who we are. Becoming open to seeing ourselves in a new and different way. Letting go of the ways we insulate ourselves from personal responsibility. That’s a slippery slope for anyone to take on. It’s a path that requires a lot of courage, a lot of patience, and a lot of hope that the future is better served for being on such a path.  

What I ask people to do is challenge themselves to give up the ways they have insulated themselves from one essential truism of life. That truism has been the death knell of many persons attempts at stepping out of the shadows. The truism; we are ultimately responsible for our emotional and spiritual well-being, a responsibility that can only be fulfilled by being grounded in the here-and-now.

To let that truism into our mind, body, and soul requires an important transformation to take place. We need to let go of the number one defense we all rely upon, the number one way we stay frozen in the past, enslaved to the emotional storm that leaks into the here-and-now. The defense is quite simply, blame.

We all recognize what blame is. It is displaced responsibility for our well-being. Blame is an accusation that communicates we feel hurt, betrayed, abandoned, abused, and humiliated by how we have been treated by others. But it leaves us stuck in the position of feeling perpetually wounded.

Paradoxically, blame is an anchor that keeps us stuck in our perception of previous acts of betrayal. It keeps us stuck for one very important reason. Blame is the conduit by which we give away our personal power. Blame is the means by which we surrender our ability to make the here-and-now different. Blame is the source of toxic emotions that corrodes our spirit rather than empowers our journey.

The way we liberate ourselves from the perceptions clouded by the past is to take ownership of our thoughts, our feelings, and our actions. Another one of those simple things to say but hard things to do.

But that’s the door we all have to walk through. We all have to develop a better understanding of who we are, what stirs us up, what our reactions mean rather than what we want them to mean.

We all need to cultivate a clearer understanding of what the battles are that we are waging with the world as well as what their significance is. Do you understand what long-held wrongs you are trying to right with everyone who populates your here-and-now world? Can you see how you  hold people in your life hostage to past events?

Getting clean in the present. Taking ownership. Letting go of the past. Does that give you a direction? Does that give you a sense of how to empower yourself by transforming your mindset? The transformation--I suppose it sounds something like this:

I will surrender the mindset of a victim for the mindset of a person who takes ownership of their actions.

I will surrender the blissfulness of ignorance for the emotional pain of self-awareness.

I will surrender the ease of blame for the sweat and toil of taking responsibility for my emotional and spiritual well-being.

I will surrender the certitude of living in the past for the uncertainty of living in the here-and-now.

I will surrender the emotional safety that comes from holding others responsible for my well-being for the discomfort provoked by living a life of integrity and accountability. 

That’s the roadmap I use when I feel like my past has overtaken my present. That’s the compass I use when I feel  I have become disoriented because I have handed responsibility to others for my well-being. That’s the yardstick I use when I feel I have to measure whether I have strayed from where I want to be.

How about giving it a try. Why not write down some criteria for yourself? What are ways that you can measure whether your old mindset of blame, shifting responsibility, and not taking ownership of the here-and-now appear in your life? What are the transformations that need to take place within your mindset to insure that you are taking responsibility for the here-and-now?

This is big. It should not just roll off the tip of your pen. Give yourself plenty of time. If it feels like it is too overwhelming to do, do a little at a time. But whatever you do, don’t walk away from it. The rewards will be worth the blood, sweat, and tears.

If none of that is helpful to you, then just remember this one last thought. If someone comes up to you at a party and tells you that you can’t dance, it’s time to stop blaming the band. How about looking into taking some dance lessons?



Dr. Steve Frisch, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in
Chicago, Illinois and Northfield, Illinois.

You can contact Dr. Frisch, Psy.D. at drfrisch@aliveandwellnews.com  or at
(847) 604-3290.

Recover from chemical dependency and its toxic impact on family members. Raise your children to choose to be alcohol and other drugs free. Learn how to in Dr. Frisch’s, Psy.D. Recovery book series.


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