Have you ever been embarrassed? When you were an adolescent did you go through your life with your head down and your mouth shut so as not to make a fool of yourself? Were you afraid of the criticism of others? It was horrible, wasn’t it? Fortunately, most of us outgrow those feelings, but those wounds are still there and can spring back to life if the right circumstances come along to trigger it. Some people, like Cindy, don’t outgrow their fear of social embarrassment, because she had a particularly bad case of it as a child. Her father was a drunk and her shame kept her from inviting friends to her home. This fear of the ridicule of others maintained itself, like a persistent case of acne, long after her adolescence, keeping her in a constant state of depression up into her thirties. That depression would get worse when adversity struck, and when her younger brother died of a drug overdose it sent her back in time, into the cellar of her life where all her pain still lived.
None of this was clear to Cindy at the beginning of this interview; she only knew that she was very anxious and depressed and she couldn’t shake the feelings; they haunted her at work.
The first thing that became clear in Cindy’s interview is that she has very low self-esteem. Her anxiety personifies as a flimsy green frisbee that can entertain for a little while, but that’s about it. In turn, it represents Cindy’s un-stable, non-existent self-esteem. It is powerless to even imagine how it could improve itself or make its life better. That’s a pretty good sign of depression – when you can’t even imagine an alternative life that would lift your spirits! With coaxing, the frisbee turned into a bunny in a petting zoo. Things get a little better for the bunny in a meadow with other rabbits. At least Cindy now had enough juice to imagine a transformation, from petting zoo to meadow, that allowed her to feel better – more natural and peaceful. However, when the rabbit was asked how it scored, it still scored low. This rabbit still wanted to isolate itself and it said “there’s still pain in my body.”
It was clear that Cindy was now out of role, talking about her own body. I asked where the pain was, and she said, “It’s in my chest.” I asked, “If there was something or somebody that was causing the pain in your chest, what would it be?” Cindy said, “It feels like a big cow sitting on my chest.”
We now had a personification of whatever was keeping Cindy’s scores low, so we backed up and started the interview again, but this time asking the cow questions. It said, “I’m trying to keep her down so she doesn’t embarrass herself. I don’t want her to make a fool of herself. I don’t want her to get laughed at. I would be embarrassed if she got laughed at.”
So now we have a connection between anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and embarrassment. Notice that this cow has an adaptive, protective function. It exists to protect Cindy from herself. She needs to be held down so that she doesn’t make a fool of herself. Cindy’s answers reflect typical teenage thinking about embarrassment: “She would be stupid! She would be an idiot! She wouldn’t be cool! She wouldn’t fit in! I’m just trying to protect her.”
I acknowledge the adaptive, protective function of Cindy’s cow as a way to reframe it as a maladaptive attempt to be helpful rather than as an enemy. When you read over the transcript of the interview below, notice that the cow is much stronger than the frisbee or the rabbit. It says, “I don’t have any weaknesses. No one messes with me! I’m just your average cow. I’m just trying to protect her.” This cow doesn’t sound like it’s burdened with any of the anxiety or depression that weighs Cindy down. It is a part of herself that sounds like it is relatively high scoring, although we never scored it. It says, “I am like a big brother. I try to keep her in line. I try to keep her from embarrassing herself. Then people would think she was stupid or an idiot. They would talk about her and not talk to her. She would feel bad. They would make fun of her and ostracize her.”
If we had any doubts before that this cow is the personification of Cindy’s solution to a lingering, common attitude of adolescence, they are now clearly laid to rest.
Now the cow is asked what it wants for itself. It is given permission to change, if it wants. Notice that it is torn between fear that it can’t trust Cindy to behave herself and its desire to take its normal place in the scheme of things.
When Cindy gives the cow permission to live its life and promises that she won’t do anything to embarrass herself or the cow, she then says, “I feel subdued, like the pain that was in my chest is no longer there.” “I don’t feel the pain in my body. I feel more relaxed.”
Cindy then gives the cow permission to live its own life but recognizes that it has played an important adaptive function in her life and that she may not immediately outgrow her need for it. But now she clearly sees what she is doing to herself and why. Instead of being critical or self-judgmental, she can have compassion for how and why she has created misery for herself.
Notice also that this embarrassment, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem somatizes as a physical symptom. That’s what happens when we ignore wake-up calls. They get louder. One way they can do that is manifest as physical symptoms. That is hardly the only explanation for all physical problems, but it is one component of almost all of them. If you reduce the psychological component, pain and physical symptoms are much easier to deal with.
Cindy received concrete recommendations for “homework:”
Feel more relaxed and grounded in my body
Stretching and relaxing my body
Getting fresh air!
Cindy was also encouraged to read over her interview before sleep a couple of nights a week and to ask herself a number of times a day a question: “Where’s my cow?”
The purpose of that question is to develop a sense of her relationship to her need for depression, anxiety, and repression, in different life situations. Can she learn to be comfortable “letting up on herself?”
One interview will hardly eliminate this or any other issue forever, but Cindy is clearly getting a lot of helpful awareness of how and why she keeps herself stuck. It then becomes up to her to remember this cow, to make friends with it, and to turn what was a major source of pain in her life into an ally and support. Will the recommendations help? We don’t know unless she tries them.
Good luck, Cindy. Don’t let yourself be cowed!
Here’s the interview:
What are fundamental life issues that you are dealing with now in your life?
1 Anxiety- leaving work early, isolating….
2 Feeling low, depressed
Which issue brings up the strongest feelings for you?
If that anxiety had a color, what would it be?
Kermit the Frog Green
Imagine that color filling the space in front of you so that it has depth, height, width, and aliveness.
Now watch that color swirl, congeal, and condense into a shape. Don’t make it take a shape, just watch it and say the first thing that you see or that comes to your mind: An animal? Object? Plant? What?
Now remember how as a child you liked to pretend you were a teacher or a doctor? It’s easy and fun for you to imagine that you are the shape that took form from your color and answer some questions I ask, saying the first thing that comes to your mind. If you wait too long to answer, that’s not the character answering – that’s YOU trying to figure out the right thing to say!
Frisbee, would you please tell me about yourself and what you are doing?
I’m a green frisbee. I’m plastic and hovering in the air in front of Cindy.
Frisbee, what do you like most about yourself? What are your strengths?
Nothing. I can entertain for a little while, but that’s about it.
Frisbee, what do you dislike most about yourself? Do you have weaknesses? What are they?
I feel nothing exciting, no self-sense, just a flimsy little frisby. I’m just a thin piece of plastic that doesn’t really weigh anything.
Frisbee, what aspect of Cindy do you represent or most closely personify?
Her self-esteem. Sort of non-existent and not stable.
Frisbee, if you could be anywhere you wanted to be and take any form you desired, would you change? If so, how?
I don’t know. I don’t know if I want to change. I don’t know what to change into.
What would be good about staying a frisbee?
I don’t know.
Would there be any advantages to turning into anything else?
A cute little bunny? Maybe I would get attention. Maybe people would like me and think I am cute.
Why don’t you try turning into a bunny. What’s that like?
Nothing. I feel the same. I’m in a little cage.
Imagine you are in a petting zoo…
I like it but I know it’s not going to last forever. I know I’m going to go back to feeling the same way.
Imagine you are hopping around with the other rabbits in the petting zoo.
I feel better. I have company, I feel more alive. More natural. I don’t like having kids pick me up and stroke me.
I’m eating grass. I like it. There are other rabbits around. I’m now in a meadow with the other rabbits. Fresh air…fresh grass. It’s natural, peaceful.
(Continue, answering as the transformed object, if it chose to change.)
Rabbit, how would you score yourself 0-10, in each of the following six qualities: confidence, compassion, wisdom, acceptance, inner peace, and witnessing? Why?
Confidence, 0-10. Why? 6 I feel a little more alive; a little more that I am doing something; I can be around other animals but not around people. I’m not having to interact. I don’t feel alone but I have my solitude.
Compassion, 0-10. Why? 2 I understand a little more now, I guess, going from a frisbee to a petting zoo to a meadow. What my needs are; I can feel a little better.
Wisdom, 0-10. Why? I feel safe. I don’t have to do a lot of interacting.
Acceptance, 0-10. Why? 2 I still feel don’t feel that great about myself but being this rabbit in this meadow is a little bit better.
Inner Peace, 0-10. Why? 2 There’s still a lot of pain in my body.
Witnessing, 0-10. Why? 2 The pain is in my chest. It feels like a big cow sitting on my chest.
Cow, would you please tell me about yourself and what you are doing?
I’m trying to keep her down so she doesn’t embarrass herself.
Why do you care whether she embarrasses herself or not?
I don’t want her to make a fool of herself. I don’t want her to get laughed at. I would be embarrassed if she got laughed at.
Why would you be embarrassed if she got laughed at? No one would like her?
She would be stupid! She would be an idiot! She wouldn’t be cool! She wouldn’t fit in! I’m just trying to protect her.
That’s nice of you, cow. It sounds like you do a good job.
Cow, what do you like most about yourself? What are your strengths?
I am aware; I try to protect her. I’m protective.
Cow, what do you dislike most about yourself? Do you have weaknesses? What are they?
Nothing comes to mind. I don’t have any weaknesses. No one messes with me! I’m just your average cow. I’m just trying to protect her.
Cow, what aspect of Cindy do you represent or most closely personify?
I am like a big brother. I try to keep her in line. I try to keep her from embarrassing herself. Then people would think she was stupid or an idiot. They would talk about her and not talk to her. She would feel bad. They would make fun of her and ostracize her.
Cow, if you could be anywhere you wanted to be and take any form you desired, would you change? If so, how?
I’m afraid to let her go. I would afraid to leave her. I would be afraid if I let another cow be with her that it wouldn’t do its job and keep her down. But I think I would like to have my own life. I would be grazing in a field with other cows.
Cindy, did you hear what the cow said? Will you tell the cow that you won’t do anything to embarrass yourself it it gets up and goes off and eats grass?
Cow, get up go eat grass and see if Cindy does anything to embarrass herself or you…
I feel subdued, like the pain that was in my chest is no longer there.
So Cindy, just lie there in the grass and see what that feels like….
I don’t feel the pain in my body. I feel more relaxed.
Will you call the cow over now?
Put your arms around its neck and give it a hug. How does that feel?
I would like you to tell it that you appreciate it being there to keep you safe all these years. Say, “I know you have been protecting me from being an idiot, being a fool, or embarrassing myself.” Tell it that you want it to have its own life and eat grass, but sometimes you may need it to come back and sit on your chest.
I know you have been protecting me from being an idiot, being a fool, or embarrassing myself. I want you to have your own life and eat grass, but sometimes I may need you to come back and sit on my chest.You can come back and sit on my chest if you feel I am getting out of control or you don’t trust me.
May I ask the Cow a question?
What have you heard Cindy say?
She appreciates me protecting her all these years and she wants me to live my own life. I have her permission to come back and sit on her chest.
What do you think about that, cow?
I’m still a little apprehensive but I’m willing to give it a try. It’s the separation. I’m a little scared.
Then graze close to her so you can get to her if you need to sit on her if you need to.
Cindy, is that OK with you?
Cindy, do you want to take any homework away from this interview?
I want my homework to be to feel more relaxed and grounded in my body. Yoga comes to mind. Eating better. Stretching and relaxing my body. Getting fresh air!
I would like you to ask yourself a number of times a day a question: “Where’s my cow?”