Seeing The Wood For The Trees
It all depends on how we look at things, and not how they are in themselves.
– Carl Jung
People see the world in many different ways. There are optimists and pessimists, people who think too much and people who don’t think at all. Some care what others think, some care too much and others don’t care at all. Some think about what’s good and others about what’s bad. Some can’t stop thinking about a certain thing, some are too angry and others feel too guilty. The fact is, everyone sees the world in their own way.
The trouble is that some experiences and situations can end up ‘colouring’ our experience of everything else. Chronic Pain is certainly something that ‘colours’ our experience of the world. Some would say that it throws a big dark shadow over everything.
When things are tough, it’s easy to get stuck with a certain way of thinking and see everything in negative terms. We use the phrase ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’ to identify this sort of situation where we can’t see things clearly because we are too involved in them. By ‘seeing things clearly’, I mean seeing things as they really are, which means seeing the ‘good’ as well as the ‘bad’.
It is easy to become too good at noticing the bad aspects of life and not good enough at noticing the good. If you think about it, things are just as unlikely to be completely awful as they are to be completely fabulous. Experience tells us that most of the time, reality is usually somewhere in between. Admittedly, it’s hard to think in such a completely neutral way; but it is also too easy to think in a negative way. And this is why we need to put time, practice and effort into noticing the good things about the world.
As the saying goes : ‘The way you see the world is the way that you experience the world’. So, if we’re on the lookout for the worst, we usually find it. But, using this logic, we can also say that if we look out for the positive, we’ll also find it. And this forms the basis of an exercise that can help change what you see in your world and thereby your experience of the world. Or put another way, you might see some different trees.
This isn’t about lying to yourself, it’s more about making the effort to look for the good in things in life. I don’t mean become a smiling idiot, but rather start to reflect on your day, every day and identify 3 things that were good. These don’t have to be big things and they don’t have to be amazing. If it’s a struggle, it may mean scaling things down to notice the small joys of daily life. For example, a chat with a friend, a drop of sunshine and something that you managed to do, no matter how small. Notice what you did do rather than what you didn’t do. Notice what was good rather than what was bad. As I said, it doesn’t have to be amazing. If you’re feeling really cynical, maybe just admit that there were some things that were just simply, not bad.
It’s useful to write these three things down and it also helps to reflect on the day looking for good things when you go to bed. You may find that the effort distracts you and helps you to go to sleep. With practice, this exercise starts to affect how you see the world as you notice that there are some good ‘trees’ as well as some bad ones.
The next step is to anticipate and look forward to good things happening in your day, rather than just reflecting back on them. And to take it further you may find that you start to make sure that there is at least one thing that happens by making plans and arranging it.
There can be many aspects of a single situation that are positive e.g. you got there, you had a laugh, you made arrangements for another meeting, maybe you were nice to someone, the sun was out at least for a while, and you felt part of the world again. There are 6 good things from one event already.
Changing how you see the world takes effort, but with time that effort will pay off. It may not be the sudden dramatic change that you wish for, but most of us have got well practised at thinking in a certain way, and it would be unrealistic to be over-optimistic. But remember, the whole point of this article is that it is also unrealistic to be overly pessimistic. The ‘wood’ isn’t all good, but it’s vital to realise that it isn’t all bad.
This article first appeared in the Chronic Pain Ireland Newsletter Vol: 20 Issue 2 / June 2013