Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Forest or the Trees?

You know that saying - the one that goes something like "they can't see the forest for the trees". It basically means that people can see details, but they can't see the overall picture. It's a trait that afflicts probably about 50% of human beings. I'm guessing the other half can see the trees and not the forest. For the record, these are completely guestimated stats to make a point. I have no scientific or psychological data as to exactly what percentage of people see the trees versus the forest. The point is, there are people who are great with details but can't see the overall picture, and there are people that are better at seeing the grand view, but not so good with the day to day. The key when it comes to working on your mental health is to be able to do some of both.

If you're part of this group that focuses so much on every day that you can't look at the bigger picture, you're certainly not alone. What you do day to day is important, and in fact, these actions create the bigger picture. When you're going through a tough time, people often tell you "one step at a time", "this too shall pass", "take it day by day", "right now is all we have" and other similar inspiratory phrases. I myself have given, and heeded, these words of advice.  Indeed, it's incredibly important to not create stress that hasn't happened yet by thinking about the "what ifs" of the future and worrying about difficult situations that may not even occur.  This is one of my biggest difficulties and always has been. However, turn that around for the person going through a very tough time. What if "right now" is the most difficult part. What if you're in bad pain - physically or emotionally - and focusing on right now feels like the equivalent of standing on flaming hot coals? If every "one step at a time" is another step on those coals, it's not very inviting and you can't imagine how it's going to help matters much.

The trick in these situations is to ask yourself what the end result will be. If you stand there on the coals, your feet will get burned, and you'll get no closer to the end. If you run backwards, you may find out that the only way to get where you hope to go is to in fact walk over the coals, and you're going to have to go through the whole painful process again. If you walk forward, unless you've been grossly tricked or misguided, you are at least getting closer to the end. The truth is, sometimes we have to experience something very difficult and painful to get to where we want to be. The longer we try to work around it and avoid it, the longer we stand on the coals with our feet getting burned. Alternatively, if we make a beeline for the finish line we may exhaust ourselves halfway through and have the ability to go no further. It's a balance, and a delicate one at that.

I battle with this concept daily. Literally. So often there is something that I want to do or say because I feel I "need to get it out" or "can't stand this anymore". Sometimes I follow through on this, and almost without fail, it doesn't work out as I'd hoped. In fact, it generally hurts my cause. What I'm trying to do now is to step back and say "where do I want to be with this situation or in this area of my life?" Then I look at the action I'm about to do or thing I'm about to say, and try to take the emotion out of it, at least somewhat. If I can do this, I can ask myself "If I do/say this, what are the possible results? What's most likely to happen?". It helps to bounce it off a friend who's willing to listen and give an objective opinion (a therapist would also be ideal here, if you have one). If you need to, write it down, leave it and do something completely unrelated, come back to it after a little while, write all the possible results and how you'd feel about each." If after giving it some time and looking at it as objectively as possible you feel that it's going to help move you towards where you ultimately want to be, then go for it and prepared to deal with the results either way. If you're not so sure, consider your other options. It might be that just letting time pass allows the feeling to dissolve itself. Perhaps your just tired, irritated with something else, simply "woke up on the wrong side of the bed." If you're a rapid mood cycler, it might be that once this cycle passes you'll feel completely differently and wish you'd not acted as you did. This, I can attest, happens all the time.

I am finding, albeit very slowly and with a lot of trial and error, that you have to see both the forest and the trees. You have to know where you want to go, and always keep that in mind. However, it's those smaller day to day details that get you there or move you further away. If you can align these two, you're moving in the right direction. I suspect there are very few people that could get this down perfectly. Everyone has an emotionally bad day, their last straw, their bad moods, and during these we're bound to say or do something we shouldn't, even if once in a long while. When you do, repair it as quickly as possible. An I'm sorry, admitting you were wrong, and doing something to recover where you've gone astray can go a long way.

I suggest you start by practicing with small things. Pick a task that you might struggle with but that you know will help you in the long run. Meditation is mine. It's tempting to let my mind wander because sitting there "doing nothing" doesn't feel efficient, but I know that eventually it will help with my patience, and that in turn, will help with how I handle numerous aspects of my life. Start slowly, and while you're doing this task think about the end result. Repeat it to yourself if you have to (out loud is even better if no one else is there or if you don't care that they hear you). As I said in my last post, it's all about baby steps. Take these baby steps with your end goal in mind, and you're on your way.


  1. Great post & very relevant to me at the moment too. I also find that it's good to keep in mind the Buddhist philosophy that change is inevitable. Sometimes that's very comforting. :)

  2. Yes, Anabela, I agree. I'm a semi-practicing Buddhist (as in I'm still learning) and it's helping me with transitions. I think the idea that change is inevitable can be scary, but once you accept it, you're lest surprised and upset by it. That part, though, I'm still working on.