There’s a lovely cartoon out there of two young fish swimming past an old fish, and the old fish asks ‘how’s the water?’ and the younger fish are confused. That which seems normal is bloody difficult to spot.
There are a great many problems that are difficult to tackle if you haven’t figured out what the water is. The beliefs and assumptions we carry. Our sense of what is acceptable, the things we’ve had to become used to. If being in pain is the water, then noticing it in a way that makes it possible to do differently is essential to change things. The same is true for anxiety. If you’ve settled into a place where fear is normal, noticing how fear acts on you and what might alleviate it, is surprisingly difficult.
If our water is the belief that we are utterly good people, we may not be able to recognise when our behaviour is hurting someone else.
So, how do you figure out what you’re swimming in? You have to be prepared to discover something you might not like, and face up to it. You have to be willing to change. If you go into this looking for affirmation that you don’t need to make any changes, you can’t do this kind of work.
Clues to the nature of your water will come from the differences you have with others. Things you say that other people seem to struggle with. Things you do that don’t get the results you expect. Bits of your life that plain aren’t working. Anything that inexplicably hurts, frustrates, annoys you or makes you anxious is worth a look. If you know why you feel as you do, leave that area of your life out of it, as likely it can’t tell you much. Who winds you up for no obvious reason? Who makes you feel insecure? Who are you itching to take down? Who are you afraid of, or jealous of?
When things aren’t working for us, it is often because we have stories, no longer relevant coping mechanisms, or other wonky or outdated thought patterns that are stopping us from thinking clearly or acting in relation to what’s actually going on right now.
What’s in our water can make us complicit in situations that don’t help us at all. My own deep sense of worthlessness and my feeling that I don’t deserve to be well treated have been part of my water for so long that I’d not noticed them impacting on my actions and relationships. Ironically, it took someone pushing beyond what I consider acceptable behaviour to make me look properly at my sense of self worth, and rethink my attitude. I’ve a way to go yet, but the water is a good deal less murky for me than it used to be.
On some levels, I self sabotage. Treating myself as worthless, I’ve not been careful of resources, of physical or emotional wellbeing. I’ve allowed other people to wear me out. I’ve not held boundaries or stepped away when I needed to. I could flip this over into beating myself up and telling myself that all my problems are of my own making, but that actually keeps me in the same murky water I was in before. To change the water I swim in, I have to be genuinely willing to think about myself in different ways. I have to be willing to negotiate differently with other people, and to rethink my relationships with everything and everyone I encounter. It’s not easy. Recognising complicity does not mean making myself responsible for how others have treated me.
How’s the water? Confusing. But I do at least know that it’s there, and this is progress.