A Psychologist's Christmas Carol.
At this time of year, it's almost impossible to avoid the festive feeling and those that do can often be labelled “Scrooge”. The story of Scrooge, Charles Dickens's “A Christmas Carol” has an important wellbeing message and so today I use it to write a festive blog. I recognise that I am no Charles Dickens!
In the story, Scrooge, mean, withdrawn and isolated from any friends and family, is taken to visit his past, his present, and his future by three ghosts that haunt him in the middle of the night. In my work, I often encourage people to learn from their past experiences, like the ghost of Christmas past; to focus on the reality of the here and now, like the ghost of Christmas present; to focus on what they want for themselves in the long term, like the ghost of Christmas future. The deliberate focus of our minds across time and space can be an important skill to hone in strengthening ourselves psychologically. How we do this is very important as well as how often.
One of the very few things that we can fully control is where we focus our attention and for how long. This simple, yet powerful strategy is often overlooked in our fast-paced lives, but it is easy to do when you know how and when you know how important it can be to your resilience.
The present and the future.
First, it is important to regularly engage in deliberate thinking about what you want for yourself right now and in the future. These two elements need to work hand in hand. A really good example of this is the juggling and plate spinning that we are all engaged in. A goal, but maybe not a realistic goal, might be to get everything done by some date in the future. That’s ok, but if we neglect the here and now we will fail to reach any of our goals through stress and overwhelm. This is because we don’t operate in a vacuum where all we need to do is focus on one future goal. Life doesn’t happen in a predictable cyclical way, like the Olympics. We need to be much more agile in life, to think about what’s going to work for us now, and in the future. So, when you strategise your days, and your long-term goals think about what would work for now and the future. How can I deal with what’s happening now and what I want for myself in the future? As I have said to quite a few individuals in sessions. Stop spinning plates. Just put some plates down and pick them up again when you can.
Second, it is important to have a good reason to revisit the past. Our personal histories are important in shaping us and it is good to focus our minds on past events for a handful of reasons. One would be to process the emotional events that we experience. Processing emotion means recognising the normal response that you have in the face of emotionally disturbing events. I know there can be daily emotionally disturbing events for us to deal with sometimes. It’s important to remember that although they are frequent for us and that we, to a certain extent, get used to them, they are still disturbing on some level and it is appropriate to feel a range of negative emotions in their wake. Such emotional responses can be extremely strong and difficult to deal with and so it's natural to tend to avoid this important processing and try to carry on by distracting ourselves with work or other things. Maybe this is what happened to Ebenezer Scrooge. It's important to remember to frequently check in with yourselves. We can catch the effects of stress early and we can process our experiences healthily. Our pasts can also be a source of happiness, comfort, and joy. It’s good to remember the good times, the successes, and those that we once knew who are now absent from our lives. Our pasts our also our best teachers. We can look back at our experiences, performances and behaviours to learn, to foster personal growth.
The past is indeed useful, but more so are the present and the future. When deliberately engaging in the sort of “Christmas Carol” self-reflection that Scrooge did, if I was your “time ghost” I’d urge you to spend more time in the present and future. Look around you and experience the here and now. Look forward optimistically towards the way you’d choose your life to be.
Sometimes there is no better Christmas present than remembering and realising the value of all that you've had and all the potential you hold.
Merry Christmas Everyone,
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”
― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol