Last week I had the unnerving experience of being lost in the woods. With my 8-year old granddaughter and yellow lab. The whole time we wove our way through the maze of trails and woods, I thought about some of the clients I serve now and some from the past. The tools I used on the hike provided ample analogies for my clients’ journeys through the maze of life and particularly divorce. Here are some of the lessons my trek provided:
It all looks beautiful at the beginning.
Starting off, we were both excited to be in the woods on such a beautiful day. Piper, our lab, is enthusiastic and Audrey had a brand new fitness tracker to record her steps. We saw a new path I hadn’t taken before and checked it out. About 90 minutes in, she didn’t think the scenery was all that grand. Hadn’t we been on this exact same stretch already? And why is there NO path right now? She’s an enthusiastic 8-year old and yet her supplies aren’t limitless. But every now and then the sun streamed through the trees right in front of us. Or an enormous puff mushroom appeared just off the trail or a yellow flower danced in the wind. We chose to stop and pay attention to all of the beauty present on this fall day. I dissected the puff mushroom. She cut into the woods to smell the purple flower. Yes, we still wondered exactly where the right path might be hiding but that didn’t wipe out all that was marvelous about where we were at each step.
Similarly, I think my clients sometimes just can’t see the way forward. They often feel lost and many have children on the journey depending upon them. A daily practice of noticing what’s still good and beautiful and functioning can help.
Acknowledge the challenge. Keep moving.
Stopping to notice those things gave us a break here and there, but largely, we kept moving and trying this and that trail or cutting through the woods, hoping to create a shortcut. We believed there was a way out and that we would not be permanent wood-dwellers. We kept moving. Our challenge was that we would head one direction only to have the path circle around to a different direction. We talked about that and acknowledged it was frustrating. And then we kept moving. I remembered so many of my clients who were both able to recognize where they were frustrated and willing to take steps forward to get where they needed to be and confident they would not be permanently lost either.
There are always tools.
I’ve gotten myself turned around in these particular woods before, just not with one of my Grand Ones along. I know enough to start the Map My Run www.mapmyrun.com/app app on my phone at the start of my hike. And yet, I was still confused. There was an impassable ravine between where we were and the red dot on the map signaling where we wanted to be. This meant we had to keep walking the paths until we found the magic one that circumvented the ravine. Not wanting to disclose to Audrey that I genuinely did not know how to get us back to our starting place, I pointed out to her how great it was we had that app. She added, “Yeah, and at least most of the time, there’s a path to follow.” That began a contest. I added that I was grateful for satellites that communicated with the app. She chimed in, that we had on great hiking shoes. I contributed the availability of downed limbs that became handy trekking poles. She said, “I am getting so many steps in, I bet I set a record!”
Many of my clients investigate new resources (a budget planner, a rentals app with photos and notifications of available apartments and houses, a blog for the newly divorced), make good use of those that serve them well and forego the rest. But in my experience, the ones who thrive are the ones who are willing to recognize the tools and use them.
Affirm the Actions You Want Repeated.
Several times on our “Expotition” I commented on what a trooper Audrey was, how much I appreciated that she wasn’t a whiney kind of person, that she and her Nana are such athletes (the last one to encourage me!). With each affirmation, she had a little more spring in her step. At one point, late into our journey, when I knew she was tiring, she broke out in a run just to prove how true those things were. It’s a maxim as old as Skinner himself: compliment the behavior you wish to see repeated and forego comment on the behavior you want to extinguish.
If your soon-to-be former spouse buys the kids their winter boots, express gratitude (and leave off, “It’s about time you stepped up.”) When your co-parent takes your son shopping for your birthday gift, or picks him up from school when he’s sick, or anything unexpected, share genuine appreciation. If you’re still living together, perhaps waiting for the home to sell, and your partner makes an extra sandwich for you or vacuums or whatever, don’t lose the opportunity to make note of it. If you have kids, you are on a long-term expotition until your kids are well past adulthood, college graduations and weddings. It’s worth the investment (and you won’t have to watch Winnie the Pooh again until your own Grand Ones arrive!)
Things Usually Have a Way of Working Out. Really.
Soon a mountain biker came along and responded to our plea for some directions. He topped our list of helpful resources and things for which to be grateful. When we got home, Audrey was both tired and proud. We soaked our feet in the hot tub. And talked about how we couldn’t believe how turned around we were and her more than 18,500 steps on her new tracker. She had her usual Friday night schweepover (although she long ago learned how to pronounce it right, much to my despair) and we both slept long and well that night. I see clients at the beginning when life looks hardest and they feel lost on the path. Working together over a number of months, at the end they may not have attained 100% of what they wanted. But almost always they feel hopeful and know things will work out okay in the big picture. It’s worth remembering all along the journey, no matter how lost one feels in the moment.
Wishing you wisdom,