“Is there anything Josh can’t do?”
This was the question other parents asked Amber about her bright and talented eleven-year-old. Josh seemed to excel at everything—school, sports, music, and social activities—and his friends and their parents marveled at his abilities.
Amber, however, knew that no matter how much success he achieved, Josh struggled with serious doubts about his own self-worth. As a result, he felt an overpowering need to be perfect at everything he attempted. This perfectionism left him believing that, despite his many successes, nothing he did was good enough. He beat himself up emotionally whenever he made a mistake, whether it was missing a shot in a basketball game or forgetting his lunch box at school.
Eventually Amber took Josh to see Tina, who soon learned that his parents had divorced when he was an infant and his father had disappeared, leaving him to be raised by his mother. Over time, it became apparent that Josh blamed himself for his father’s absence, believing that he had somehow caused his dad to leave, and now he did everything within his power to avoid making mistakes of any kind. Josh’s implicit memory had equated not being perfect with abandonment. As a result, the thoughts running through his head on a daily basis—“I should’ve done better”; “I’m so stupid”; “Why did I do that?”—were keeping him from being a happy, carefree eleven-year-old.
Tina began working with Josh on paying attention to those thoughts in his mind. Some were fueled by deeply embedded implicit memories that required an in-depth approach for healing. But she also helped him understand the power of his mind, and how by directing his attention, he could take control and, to a great extent, actually choose how he felt, and how he wanted to respond to different situations. For Josh, the breakthrough came when Tina introduced him to the idea of mindsight.
MINDSIGHT AND THE WHEEL OF AWARENESS
Dan coined the term “mindsight,” and as he explains in his book of the same name, the simplest meaning of the word comes down to two things: understanding our own mind as well as understanding the mind of another. Connecting with others will be the focus of the next chapter. For now, though, let’s focus on the first aspect of the mindsight approach, understanding our own mind. After all, that’s where mental health and well-being begin, with achieving clarity and insight into our own individual mind. That’s the idea Tina began teaching Josh about. She introduced him to a model that Dan created, the wheel of awareness.
The basic concept, as you can see from the diagram on this page, is that our mind can be pictured as a bicycle wheel, with a hub at the center and spokes radiating toward the outer rim. The rim represents anything we can pay attention to or become aware of: our thoughts and feelings, our dreams and desires, our memories, our perceptions of the outside world, and the sensations from our body.
The hub is the inner place of the mind from which we become aware of all that’s happening around and within us. It’s basically our prefrontal cortex, which you’ll remember helps to integrate the whole brain. The hub represents part of what’s called the executive brain, because it’s from this place that we make our best decisions; it’s also the part of the brain that allows us to connect deeply to others and to ourselves. Our awareness resides in the hub, and from here we can focus on the various points on the rim of our wheel.
The wheel-of-awareness model was immediately powerful for Josh since it allowed him to recognize that the different thoughts and feelings giving him so much trouble were simply different aspects of himself. They were just a few particular rim points on his wheel, and he didn’t have to give them so much attention. (See the diagram of Josh’s personal wheel of awareness on this page.) Tina helped him see that each set of rim points he focused on determined his state of mind at any given moment. In other words, his anxious and fearful state of mind came about because he was focusing on a set of anxiety-producing rim points—like his dread of receiving a B on his homework, or his worries about forgetting the notes during his band solo. Even the physical sensations he experienced, the anxious knot in his stomach and the tension in his shoulders, were rim points that kept him focused on his fear of failure.
Mindsight let him see what was happening in his own mind, so he could understand that he was the one giving all this time and energy to these rim points, and that if he wanted, he could return to his hub, where he could see the big picture and focus on other rim points instead. Those fears and worries were definitely part of him, but they didn’t represent the totality of his being. Instead, from his hub at the center of the wheel, which was the most thoughtful and objective part of himself, he could choose how much attention to give them, as well as which other rim points he wanted to focus on.
As Tina explained to him, in giving all of his attention to these few fearful rim points, Josh was excluding many other rim points he could integrate into his perspective on the world. That left him spending all of his time working and studying and practicing and worrying, when he could have been paying attention to other, more productive rim points, like his confidence in his musical ability, his belief that he was smart, and his desire to just relax and have fun from time to time. Tina explained to Josh the importance of integrating the different parts of himself, the unique aspects of who he is, so that a few of them didn’t completely dominate all of the others. It was fine, she told him, to pay attention to the rim points that pushed him to achieve and excel. These were good and even healthy parts of himself. But those points needed to be integrated with the others so that he didn’t forsake the other parts of himself, which were also good and healthy.
So Josh started working on directing his focus toward points that didn’t necessarily lead to perfectionism. He began paying special attention to the part of himself that loves just hanging out with his friends after school, even if that meant giving up some study time. He focused on his newly formed belief that he didn’t have to be the leading scorer in every game. And he used his self-talk to remind himself how good he feels when he plays his saxophone just for pleasure, not worrying about hitting every note perfectly. He didn’t have to stop wanting to achieve and succeed. He just needed to put those rim points into context with the others, to integrate them so that they were just a few various parts of a much greater whole, a much bigger Josh than the one who would criticize himself for every little mistake.
Learning about mindsight and the wheel of awareness didn’t, of course, immediately alleviate Josh’s drive toward perfectionism. But it did help him begin to accept that he didn’t have to stay miserable. He saw that he could make choices to improve difficult circumstances by making decisions that little by little allowed him to take control of how he experienced and responded to different situations.
(He and Tina did have to laugh together, though, when he began to feel frustrated with himself when he wasn’t perfect at worrying less about being perfect.)