Frequently, when people enter my office for psychotherapy or counseling they are being trailed by something I have come to call “The Old Ghost.” It is telling a story that people act out in daily life. The story is usually rooted in some fear or anxiety that prevents us from fully engaging in our lives. The “Old Ghost” is so old and so familiar that we are not even fully aware of its presence, we just respond to its dictates: “You can’t do that, it’s too risky!” or “That project is just too big for you to take on! It’s too hard.” “You better just stick to what you know.” We just assume these things are true because “The Old Ghost’s” interpretation of our life’s experience tells us so. These murmurings of “The Old Ghost” create a way of seeing life through a lens that creates a sense of feeling depressed, confused, ineffective, unloved or just too tired or lethargic to move. We feel “trapped;” fearful that if we even explore alternatives we will just end up in the same place or someplace worse. We become convinced that we can get through life by engaging as little as possible; hiding or avoiding to prevent the pain we anticipate in the engagement. We even find ourselves embattled with ourselves, fighting off alternative interpretations of our life experiences because they do not fit with what we think we are supposed to be feeling or experiencing. This “Old Ghost” impacts our ability to work effectively. The Old Ghost (TOG) can interfere with establishing intimate relationships due to fears of failure or exposing our perceived vulnerability or weaknesses to others or that others will take advantage of us or reject us if they knew what TOG knows! These same fears can get in the way of job interviews or even job searches if TOG succeeds in convincing us to be withholding because we fear revealing TOG’s narrative of inadequacy. Of course, the obvious question is, “How do I deal with the Old Ghost? How can I get rid of it? Where are the Ghost Busters when you need them?”
Here is the real challenge in the work of contemporary psychotherapy or counseling: accepting and engaging TOG. When people first come into therapy they expect that therapists have some magic procedure to eliminate TOG; that we are the true Ghost Busters. They also expect that therapists will focus on why the ghost exists and by knowing that they will be able to exorcise it. It just does not work that way. TOG is great at rationalizing and if we spend too much time explaining its existence by talking about the past, I find that all we accomplish is strengthen the narrative TOG wants us to believe; thereby, providing a myriad of reasons for allowing TOG to run our lives rather than engaging and taking on the responsibility for making a decision in the moment.
We have to work on accepting that TOG is in the background and identify the things that happen when it moves into foreground in any scene. This is not easy work, it requires paying attention to the changes in our bodies as the emotions and thoughts associated with TOG’s presence emerge. Sometimes this can require a good deal of courage because of the pain that some of these thoughts and emotions can create. However, if we can breathe into the situation and accept TOG’s presence we can begin to contain its power over us and begin exploring alternative ways of thinking and approaching whatever challenge is being presented in the moment. “In the moment” is the salient phrase here. Remember, TOG is all about the past and wants to interpret every event through the lens of the past. Regardless of how challenging or painful the situation may be, we can engage it and learn how to work with it rather than run away, hide, avoid or allow ourselves to be distracted. Engagement is about accepting TOG and changing our relationship to it. By allowing ourselves to explore the situation, as it is presented to us and not turn away, we can begin to change our perspective of the event or experience and develop more effective ways of working with it. If we can learn to do this often enough we reduce our fear and belief in TOG. We can begin to trust that we can deal with the experience and emotions of the moment as just part of life and; thereby, discover more flexible ways of approaching our lives as we move on.