Are you the river or the obstacle?

by | Oct 12, 2016

Child in Exam Room

It seems that I’ve been writing a lot about personal obstacles or blocks lately. In fact I’ve experienced several just starting this! “Maybe people will think it’s boring”, “How can I get it just right?”. This week though I noticed a theme with people who find their obstacles hard to shift. But before I get into that, just a quick reminder of what I’m referring to:

Obstacles or blocks are, in therapeutic jargon at least, the barriers between the us we are right now and the us we know we could be. Or, if we are lucky, the us we used to be and the us we have now become. We all have them to a greater or lesser extent. Some cripple us entirely and some just trip us up now and again. One person’s obstacle may prevent them from leaving their bed for months and another’s may prevent them from telling their father that they love him whilst a third might be getting stressed about getting an article just right!

I wanted to share some thoughts on why I believe these obstacles can be so hard to shift, even with all the awareness in the world. So please humour me and follow one of my beloved metaphors.

You are a river. Freely flowing. You are travelling from wherever you have come from and heading to the open sea at some point down stream. In places you are choppy – in others deep and almost still – but you are safely held in at your banks and your path and purpose is clear and unencumbered. This is the you as you were when you were born and is still the potential you now. Well I believe so at least.

Somewhere on your travels, dams have been built, some flimsy piles of stones like playing children can build, others are industrial stone and steel. Going nowhere. Some of these still allow a limited flow of water and don’t restrict us too greatly – but the others block us almost completely – we burst our banks and flood awkwardly around the sides, but the dam holds firm. We can build more and more dams to the point that there is almost no flow at all!

I’ve noticed how good we have become at practising these blocks over and over, often for our entire lives, and how we can become so entrenched that they have actually become us; “I am depressed” instead of “I have depression” or “I am weak” rather than “I feel scared”. We can actually identify with the block, we can lose who we really are. The process of counselling is often about taking ownership, but perhaps too much ownership can go to far? We can own it but not be it.

I remember many years ago when I entered therapy for the first time, I told my counsellor that when I was young I had constructed a wall around myself to keep myself safe. But people noticed that I had a wall, which made them curious, and so I still felt vulnerable. So I tunnelled underneath the wall and posted a distraction outside so the wall wouldn’t be noticed; a false persona, a person who was always ‘fine’. Brilliant, now I was safe again. As I was saying this I began to realise that as an adult I only existed outside the wall. I had become the persona/ the defence /the dam and I had forgotten what was inside. I had locked even myself out. Something big was going on in there.

And being the dam creates a pretty major dilemma: “I know I need to remove the dam it’s stopping me from flowing freely, but if I am the dam, how can that possibly work?”.

I think the answer might be to practise de-identifying with the obstacle – with the dam – and instead remember the river first, re-identify with what we can be so we can see these dams for what they really are. Although they are part of us now, we can visualise a future version of us without them.

Can you imagine yourself as a river and see your dams and name them? How would you would feel without them?


Counselling can help you find and uncover and understand your dams and help you to re-identify with yourself while you decide if you wish to remove them. Is it time to talk?

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