A Tool for
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When psychotherapist Barry Michels joined GP at In goop Health London, he shared a tool onstage for combatting negativity. Michels is a coauthor of The Tools as well as Coming Alive, which deals with how to tackle what he and coauthor Phil Stutz call Part X, the inner voice that makes us believe we’re not worthy of happiness or fulfilment. After many requests for the tool, we asked Michels if we could publish this excerpt from Coming Alive. Michels calls it the Mother Tool because it turns negative thoughts into light, warm energy—the type of love and optimism that an archetypical mother would give when you’re feeling defeated.
Next month, Michels will be giving his signature workshop on transforming negativity into gratitude in New York (on February 16) and twice in Miami (on February 18 and 19). We want to go to all three.
In the meantime, you can listen to GP’s chat with Michels, which also covers how to think less and do more, on The goop Podcast.
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1. Re-create the sense of demoralization you felt in the earlier exercise. Close your eyes and listen to the conclusions you’ve come to about yourself and your future: “You’ll never get what you want out of life,” “You’re a loser,” etc. Feel the heaviness of these conclusions weighing you down, crushing the life out of you.
2. Now forget about the conclusions and visualize the heaviness as an oppressive substance. Don’t think; just take note of what the substance looks like. For most people, it appears as a heavy black sludge.
3. Whatever it looks like, think of that substance as standing in the way of your ability to move forward. Sense how it makes recovery seem impossible. When I took Ann through this exercise, she was surprised by what happened. “I saw the black stuff right away. It made me feel a little better. I suddenly realized it was a separate thing from me.”
1. Close your eyes and re-create the sense of demoralization you felt in the first exercise. Then turn it into a substance as you did in the second exercise.
2. Imagine a loving Mother figure hovering a short distance above you. She exudes love, light, and warmth. What does she look like? How does it feel to be in her presence?
3. Imprint this experience of the Mother in your memory so you can use it when you learn the tool.
The Tool: The Mother
In order to learn the proper use of this tool, you’ll need to experience your problem in a completely new way. If you’re demoralized, it’s usually because you’ve arrived at a negative conclusion about yourself or your life. For Ann, it was “I’ll be alone for the rest of my life.” For most people, it’s even broader: “I’ll never succeed at anything,” “I’m a loser,” or “There’s no point in trying.”
Part X wants to make these conclusions as comprehensive as possible; the more of your life they encompass, the more depressed you’ll get. For the same reason, it tries to make them feel like incontrovertible truths. Part X is uncannily gifted at imitating an omniscient god delivering a final judgment from on high. We feel naked and defenseless, succumbing quickly to the idea that Part X has exposed the real truth about us.
Logically, this makes no sense. No one can know what they’ll be able to achieve in their own life, especially before it’s over. I’m a good example. As I mentioned earlier, I thought of myself as a failure well into my thirties. If I’d given in to the “truth” Part X was purveying, I never would have tried, much less succeeded in, achieving my goals.
Nonetheless, it’s almost impossible to challenge these negative conclusions logically; backed by the power of Part X, they overwhelm rational thinking. But they can be overturned. The secret is to shift perspective, to see your problem from the Mother’s point of view. Part X’s conclusions have no credibility with her. She’s not even listening. She sees something much simpler: the negative thoughts and feelings, regardless of their specific content, are a dark substance that gets between you and her. They stop her from reaching you and infusing you with optimism.
Seeing your own negativity the way she does—as a substance—is the first step to letting her back in. At first, this may seem strange, but we want it to become second nature to you. That’s what the next exercise is for. Read it over completely before you try it.
We’ve seen patient after patient have the same reaction. By coming to a negative conclusion and repeating it over and over again, you’re actually holding on to it, keeping it inside you. But everything changes when you see it as a substance. Now the thoughts and feelings are no longer taking root inside your head. There’s distance between you and the substance, and it has less power over you.
Now you’re ready for the next step. The Mother’s deepest wish is to remove this dark, poisonous sludge from your system. You can enable that to happen and free yourself from demoralization with the tool you’re about to learn. But first you have to visualize the Mother in your mind’s eye.
The Mother appears differently to each person, so don’t feel that there’s a “right” way to see her. There are a few guidelines that will help you visualize her. First, she shouldn’t look like your actual mother, or anyone else you know. She comes from a higher, spiritual world and isn’t affiliated with any individual in your life.
But the most important thing in visualizing the Mother is this: she is the personification of love. Utterly serene, she radiates light and warmth. Some of my patients see her as a religious figure, like the Virgin Mother, or Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love; others see her as an angel. Personally, because I’m not very good at visualizing, I don’t actually “see” her; I feel her loving presence surrounding me and reaching directly into my heart.
Try the following exercise—repeating it several times if necessary—to find your own image or sensation of the Mother.
Quite often, we find that just seeing the Mother gives a demoralized person a sense that they’re not alone. But the Mother doesn’t just want to keep you company; she wants you to realize your immense potential by removing the demoralization that stands in your way. She won’t force you to give it to her—you must offer it up of your own free will. Once you do, she has the power to recycle it into something you need: unshakable faith in your potential. That’s what the tool is for.
Now let’s put it all together. Since you’re going to use this tool when you feel crushed and hopeless, re-create those feelings right now. They are the starting point for the tool. Then walk yourself through the following steps slowly, taking time to feel each one.
Turn Your Negative Thoughts into a Toxic Substance: Feel the sense of demoralization as intensely as you can. Focus on its heaviness, as if it’s an oppressive substance weighing you down. Visualize that substance so vividly that the demoralized thoughts and feelings are no longer in your head.
The Mother Appears: See the Mother hovering above you. Place your faith in her power to remove the dark, heavy substance you’re holding on to. Let go of it. The Mother lifts it from your body as if it’s weightless. Watch it rise until it reaches her; she absorbs it into herself and it disappears.
Feel Her Love: Now feel her eyes upon you. They radiate absolute confidence in you; she believes in you unreservedly, like no one else ever has. With her unshakable faith filling you up, everything feels possible.
From the book Coming Alive: 4 Tools to Defeat Your Inner Enemy, Ignite Creative Expression & Unleash Your Soul’s Potential by Barry Michels and Phil Stutz. Copyright © 2017 by Barry Michels and Phil Stutz. Published by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
Barry Michels has a BA from Harvard; a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley; and an MSW from the University of Southern California. He has been in private practice as a psychotherapist since 1986. With Phil Stutz, he is the author of Coming Alive andThe Tools.