This is for you. You know who you are.
I talk a great deal in counseling about “the toolbox”. It is a psychological construct that many of us are familiar with. Talking about a toolbox is trendy now, and for good reason. Knowing what it is and how to effectively use the toolbox can be a powerful metaphor. One woman I work with told me that the toolbox doesn’t work for her. She has a sewing kit. The actual metaphor isn’t important, working it very much is.
And so, in deference to the few who have asked, I’ll tell you about my personal toolbox. Sharing this, for some reason, feels like a very intimate confession. This is not your toolbox, but it is mine. Welcome to my particular version of psychological weirdness.
My toolbox is, in point of fact, an actual toolbox. Years ago, I once owned a rusty, red toolbox, with a single removable tray. I could never pull the thing apart without one corner getting stuck, and in my mind’s eye it is still that same old cranky, rusty, piece of crap. I use a version of the Loci System to stock this thing, this imaginary tool chest in my head. I complement this technique with various memory systems because I have a brain injury. There, I said it.
There are only four tools in the tray, a wrench, a yellow screwdriver, my wisdom rock, and a respirator. The second layer, the bottom of the toolbox, holds a toy black chair and a clown mask. Eventually I will replace the wrench and the screwdriver with more literal interpretations, but this works for now.
On that day when we met, I wasn’t thinking about toolboxes or wrenches. We were just having coffee when she casually hurt me with her words. They were spoken innocently enough, but they were anything but innocuous. She meant to hurt me, to teach me. Condescension is one of my buttons, stemming from my childhood. “Tuning me in” strikes me somewhere deep and dark. I am working on it.
I often forget to employ the toolbox. In the wave of emotions (anger or pain or embarrassment or a little of each) I can be caught up in the surge and forget that I am “Counselor Scott”. I forget to ask myself WWSD. I am overcome… sometimes.
I have been using the toolbox for a while now and it still only works when I remember. The methodology is still inherently flawed, and I am also researching and endeavouring to shore up that whole “forgetting” thing when I’m upset and the emotion rolls in like rain. I’ll let you know when I figure that piece out.
Back to the toolbox. I have worked very hard to recognize the rush of ugly, and approximately 50% of the time I now remember to reach for the box. I open the toolbox in my mind. I can see the clasp, one of those silver ones with a metal loop on the top; and I open it.
There is the wrench. The wrench reminds me to recognize the cognitive distortions that are raping and pillaging my brain right that moment. I don’t know why it’s a wrench – this is probably because when I started doing this thing I was much too literal about a ‘toolbox’. I am thinking of changing it to a bunny, but that’s another article. As I reach out in my mind’s eye to grab the wrench I am reminded that I am probably not completely objective right now. Maybe I am catastrophizing or taking this conversation far too personally. Perhaps I am employing “all or nothing” thinking or emotional reasoning. I often use emotional reasoning because I am hurt. Holding the wrench forces me to think rationally. If that doesn’t work I can always hit you with the wrench, so it’s all good.
There is a yellow screwdriver, don’t ask me why. The screwdriver reminds me to employ STOPP Therapy. I should probably just substitute a STOPP Therapy cue card that I give to clients… duh. STOPP therapy has saved my life. I am proficient at STOPP therapy and if I can remember, this is usually as far as I need to go in the box. If I am still not able to deescalate myself , the respirator reminds me to breathe. Two weeks ago at the movie theatre I had to breathe 7 times before I could calm myself down. Apparently I still have some growing up to do. I carry the wisdom rock as a grounding tool. Sometimes it helps.
If I have to pull out the tray I know I’m in trouble.
The bottom layer of the toolbox contains a toy black chair and a clown mask. We are getting serious now. The toy chair is an exact replica of the chair I am sitting in as I write this – my counseling chair, rips and all. It is a not-so-subtle reminder that I need to put on my “Counselor Scott” hat. Yes I built in the redundancy because I am not that smart and need more than one cue. The clown mask… well the clown mask is more controversial and I hesitate to put it in writing. Let’s just say this memory cue reminds me that people have issues and I need to remember that ofttimes the anger or resentment I am getting from someone may not be a reflection of me. We all have mental health issues. Let’s leave that at that.
I am profoundly aware of how cheesy such tools can appear to the uninitiated or critical. But here’s the rub – when I am in crisis I usually do not have time to be profound. I need something quick and simple. Just like me.