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Leave It!

It's puppy training all over again around here. I seldom ask myself this question, but it still bubbles up to the surface of my mind at least once every two weeks, "What were we thinking?!" We had a housebroken, well-mannered, loving little puppy at home. Jasper was coming along beautifully. We knew him, he knew us, we had him on a schedule, he was healthy, happy, and nearly perfect. No really. He was. And is. So why did we get another puppy???

It's cleaning up little puppy accidents all over again.

It's training her to walk sanely on a leash and not dart around like a rabid raccoon.

It's setting timers for trips outside to go potty.

It's living our lives on her schedule, not ours.

But then I look at her little, sweet face, and the answer to that question is staring back at me through deep brown eyes and a white tipped tail wagging back and forth behind her at lightening speed. Eyes that are pleading for a treat, a scratch, 15 more minutes of playtime... And the question vanishes into licks, giggles, belly rubs, and the delight that accompanies puppy training: the moment when they get it.

My dogs learn to "sit" first. This is the command that allows them to eat, go for walks, receive petting and affection when I walk in the door, and nearly everything else. They sit or they get nothing. Next comes "down." This means that sweet, soft puppy belly is flat on the floor. Not kinda down, with their little butts up in the air. All the way down. Then they learn to "come” and “stay.” “Shake” and “high five” are crowd pleasers. But one of the most important commands I teach my dogs is: "Leave it."

"Leave it" is the command that means keep walking. Walk on by. I don't want you to have that. That's not good for you. That's going to be a headache we don't need. That's not yours. We're not doing that right now. This could be another dog's mess on the street. Leave it! A wadded up paper towel that's been god knows where. Leave it! A squirrel darting its way across our hiking path? Leave it! A bunny hopping into the brush? Leave it! A stray sock that somehow made its way into one of my puppies’ mouths? Leave it! Something dangerous for them like chocolate or a grape or a rock? Leave it! Once my dogs hear this cue, they are to ignore whatever it is they’re after - drop it from their mouths and drop it from their pursuit. Abandon it completely. It’s not for you. Of all the commands, I'm most proud of them when they get this one. Why? Because it requires them to deny their instinct. I know they're really listening and trusting when they follow this cue. They release their natural inclination to smell, explore, eat, or chase whatever it is that's caught their attention. I always feel a little guilty when I ask them to "leave it." In a perfect world, my dogs wouldn't be on a leash. They would chase every squirrel and rabbit to their hearts’ content. They could stick their keen noses into this or that and figure it all out. Nothing would be unsafe, inappropriate, or toxic for them, but we don’t live in a perfect world. They are domesticated and we have to cohabitate, so that means I'm on guard for what is good for them and what isn’t. In the final analysis, “leave it” is an act of loving protection.

What does this have to do with mental health?

The other day in session, I had an interesting exchange with a client. (The following is shared with her permission.) We were exploring her habit, and one might even say compulsion, of staying constantly busy. Every minute of every day is to be filled with productive activity. Rest produces guilt. Even if she wanted to take a break, lay on the couch, and put her feet up, her Inner Taskmaster would crack the whip. "You're being lazy!" There is even a sense of pride when someone asks, "How are you?" and she can answer, "Staying busy." It's a badge of honor.

Often when I greet this client at the start of our sessions, she’ll respond to my inquiry as to how she’s doing with her standard response, “Staying busy!” I’ve noted it many times, but this past week, when my client came in reporting of unrelenting anxiety, I seized the opportunity to help her connect the dots.

A side note: instead of accepting anxiety as an inevitable state of being for this client, which I roundly refuse to do, we explore the cause of it instead. This is, in my opinion, what therapy should do. It should not just provide resources for dealing with anxiety when the very anxiety from which we seek relief we are unconsciously creating. It seems like a much more productive use of time and money to work on the root cause of her anxiety rather than only give her tools to manage it.

So in an easy (and we might say lazy) analysis, the cause of her anxiety is her non-stop activity. Who could cultivate a sense of peacefulness and rest while in constant motion? Those two states are antithetical. If this was the “root cause” we sought, I might have initiated a discussion around boundaries. When to say “yes” and “no” and why. Nothing supports a boundary like a powerful reason why! But that wasn’t the root cause either.

The questions that percolated within me were:

  • When did this way of being become a habit?

  • From whom did she learn to value activity over balance? Who modeled it?

  • What values are attached to this lifestyle?

  • What’s the cost of living this way?

  • What’s the cost of changing?

  • What does she have to tell herself to keep going when her body is screaming at her to slow down or stop? Why is that internalized message so powerful?

Even though we’d talked about her family of origin many times, we looked at it afresh with these questions and issues in mind: unceasing activity, unrelenting guilt, and disconnection from the body. We looked at her parents’ generation and even further back at her grandparents and great-grandparents. The discussion brought us to a shared place of deep respect at the industry and productivity of her family of origin. Their work ethic runs as deep as their American roots. These were people who raised families and built communities without complaint or excuse. The time period, which provides the context for this lifestyle, is important. As far back as my client could capture faithfully in her memory, we were looking at the Great Depression - a time in American history when taking a day off, even an hour off, might have meant someone in the family went without food. Every hour of work was necessary, and there was pride attached to it. There was a code of honor shared by many in that generation which valued shared survival over individual comfort. They had to. Working yourself to death may have meant your family name lasted another generation. Self-care was not a concept in the public mind or interest. It was a luxury few enjoyed, and respect was reserved for those who didn’t have the time.

As we looked at both the values and the pressure passed down to her - the simple satisfaction of a hard day’s work, the expectation of ceaseless productivity, and the guilt associated with rest - we had to ask the question: is this still necessary? Did they work this hard, their fingers to the bone, so she could do the same? Their labor built a society that doesn’t require this kind of self-enslavement anymore, or does it? My client could easily see that this work ethic, while honorable and necessary then, was not necessary anymore. She could acknowledge that this was passed down, parent to child, but it was now time to question: did she have to live this way?

And the simple command came to mind: leave it.

Our parents and grandparents, great-grandparents and so on, endured hardships native to the time and contexts in which they lived. They developed coping mechanisms (which help us deal with the pain of our situation) and defense mechanisms (which protect us from further harm in relationship) which were necessary for their survival. And, as is the case in many family systems, a value was attached to these coping mechanisms. Instead of looking at them for what they were and are - a way to survive pain, trauma, or hardship - it becomes the badge of courage and the source of identity in a family system. And we adopt these behaviors, unhealthy as they may be, because to abandon them - to leave them - feels like abandonment. We’re abandoning our people, our roots, our history, our… identity. And yet, some of these behaviors will steal our peace and balance. We have to ask ourselves: is what was necessary for them still necessary for me? Am I survivng the same hardship?

Or can I just ... leave it?

My client and I finished our session with an honest look at the real and deleterious consequences of ignoring the body. (See When the Body Says No by Gabor Mate for a more in-depth analysis of the connection between stress and disease.) We talked about taking the best of their legacy and leaving what is no longer necessary. She had to leave it. It’s not for her. It was for them. But it’s not necessary any longer. In a very real way, in order to leave any part of our family of origin’s legacy behind, we have to work against our own instinct. We want to belong, and this clan does things this way. It’s part of our familial legacy. But if it’s causing us harm, if it just doesn’t make sense for the lives we want to live now… we have to leave it.

In your life, what have you adopted by the trans-generational passing down of values, pressures, expectations, and codes of behavior?

Questions for self-reflection:

  • What were/are my mother's coping mechanisms? Defense mechanisms?

  • What were/are my father's coping mechanisms? Defense mechanisms?

  • What was the context in each of their childhood's that made these behaviors necessary?

  • Have I picked up on these? Have these become mine? Are they still necessary?

  • What do I want to retain of my family legacy?

  • What do I need to leave behind?


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