This is a post for dog lovers and those who struggle with negative thoughts.
I have heard it said that we can learn a lot from dogs;
Everyday is a new, fresh day.
They enjoy the moment and don’t worry about the small stuff.
They love the simple things in life.
They are always pleased to see those they love and they seem to do it with all their heart.
It seems fitting that it is my beautiful German Shepherd dog Nelly who recently gave me my perfect imagery for letting negative thoughts go. We were on our normal morning walk which consists of a stroll through beautiful farmland with woods to one side where families of deer and muntjacs live. As often happens we heard a distinct rustling in the undergrowth. Nelly looked up with interested eyes and her ears suddenly alert. Now despite best effort there have been many times in the past when she has heard a noise and immediately made chase. She comes back panting and exhausted and disappointed her effort has amounted to nothing (thankfully!). One time as a puppy she ran into the forest and because it was a very windy day she couldn’t hear me calling her. She got confused and disoriented trying to find her way out and ended up near a busy road. That was a scary day!
As she has matured and learned to listen (mostly) and our relationship has developed things have changed. On this particular day her ears picked up and she looked towards the forest. Clearly her instinct wanted to kick in and start the chase. I saw her do this, picked up a stick and gently said ‘I know, but let’s go this way’. That was enough to distract her for a split second and in that moment chasing that deer fruitlessly into the forest was no longer the most important thing. She took a few furtive glances back towards the wood but then happily came to my side and we continued on our way. The promise of breakfast at home was a more definite and satisfying proposition.
This is when she made me think.
I am someone who has struggled with negative thoughts and low mood throughout life and (shall we say) one or two distinct crises of confidence. Many times I have allowed myself to be drawn in to negative thinking patterns and have worked hard to step away from these. Very early on in my psychology career I learnt about changing cognitions - replacing negative thoughts with more ‘realistic and balanced ones’. Now this worked to an extent but I have sometimes had a struggle with this. As a psychologist I can be my worst critic. I know what I should do but sometimes I find I just don’t want to change my thought or think differently. My brain argues that it’s just a tactic and I don’t always buy it. I can see it all more clearly for others but when it comes to myself well that’s another matter!
Then I learnt about a different approach called mindfulness - well actually I came across the concept originally reading Buddhist texts in one of those moments of searching for ‘meaning’ in my life. Learning to let things go has become one of the most powerful techniques I have ever learnt and now my clever dog Nelly has given me the best metaphor to use. There are often ‘rustlings’ in my brain like deer in the forest enticing me to follow, run around aimlessly and become lost and exhausted. Fruitlessly chasing and searching this way and that and even picking up other scents that are just as likely to lead nowhere. So I thought about how Nelly heard the deer, probably smelt it clearly, and sensed it’s presence but instead of pursuit she turned away and came in a much more appealing direction with a greater possibility of satisfaction (a nice breakfast and cuddles with her mum). So now when a negative thought or judgement appears for me I think about the deer in the forest - I sense it, I know it is there but I choose to turn away and continue my walk. Now there is no guarantee for me that when I turn away it will lead to a ‘breakfast and cuddles’ but I certainly know that to give in and follow will lead to a fruitless chase. Very soon the deer has run free and become a distant memory (well until next time) and I can continue walking forward with my amazing teacher Nelly.
‘Forever Together’ Original Watercolour by Bill Lupton