Crying Over Spilled Milk
Authored by: Kristy Cheney, LPC-A
Supervised by Jamie Williams, LPC-S and James Mena, LCDC, LPC-S
You’ve probably heard the expression, “There’s no use crying over spilled milk.” This phrase is used to communicate that crying over something that has happened and cannot be changed is pointless. However, people do have a lot of emotions regarding current, past, and future events. A phrase like the spilled milk one tends to invalidate our emotions. Some of us find an emotion like sadness to be uncomfortable, so we want to quickly push it down, wipe away the tears, and get back to being productive. And it works, for a while. Eventually, however, the feelings will come out. The sadness will show itself in ways we didn’t predict and don’t want.
In a couple of different podcasts lately, I’ve heard the phrase, “You can’t heal what you won’t feel.” So, how do we heal this sad feeling that is so uncomfortable? Like most things we don’t understand, we want to be curious about it. To be curious, we need to sit with it for a few moments to better understand it. Where do we feel it in our body? When does it happen most often? What are the thoughts that are driving the feeling? I often teach clients about the Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) triangle early on in therapy. As you can see in the illustration below, the premise is that our thoughts are connected to both our feelings and behaviors.
Applying this triangle to the spilled milk situation may look like this:
The milk has spilled, and I think to myself, “I’m so clumsy.” This thought feels true because it is one I have had many times before and it comes to me in my own voice. I feel sad and start to cry. Then I think, “I always mess up.” This thought also feels true and I feel irritated that I need to clean up the milk and may end up leaving for work late. The irritation leads me to kick the cabinet or yell at someone in my household about something unrelated to the spilled milk. This process happens so quickly that we think we cannot control any part of the process.
However, when we slow down to become aware of the automatic thoughts, we have options to move us closer to our long-term goals. The thoughts are still there, but instead of putting the thoughts on a hamster wheel, gaining speed and increasing unpleasant emotions as it spins out of control, we interact with the thoughts more like we would noticing clouds in the sky. If you were lying in a field of grass looking at the clouds, you would notice the shapes the clouds take and how quickly or slowly the clouds were moving. You would not be able to make them change shape or move any faster. You would just watch them. This is precisely how we want to interact with our thoughts. We want to take a beat to notice the thoughts that are present, how we are experiencing the feelings in our bodies, and then decide a course of action that gets us closer to where we want to be. When we interact with our thoughts in this way, we can feel more in control of our lives and feelings. We are more willing to see that thoughts and feelings are fleeting. Some of the clouds that pass over us are dark and full of rain, hail, and lightning. Other clouds are light and wispy. Either way, the clouds will move on.
Let’s look at the spilled milk situation again, but with more self-compassion. First, the milk spills and I have an automatic thought, “I’m so clumsy.” Since I’ve been working on this type of self-talk, I notice the thought and choose to think something more helpful such as, “I am having the thought that I’m clumsy, but accidents happen.” I may even choose to take a couple of slow, deep breaths while I reflect on this new thought. This time, I’m not negatively judging myself, so my feelings remain neutral while I get a towel and begin to clean up the mess. I can avoid the uncomfortable feelings that threatened to start my day wrong and tear apart relationships by putting a bit of space between me and my thoughts. This is not always easy, and it doesn’t come naturally for most of us, but it is something that can be learned and practiced. If you have noticed that your thoughts have been less than kind to you, please reach out to a counselor who can help you unravel the hold these types of thoughts have you.
The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living by Russ Harris
Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before? By Dr. Julie Smith