What Do You, Me, and a Schizophrenic Patient Have In Common?

SEPTEMBER 17TH, 2015

Before founding The Insightful Executive, I worked in public health for many years, leading programs in poor communities all around the world, from Tunisia to Peru. But my first foray into the field was as a Medical Interpreter at a public hospital in… Brooklyn NY, working with a severely underserved patient population. It was an eye-opening experience. I learned that it’s possible for thousands of people to live in deep poverty in one of the world’s richest cities, in a marginalized, alternate reality that most New-Yorkers won’t ever see.

I have great memories of working there, and I want to share with you the story about a patient who became a “regular” in the psych ward, Elisa (not her real name). She was schizophrenic.

I’ve been thinking of Elisa lately, as I’ve come to realize that you and I have something in common with her. Let me explain.*

Elisa was known to all the staff in the psych ward. When I first met Elisa to interpret the intake with her psychiatrist, she’d been brought in by the police. She’d been detained after pushing an innocent bystander onto the subway tracks. I learned that this was not the first time; she was known to do this on a semi-regular basis.

This was my understanding of the situation: Elisa would get brought in after harming a stranger in NYC (she’d heard voices telling her to hurt someone). She would get treatment in the psych ward for a couple weeks, get stabilized with meds, and doctors would then discharge her because she was “stable”. They’d send her off with a prescription and a lecture about “you have to keep taking your medicina, ok?”. A few weeks later, the cycle would start again: she would be brought back in by the police, having hurt someone or herself. During the intake, her version of what happened would go something like this:

“I thought the angels cured me with their magic medicine because I was feeling normal again, so I stopped taking my pills.”

I lost count of how many times this happened with Elisa in the 2 years I worked in that hospital. It was sad and painful to witness this cycle. And I know you’re thinking: “But what does this have to do with me? Besides the fact that I will never again stand close to the edge of the subway platform?”

See, we’re kind of like Elisa in the sense that we don’t stay the course to see lasting change in our life. Unlike Elisa, who had a serious illness and was limited in the self-care tools she had access to, we actually ARE capable of big changes. But here’s the thing:

We’re lazy about our personal growth.

We’re sloppy about sticking to a commitment to go to Yoga 2 times a week (not that I’d know anything about that), or signing up for that workshop on communication skills. We go to a brilliant retreat where we learn a 3-minute stress-relief breathing exercise and we leave “sooooo inspired” to do things differently, and then we go back to work on Monday and we don’t apply what we learned in the retreat because:

“Well, I can’t do my breathing exercises because I never remember, so that means I’d have to schedule them in my calendar… and that just doesn’t jive with me because I love to be spontaneous in life, you know? So scheduling would actually mean I’m compromising who I truly am at the core, and you don’t want me to do that, do you?”

Yes, this is really the kind of excuses I hear people say to keep justifying why their lives are falling apart. (Insert womp-womp sound here).

So we make our excuses. And nothing changes, and we pretend we don’t know why. Where did all that inspiration at the retreat go?

I’ll tell you: we suffered from magical thinking, kind of like Elisa. We wanted to believe that going on that retreat, getting inspired for the weekend and jotting down notes on the breathing exercise would somehow create miracles in our life! The reality is that, if we want lasting change, it’s going to take discipline, time, energy and resources.

Still don’t believe that we’re all guilty of magical thinking? Here are other examples of what that might sound like:

“I don’t understand why my girlfriend and I keep fighting about sex. I mean, we talked about it once 6 months ago, for a whole 45 minutes! You’d think our issues would have been resolved by now.”

Or: “I told my new employee at his review last November that I’d like to see him work harder to build relationships with clients, and I hoped he’d figure it out on his own… but I guess he must be incompetent.”

A fundamental change in the results we see in our life is always preceded by a fundamental change in our habits and behaviors. Yep, it’s going to take weeks or months of daily intention setting followed by implementation, conversations, and other tangible actions on your part.

So here’s the challenge for you this week: Can you catch yourself applying magical thinking in an area of your life? Where are you hoping for change, reading books about it and getting “soooo inspired”, but not really doing what’s needed to drive change?

Finally, here’s four things you can do with this message:

  1. Print it up and make “Wisdom Confetti” out of it (not so nice for the trees and doesn’t do much for your life).
  2. Share it with a friend you adore and who will appreciate hearing from you.
  3. Share a comment below, and tell us where magical thinking shows up in your life and what you plan to do about it. It’ll make my day. Promise.
  4. Do nothing. At your own risk.

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