Saturday, 7 January 2012

The Magically Powerful Personification Trick

In my last article I wrote a thank-you letter to Mental Illness for all that I'd learnt from it. The idea of turning illness, or indeed any annoyance or frustration into an imaginary person came not through the counselling I received but from a friend of mine who had cancer.

He and his family were struggling with the news that he had terminal cancer. When diagnosed he was told that he had less than two years to live. He survived for over six years and made the most of every minute he could right up to the end.

The turning point for him in adapting and adjusting to his having cancer was when someone told him to personify his cancer to become angry with it, argue with it and defy it - it was told repeatedly to stop bothering and interrupting him while be was enjoying himself. It was told he wasn't interested in it as he had plans to go out that day for a picnic or to see a show or some other pleasurable activity.

Yes he had better success on some days than others, but when he discovered he could have a good day after weeks of bad ones, that was all he needed to start fighting. He came to imagine it as no more than a rather ugly looking creature no bigger than a wart lurking in the dark corners of a street as it was allergic to sunshine. So he'd simply cross to the sunny side of the street, much to it's annoyance. If the creature came banging on his door he'd simply turn his music up until it went away. What he didn't do was invite it in. Sometimes this odious slime ball would throw bricks at the window and get in, but the emergency services swiftly attended and it would be locked up and peace was soon restored.

From understandably having a bleak 'might as well give up now' mindset my friend was transformed into a person who embraced and enjoyed nearly every second of his final years. Never have I come across anyone half so positive in what would, on the surface, seem impossible circumstances to do so in.

'Be angry with the illness' was also useful to his family who, quite naturally were becoming frustrated with worry (and what do we know about what frustration can lead to - anger) that even the burden of caring for someone so ill. It's a myth to think that people with a serious illness do not become a burden at times, it is better be honest about it when it happens. By being honest with ourselves we identify the difficulty faced and can then develop a strategy for dealing with it. Just as the illness is a frustration to the sufferer so it can be to carers too. By everyone aiming their frustrations at the correct target of the illness it enables everyone to cope better and avoid taking it out on and upsetting those we care for most. It has certainly helped me that way.

Personifying illness gives us a target to vent our frustration and anger at the circumstances that arise because of it. In some ways I feel that mental illness is an easier illness to personify and an easier battle to fight for unlike terminal cancer, there is nothing definitive about it. There is no such thing as terminal mental illness unless we choose to end our lives; the illness itself is not to blame for that, we are for making that choice. The trick is to choose not to and learning to rant and rail against the illness for planting negative thoughts in our heads can make all the difference to choosing life instead.

No, it's not easy, at least not until the new mindset of choosing life has been well and truly established. It can be extremely difficult to get started when a deep depression hits especially when it's situations and events out of our control that have triggered the depression in the first place such as the death of a loved one.

Death is always difficult to come to terms with, never more so when it's caused by murder, the loss of a child or a suicide. In those circumstances suicidal thoughts can start to consume the bereaved. But another death only serves to escalate the misery by passing it on to others. Without our surviving such a loss how can we do honour to the person who has died by passing on all we came to know of that person? Others might not have been lucky enough to have met our lost love at all, so who's going to tell them how wonderful they were if we don't?

Our choosing life becomes a living memorial to those who die. Such became my own conclusion upon losing loved ones through cancer, accidents and indeed suicide. By my choosing life I can share with others all their brilliance, the sheer privilege to have had them in my life and the joy it brought me. By choosing death I cannot.

Bereavement itself is perhaps not something we can personify and probably shouldn't try to. We are justified to feel angry at our loss, lonely, hurt and lost but even from the agony of bereavement we can choose to fight for life with thoughts of what others would want and wish for us, even though they have died.

Instead of thinking in terms of things our loved ones are no longer around for, we can think in terms of trying to finish that bit of planting in the garden for them, sending that gift they'd prepared and wrapped for someone, and finding someone who would have known, appreciated and understood that odd collection of nik-naks of theirs. In other words think of what they would have done and thought that would have best pleased them. Memory coupled with our imaginations can help tell us what they would advise on any situation so that they are only ever a thought away from us when we need them. By thinking of them at their best our loved ones never leave us. Loved ones always, always, always want us to embrace life and be happy.

To sum up, personification is all about using our imaginations to our advantage. We always have a choice to use it to create and/or make any situation worse or use our imaginations to help guide us through even the darkest of days. The first step is to create as vivid a picture of the odious impostor and happiness-snatcher as possible and the smaller you can imagine it to be, the smaller it will become.

We find what we look for in life. So if we are continually looking for troubles and pitfalls that is what we will find. If, on the other hand we spend the bulk of our time seeking joy, fun, happiness, how to improve our relationships with others, how to find new opportunities, new sources of inspiration and things that help us to feel at peace and content with our lot in life then bit by bit that becomes what we find. Choice is a very powerful tool to use in this regard. We can seldom choose to avoid a loss or misfortune, but we can always use that power of choice in how we deal with it.


  1. It's true, this is really a powerful trick.

  2. Wow! Thank you for that. It's the first time I've had someone comment to verify that one of the things that helped me has also help someone else.

    Feel free to add any other suggestions that have helped as what works with one person doesn't always work for others, and I certainly don't have the monopoly on solutions.

  3. I was intending to post a new article once a month this year, but this month will have a special coming up... just drafting it now.

  4. Laura Mozer Davis9 February 2012 at 20:00

    It's wonderful to see the power of the mind working in positive ways. An illness may not be a choice, but it certainly is our choice as to how we will respond to it.

  5. Many thanks Laura. It's not always easy to make that choice, and possibly not always possible in all cases when it's the brain that is damaged or ill, but I have seen wonderful positive transformations in those who have managed it.

    As with any battle it takes courage and determination to win through.


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