Beauty in the Cracks

Beauty in the Cracks: A Kintsukuroi Perspective

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in      – Leonard Cohen

Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.     – Confucius

I took a two-hour class at a local art center the other evening in which we made clay pinch pots — bowls or vases, basically, that we created out of a ball of clay. The process consisted of pushing one’s thumb into the center of the ball of clay to start the opening, and then pinching and turning the ball of clay between the thumb and fingers to form and thin the walls of the pot, and finally to shape the rim. As I worked, I found myself feeling anxious from time to time about what I deemed to be imperfections in my pot — cracks that had started to form in the clay, a lop side, an errant undulation in the rim. I was not the only one in the room to have this kind of response. Others were nervous, too, about their own creations. The instructor was very kind and reassuring to us all, offering pointers for addressing issues that may have really been serious — structurally speaking, I’m guessing — but also proffering compliments on some of the other characteristics that seemed to worry us the most.

As I left the class that night, reflecting on making my pinch pot, and on the anxiety that I had experienced in the process, I found my thoughts turning over an image and its accompanying text that I had seen on Facebook and Twitter a while ago, and that had recently resurfaced in my feeds. If you recognize the word, “kintsukuroi,” that I’m using in the title of this blog post, you may well know it, as I do, from the very image and text that I’m talking about. The image is one of a gray pottery bowl — veined with gold to dramatic effect — offered to illustrate the Japanese art of kintsukuroi, or kintsugi, in which broken pottery is mended with a lacquer resin to which powdered gold has been added. The text that accompanies this image describes the art as embracing a perspective that “the piece [of pottery] is more beautiful for having been broken.” As I had fretted in my pottery class over aspects of my pinch pot that I perceived to be imperfect, parts that I was judging as “not good enough,” I was struggling to remember the idea behind kintsukuroi – that we can choose to see beauty in the very cracks and errant undulations that we so often want to “correct,” cover up, distract attention from, or otherwise disavow.

I wonder how different our lives would be if we saw beauty, rather than imperfection and brokenness, in more of the “cracks” around us – in those aspects of ourselves, others, and our experiences to which we tend to respond with judgment and worry, fear, and sometimes animosity. Wouldn’t we feel more calm, compassionate, content, or even confident? If we imagine so, and these feelings interest us, what new ways of thinking and behaving would support the kind of perspective behind this shift? If we already experience “a kintsukuroi perspective” at times in our lives, what do we identify as contributing to it?

To our calmness, clarity, and confidence!

Featured image credit: iven401 / 123RF Stock Photo

About Scott Burns Kahler, MA, LMFT, CPC, ELI-MP

Scott Burns KahlerScott is a psychotherapist, life coach, and the founder of Thought Tonic.  He dedicates his work to those who identify themselves as struggling with anxious thinking, and often their self-esteem, to help them experience their lives with greater calm, clarity, and confidence.

Scott maintains a counseling practice in Indianapolis, Indiana, and does coaching in-person, over the telephone, and by Skype.

You can follow Scott and the Thought Tonic blog.  See our Social Media page for options.

Questions?  Contact us.

Sour Face

A Lemon for Your Thoughts?

Several years ago, I had a friend who was in the market for a new car. In the process of car shopping with this friend, I decided that I would sell the car that I was driving and get a new car for myself as well. I got my new car, which was actually just new to me, and for a while everything with the car went smoothly. Once the warranty on the car expired, however, I began to have problem after problem; some months, the car seemed to be in the repair shop as often as it was in on the road! One day, while my car was in the shop for the umpteenth time, a coworker (who had given me many rides to work) challenged me to consider that my car could be called a “lemon.” The car had seemed fine at first; in fact, it had worked fine — for a while! The car wasn’t working the way I wanted any longer, though; it wasn’t going to be able to take me where I wanted to go.

As we begin 2013, many of us will be thinking about where we want to go this year — figuratively, at least, in terms of what we want to be different for ourselves, in our lives. If we aren’t happy with our weight, for example, we may be planning a new gym routine, or to change our eating habits. If we are tired of losing track of when bills are due, or where we have left our keys, we may be considering ways in which we can improve our organization at home. So often, whatever it is that we want to be different in the new year, we frame a related resolution in terms of something that we “need” or “have” to do. We think, “I need to lose 10 pounds — no more excuses!” or “I’m so sick of not being able to find anything — I just have to get organized!” And why wouldn’t we have these kinds of pressured thoughts, given the sense of anxious urgency that we sometimes experience to make these changes in our lives? Unfortunately, as helpful as such thoughts would seem to be in motivating us to take action, and supporting us to maintain what we start, I don’t know that they work very well for many of us; in fact, I would argue that these kinds of thoughts — “I need to …” and “I have to …” — can actually get in our way of creating the differences that we want for ourselves, in our lives. Just as we can talk about some cars as “lemons,” we can talk about certain thoughts as “lemons,” too; they end up being more trouble than they are worth, and sooner or later we realize that they just aren’t able to take us where we want to go.

What makes these kinds of thoughts “lemons”? What’s wrong with saying to ourselves, “I need to …” or “I have to …”? Let me clarify. From my perspective, the issue is not one of right or wrong, but what works best or most often for us, and what does not. In my own experience, when I am thinking in terms of “I need to …” or “I have to …” I notice an internal grimace, an energetic “sour face,” so to speak (think about the expression on someone’s face when that person tastes the tartness of a lemon). For me, “I need to …” and “I have to …” create a sense of motivational “drag” rather than enthusiasm or excitement. I even start to feel a bit anxious about what it is that I have resolved to do. “I really need to get to the gym today!” “I just have to finish this blog post by Sunday evening!” I have come to associate the tense response that I experience with the idea that these thoughts come from a fearful or an already anxious frame of mind. “I really need to get to the gym today because if I don’t, I’m never going to lose this extra weight!” “I just have to finish this blog post by Sunday evening; it will be awful if I don’t get it published on Monday morning like I told myself I would!” Do you hear the anxious all-or-nothing thinking in “I’m never going to lose this extra weight!” and the catastrophic thinking in “it will be awful [if I don't finish this blog post by Sunday evening] …”? How about the possibility of selective attention and memory in the second of these examples if I told you that one time, I had trouble getting a post done by Sunday evening, but was able to work on it on Monday, and just published it Monday evening, then, instead of Monday morning? The world did not end.

So what’s the alternative? For me, what works better — and feels better, frankly — is to think in terms of “I want to …” or “I can …” (desire and opportunity) rather than “I need to …” or “I have to …” (desperation and obligation). Now, I can almost hear the objections that I have made to this notion in the past, which are perhaps yours as well: “But I really do need to lose this extra weight because …” For some of us, the reasons for thinking in terms of “need” in this situation may range from controlling diabetes to keeping up with young children to fitting into our pants (“New clothes cost money, and we’re saving for a trip to Florida. Oh, no … what will I look like in a bathing suit?”). However, there is also a “want” that goes along with each of these scenarios that we can apply to our resolution to get to the gym. “I want to get to the gym because I want to keep up with my kids. Plus, it will feel so good to have gone to the gym, to be able to say that I went, that I did it!” For many of us, “I want to keep up with my kids!” will create a very different feeling than “I really need to get to the gym because if I don’t, I’m never going to lose this extra weight!” We can talk about this different feeling as having a different kind of energy — anabolic, versus catabolic (terms that Bruce D. Schneider, author of Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), has borrowed from the vocabulary of biology and physiology in relation to the processes of metabolism). Anabolic energy builds us up, supports us, while catabolic energy drains us, tears us down, and fuels our experiences of anxiety. While the sense of pressure that we get from catabolic energy can have short-term benefits — think of a cheetah on the plains of Africa that bursts into high-speed to catch its prey — this kind of energy ends up wearing us and others out if we keep it up for too long (even the cheetah can’t keep up these extreme speeds indefinitely!). For many of us, the catabolic energy of “I have to …” and “I need to …” thoughts just can’t take us as far as (so, ultimately, where) we want to go, and can actually get in our way, then, of creating the positive, sustained experiences of what we want to be different for ourselves, in our lives.

Whenever this time of year rolls around, and I find myself reflecting on what I want to be different for myself, in my life, in the coming new year, I think back to the car that I bought several years ago, and how — for a time, in the context of getting back and forth to work, around town to run errands, etc. — it served me well. When I began to have problems with the car on a regular basis, I had the opportunity to re-evaluate its value to me, and determined that it was adding to my sense of stress and anxiety; I could no longer count on it to take me where I wanted to go. The same has been true for me of “I have to …” and “I need to …” thoughts, and the same may be true for you as well. These thoughts are not special to the end of any given year, of course, but tend to surface in our practice of making New Year’s resolutions. As we begin 2013, I want to think more often in terms of “I want to …” and “I can …” so that I can experience the anabolic energy that will help me reach my other goals. I want to improve my organization at home so that I can spend less time trying to find my keys, or worrying about which bills have yet to be paid, and more time working on my blog!

Where do you want to go?

Best wishes for a wonderful 2013!

For more ideas about anxious thinking and responses to help us foster a greater sense of calm and confidence, feel free to see other Thought Tonic posts at; you can follow this blog, by Scott Burns Kahler, MA, LMFT, via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, or RSS feed.

Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz Trailer 2

Lions, and Tigers, and Bears … Oh, My!

In The Wizard of Oz (1939), as Dorothy, Scarecrow, and Tin Man make their way along the yellow-brick road through a forest that Dorothy describes as “dark and creepy,” the three of them provide us with an example of catastrophizing, the kind of anxious thinking in which we assume the worst as the result of an experience that we interpret negatively.  I have included the dialogue, as well as a link to an excerpt from the film posted on YouTube, below.

Dorothy:  I don’t like this forest.  It’s … it’s dark and creepy!
Scarecrow:  Of course, I don’t know, but I think it’ll get darker before it gets lighter.
Dorothy:  Do … do you suppose we’ll meet any wild animals?
Tin Man:  Hmmm … we might.
Scarecrow:  Animals that … that eat straw?
Tin Man:  Some, but mostly lions and tigers and bears.
Dorothy:  Lions!
Scarecrow:  And tigers?
Tin Man:  And bears.
Dorothy:  Lions, and tigers, and bears … oh, my!
All:  Lions, and tigers, and bears …
Dorothy:  Oh, my!
All:  Lions, and tigers, and bears …
Dorothy:  Oh, my!
All:  Lions, and tigers, and bears …
Dorothy:  Oh, my!
All:  Lions, and tigers, and bears …
Dorothy:  Oh, my!

On YouTube: Dorothy Meets the Cowardly Lion (The Wizard of Oz, 1939)

In this scene, Dorothy worries that she and her friends will encounter wild animals as they travel through the forest that she doesn’t like; Scarecrow frets that the wild animals might have an appetite for straw.  In their increasingly frenetic verbal repetition of “lions, and tigers, and bears” — as they skip faster and faster down the road — Dorothy, Scarecrow, and Tin Man demonstrate the obsessive, self-reinforcing quality of anxious thinking.  Dorothy’s own anxious thinking proves almost too much for words; her catastrophizing gets summed up in her gasp of an exclamation,”Oh, my!”

What happens, then, when the trio’s fears come true, and a roaring lion bounds into view?  Once the lion turns from bullying Scarecrow and Tin Man and begins to chase a yapping Toto, Dorothy gives him a swat on the nose.  Courage!  Now, when Dorothy was consumed with her catastrophizing, just a few moments before, did she pause to think how she might handle such a situation, or even that she could?  If she had considered how she wanted to handle an encounter with a wild animal, that she could handle it, should it occur, I will venture that she might well have worried less, and experienced more calm and confidence as she, Scarecrow, Tin Man — and Toto, too — made their way through the forest, and down the yellow-brick road.

For those of us with a sense of social anxiety, shyness, or performance fears, catastrophizing often looks like assuming that an experience that we interpret negatively will have dire, unmanageable consequences.  I may fear, for instance, that if I can’t remember someone’s name at a party, I will be mortified, and then stammer, blush, or otherwise demonstrate my embarrassment, and that the other person will judge me as not only forgetful, but odd, and not want to talk to me; this person whose name I forgot might even tell other people at the party, including the hosts, what an awful, awkward experience she had with me!  I’ll never get invited to another party again!  Even if we don’t go to quite this extreme in our fantasies of fear, we are engaging in catastrophic thinking whenever we assume the worst will happen, and forget to ask ourselves “So what if that happens?” or “How would I like to respond to that, if it does occur?”  A cognitive-behavioral response to catastrophic thinking encourages us not only to question the likelihood of whatever worst-case scenario we are imagining — our own encounter with “lions, and tigers, and bears” — but to challenge the end-of-the-world import that we attribute to that scenario, and to find ways to respond to our fears that we will not be able to manage the experience.

What have been your own experiences of catastrophic thinking?  How have you learned to challenge this thinking?

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Young Man Thinking

Don’t Believe Everything You Think!

If you have ever been in the market for a new car, you might have noticed how, once you started thinking about what kind of car you wanted – what make, what color – you began to see that car everywhere you went.  Because the car was on your mind, you were inclined to see it, more apt to see it than you would have been otherwise.

If you worry about rejection, you might well experience a similar phenomenon.  When we have rejection on our minds, we also tend to see it, or at least the potential for it, everywhere.  And why wouldn’t we?  After all, we are trying to protect ourselves from what rejection means for us – loneliness, perhaps, or “proof” that our negative core beliefs, the declarations of our inner critic, are true.  However, the threat of rejection – in the form of other people thinking negatively of us, for instance – is something that we often interpret, and even overinterpret, into situations and what other people say and do.  We indulge in what cognitive-behavioral therapy calls mind reading.

In our context of social anxiety, shyness, and performance fears, we can talk about mind reading as another kind of anxious thinking (two weeks ago, we looked at personalization as our first example).  When we engage in mind reading, we make anxious assumptions not only about what other people are thinking, but that they are thinking negatively of us.

Let us say, for instance, that I am aware that I begin to sweat and blush when I feel nervous.  I may assume not only that others notice my physical responses, but that they view me as strange or weird as a result.  In making these assumptions, I am engaging in mind reading on two counts.  First, I am assuming that others can tell as clearly as I can that I am feeling nervous, which may not be true; then, I am assuming that others are judging me negatively, which may not be accurate, either.  In both cases, I am very likely overestimating the probability that my fears represent what others really have on their minds.  From a cognitive-behavioral perspective, probability overestimation is yet another kind of anxious thinking, one that often goes hand-in-hand with mind reading.  For many of us, the idea that we overestimate the likelihood of what we fear is both a relief and difficult to believe.  Don’t forget – we are trying to avoid the pain of what rejection means to us.  Why wouldn’t we overestimate the danger?  We think that doing so will keep us safer.

The trouble is that in being so vigilant against the threat of rejection, and seeing it everywhere, we actually set ourselves up for more frequent chances of having the very kinds of experiences that we want to avoid.  For example, if we speak too softly or avoid eye contact in social situations on account of our fears, others may “reject” us not because they are actually thinking negatively of us, but because they interpret us as not interested in them.

The good news is … we do not have to believe everything that we think!  Our perception of rejection, or its potential, is open to challenge.  We can approach our thoughts like a purchase we have made; if one doesn’t work for us, we can take it back!

To the extent that you feel comfortable sharing, what have been your own experiences of mind reading?  How do you keep yourself from believing the negative things that you imagine others are thinking about you?

I will be continuing to write about kinds of anxious thinking in the coming weeks.  If you are interested in following this blog, you can do so via e-mail; please feel free to subscribe!

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