Yesterday, in one of my groups, I mentioned my “Down the Rabbit Hole” exercise that I do in workshops. I thought I had shared it before, but it appears that maybe I didn’t. I’m going to do my best to explain it here, since it might be helpful to some of you…and it’s actually even kind of fun.
The purpose of this exercise is to be increasingly mindful about the anxieties and fears about development or “progress” that can plague us as parents, via a bit of a playful/humorous exercise. It’s an opportunity to own and make conscious what is more typically an unconscious process, allowing us to claim ownership over our anxiety process rather than be victims of it.
Disclaimer: Of course, there ARE times when delays or developmental concerns are outside the boundaries of the wide spectrum of typical development. This exercise can still be used to calm our anxieties, but it is not meant to replace necessary intervention in cases in which the child IS significantly outside typical developmental variation (with the caveat being that you need to KNOW what the spectrum of typical variation looks like to know if it is outside!)
Here’s how it works. You can do it alone or with a partner. You can do it in writing (which is helpful in its own additional way!) or verbally or silently.
1) You choose one thing that you’re currently worried about, preferably something that triggers the “rabbit hole” of “If I don’t help/push them to do this, they’ll never get it.” For example:
“My child is 10 months old and is not sitting up by herself”; “My six week old isn’t smiling at me.”; “My five year old doesn’t have any interest in letters or sounds.”
2) You start your descent down the rabbit hole. This is a way of naming and making visible and conscious the subconscious rabbit hole that you go down involuntarily. To start that process, you state the worry, followed by a restatatement with an added open ended “if/then” statement. Examples:
“My child is 10 months old and is not sitting up by herself. If she doesn’t sit up by herself at 10 months, then…. “My six week old isn’t smiling at me. If he doesn’t smile at me at six weeks, then….”
3) You complete those if/then sentences, almost like free association, without too much thinking or editing, just the next logical/automatic thing.
“If she doesn’t sit up by herself at 10 months, then she’s not going to be walking by the time she’s supposed to” “If he doesn’t smile at me at six weeks, then our connection is not good.”
4. Repeat steps 2 and 3, using the SECOND half of the most recent sentence, using the familiar “if/then” statement, and continuing the free association.
“If she’s not walking by the time she’s supposed to, then….” “If our connection is not good, then….” (and then answering them.)
5. Repeat that process for as many iterations as possible, until you feel as if you have come to a natural (or fateful) conclusion and you don’t feel like you can go any further. Feel free to descend into the absurd or extreme. Just let it all hang out. Let your fears and anxieties express themselves and say what the next “horrible thing” might be if the first half of the sentence were true. Keep going. Repeat. Ad nauseum.
[Note: This is where it’s great to do it with a partner, because, with reminders, they can keep you from leaping to the end of anxiety spiral too quickly and they can encourage you to keep going if you haven’t reached the bottom of the hole, if there are more permutations of your anxieties to explore. They can also provide the “if/thens” for you, so you can keep going with your free association without having to pay attention to the structure of the sentences or keeping track of your if/thens. They can also smile at you with love as you descend, which can be both reassuring and can help you to keep it light, remembering that this is a mindfulness exercise, not a descent into madness!]
6. This is the most important step. Don’t skip it.. When you have reached the end of the hole, when you go “bump” into the dirt at the bottom of the hole, then you stop and pause for a minute and you remember to breathe. And then–this is the important part–you take the first half of your first sentence that you said at the very beginning and you connect it to the second half of your last sentence, the place where you “bumped” into the bottom of the hole, the dismal conclusion to your worry spiral, using the same “If/then” format. Just one sentence.
A personal illustration, if I may. For me, when I do this exercise (and I do it whenever I find myself falling into this anxiety state about development or some of my child’s choices, because it’s great for perspective), my “bottom/bump” is pretty much always some sort of situation in which my daughter is living under a bridge as an adult. So my “Step 6” might look something like “If my daughter doesn’t do her homework tonight, she will live under a bridge as an adult.”
7. Okay, so maybe this is the most important step. Or maybe they both are. Whatever. Sometimes I can’t make up my mind. The last step of this process is to breathe, sit with your final sentence, and see if it feels like it makes rational sense to you. Ask yourself some questions. Does it seem like a bit of hyperbole? Maybe it’s a little bit of an exaggerated worry for a simple and temporary situation like not doing their homework tonight? Does it make you laugh, a bit embarrassingly, with its absurdity or all-or-nothing stance? What perspective does it offer you? Is this really what you think is going to happen? Could it be that this is a up close and personal look at the rabbit hole that you actually experience internally when your anxieties start to tell you that “they will never…”? How can you own this process? Can you smile a bit at what your own spiral actually looks like, once you have taken it out into the light of day, and experiment with a different, more mindful, more measured narrative?
8. (I know, I said that 7 was the last step, but it isn’t–so shoot me. This is the Advanced Step for those who have taken a few freeform trips down the rabbit hole and want to move to the next level.
Now, if you are able…start over for a few minutes with your original statement and with great intention, create an entirely different spiral that goes upward, or at least evenly across, rather than down, using a very similar format, but this time using “when/then” Something like:
“If he doesn’t smile at me at 6 weeks, then he will smile at me at 7 or 8 weeks. When he smiles at me at 7 or 8 weeks, it will be so rewarding to have that moment of connection. When we have that moment of connection, I will know that all of this hard work and attention and exhaustion that I have gone through over the last two months will be paying off. When I know that all of this hard work and attention and exhaustion that I have gone through over the last two months is paying off, it will give me strength and energy to continue to put energy into connection with him. When I continue to put energy into connection with him our relationship and connection will deepen. When our relationship and connection deepens, my life with my child will feel more joyful and rich and maybe a bit less taxing. When my life with my child feels more joyful and rich and a bit less taxing, I will have more resources to take care of myself because I will feel more secure in the strength of our connection. When I have more resources to take care of myself because I will feel more secure in the strength of our connection, I will be able to go back to doing some things that feed me as a person, not only as a parent, things I have always loved to do, without fear that I will be damaging our attachment. When I go back to doing some things that feed me as a person, not only as a parent, things I have always loved to do, without fear that I will be damaging our attachment, I will be an amazing role model for my child, modeling what it is like to bring yourself, as a whole autonomous human being into relationship. When I model what it is like to bring yourself, as a whole autonomous being into relationship, I will subconsciously give my child the permission that they need to be fully themselves. When I give my child the permission that they need to be fully themselves, they will continue to flower and grow into the wonderful person they were meant to be. When they continue to flower and grow into the wonderful person they were meant to be, I will be enriched by getting to share my life with this new person, learning about who they are and how they move in the world. When I share my life with this new person, learning about who they are and how they move in the world, I will be well on my way to a life of joyful and heartfelt connection as a parent.
And…of course, the “Step 6” still applies here. First half of the first sentence, second half of the last sentence.
“If he doesn’t smile at me at 6 weeks, I will be well on my way to a life of joyful and heartfelt connection as a parent.”
Breathe. Take it in.
Down the rabbit hole. Of your own volition. Make it yours. It works.
Good luck, and report back!