When I go shopping, I always have a shopping list. Quaint, I know.
Yet I store it on my phone, which is arguably cooler. Possibly not.
People sometimes think I’m dawdling in the aisle texing a friend, and get cross.
But I’m not. I’m checking my shopping list. Which is valid during a shopping trip.
If I wasn’t allowed to check my shopping list, I’d be a bit lost. Things would feel chaotic.
I wouldn’t have the confidence that I was getting what I need.
The shopping list is a good metaphor for life.
How can I get what I want if I don’t know what I want.
Creating the shopping list in the first place requires a bit of thought.
If I look forward and see myself eating beans on toast, then I know I’ll need to buy bread and baked beans.
Making the space to build the shopping list is a crucial part of getting what I need.
At the start of a therapy session, I’ll begin by asking questions that help the person build their shopping list for life.
I’ll ask what their best hopes are. I’ll ask what will be happening if those best hopes are realised.
I’ll make space to build this “shopping list”. It’s fun to do for both of us.
It’s useful because people often think of what they want as “not this.”
Yet they haven’t yet had the space to conjure what they would like life to look like instead.
Imagine going shopping if the only thing on your list said “Don’t buy marmalade.”
If I asked someone what they were getting from the shops and they said “not marmalade”, I’d ask what they are getting instead.
It’s the same in the therapy room. When we describe what we want as the absence of something, it’s a useful first step.
“Not depressed”, “not anxious”, “not worrying all the time” is a great start.
But it doesn’t yet paint a picture of what we do want. So I ask what is wanted instead.
Converting an absence of something into the presence of something else is a key moment.
It creates a positive, tangible sense of what we’d like our future life to be like.
It shifts our focus onto that positive future, rather than being stuck in the difficult present.
It helps us communicate clearly to ourselves the life we long for. So we become more likely to get it.
When my shopping list says “not marmalade”, it gives a little help, but not much.
When my shopping list describes what I do want, I end up with the things on my list.Alun Parry is Director of The Liverpool Psychotherapy Practice