One of my favorite movies is “Groundhog Day” (1993), featuring Bill Murray as a self-involved television weatherman on location to film the groundhog coming out of his hole on Feb. 2. His main interest isn’t whether the groundhog sees his shadow but whether he can capture the attention of the attractive producer on his film crew, played by Andie MacDowell. They become stranded in this small Pennsylvania town by a snowstorm. He wakes up the next morning to the same day, Feb. 2, which repeats over and over again. At first, he’s confused but then realizes it’s an opportunity to try different ways of winning over Andie.
Each new Groundhog Day, he makes the same mistakes. Bounding off the sidewalk, he steps into a hole filled with water every day. All his attempts to win over Andie fail. He becomes depressed and despondent as each day repeats itself. He drives his car over a cliff only to wake up again on Feb. 2
At some point, he gives up and begins to notice the world around him. He tries to help a dying alcoholic, helps others avoid small accidents, starts to connect with the local people, learns how to play the piano, and no longer tries to win Andi. As he becomes more aware of the needs of others, he’s transformed into a caring, connected and concerned human being. And when that finally happens, and Andie is attracted to the person he has become, he wakes up and it’s a new day.
The film is a wonderful parable about how excessive self-involvement results in maladaptive patterns of behavior that repeat themselves over and over again. When we’re completely engaged in our own desires, or what the author Katie Malachuk calls in her book, “Disrupt Yourself,” the “project-of-me,” we experience disappointment and self-pity endlessly. When we get what we want, we want more or something else. When we focus only on ourselves, we lose sight of our connection with others.
The project of me is not the same as taking care of ourselves. Self-care is the recognition that we need to nurture our body, mind and spirit to feel whole and well.
But like Bill Murray’s character, it takes a long time before we wake up and let go of the project of me. We have to step into that hole filled with water many times before we become aware of where we put our feet. Like in “Groundhog Day,” this process is incremental, often three steps forward and then two steps back. We keep falling back into familiar habits that bring frustration.
So how can we embrace change without waking up every morning to the same day?
Cultivate self-awareness. Noticing our familiar habits of thinking and behaving help us recognize when we’re stepping into that hole filled with water. Awareness of when we’re excessively focused on our desires helps us shift our attention outward rather than inward.
Change is incremental and not linear. Transformation is a life-long process of becoming. We take small steps in the direction we hope to go and often fall back into our habitual ways of thinking and acting. Be generous and patient with your pace of change.
Look around. When we focus on the world outside of ourselves, we start to see how we can be helpful to others. We find opportunities to be useful in both small and big ways. That’s when we start to explore “the project of us” which brings love, joy, compassion and balance.
Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www. everettclinic.com/ healthwellness-library.html.
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