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Half Full or Half Empty?

by Beata Bishop(more info)

listed in holistic psychotherapy, originally published in issue 139 - September 2007

Over the years of working with a variety of clients, I have noticed how some of them had built themselves a virtual fortress of negativity, resentment and general gloom, and how reluctant they were to move out of it. Such clients always present a tricky challenge. On the one hand they expect me ‘to make it better’ for them, which of course isn’t my job; on the other they solidly refuse to take a fresh look at themselves, which it is my job to encourage. They remind me of the Zen story about the dead tired pilgrim who collapses at the feet of a great sage and asks, “Master, how do I find liberation?” “Who is binding you?” asks the sage in turn.

I know it is a cliché, but we do create much of our own reality, and the one my despondent clients create for themselves looks grim at first glance. To them, the wine glass is always half empty, and in the famous Swiss cheese they only see the holes. It is no use pointing out that the glass is actually half full, while the proportion of holes to cheese is minimal – to do so would only convince them that, once again, they are not being understood. What I discovered through trial and error is that instead of trying to diminish the gloom, it is more helpful to turn the spotlight on the neglected, denied, almost forgotten bright side of life.

It was one of my most obstinately despondent clients who helped me to that insight. One day she arrived ten minutes late for her appointment. Terribly sorry, she said, she had been kept waiting at the university where she had had to pick up her diploma. I congratulated her warmly on this umpteenth academic achievement, for which I knew she had studied hard for two years, but she dismissed it – and me – with a shrug. “It’s just a piece of paper”, she said. And that did it.

I asked her to record in her diary for a week all her pleasant experiences, however small, and on the opposite page all the annoying ones. It was a gamble, but it paid off. The following week my client turned up looking much less gloomy but also a little embarrassed, for her nice moments had vastly outnumbered the less agreeable ones. They included a toddler who had smiled at her, a dandelion growing from a crack in the pavement, several kind remarks from colleagues, a beautiful blouse bought at a hugely reduced price, and many more. On the opposite page there was nothing worth mentioning. From that day onwards our work gathered speed.

This simple method of recording good experiences works by re-balancing one’s perception of events, without indulging in the kind of mindless ‘positive thinking’ which is no more healing than an ordinary plaster stuck on a deep wound. There is a widespread human tendency to chew over past sorrows and hurts instead of cherishing our joys and shining moments, and it is a tendency to be discarded fast. Most of the time the glass is at least half full and, who knows, someone might come along and top it up for us.

Here are two examples to illustrate the proper way of creating one’s own reality. One concerns an old lady with a sunny temperament and an unsinkable belief in the ultimate rightness of things, despite the hardships of her long life. At the age of 85 she declared, “I don’t have much of a future, but I do enjoy the present”. She continued to do so, only grumbling about her weak eyesight and the awkwardness of stairs, and died peacefully aged 101.

My other story is about a small, fragile woman who was suffering from metastasized cancer. When told that she had perhaps six months to live, she smiled broadly and said, “Oh good, that’s enough for me to get well”. Her doctors had nothing more to offer, so she visited a Naturopath and persuaded him to treat her. Reluctantly he put her on a strict dietary therapy, which she managed to carry out on her own, although sometimes she was too weak to stand for more than five minutes. And she recovered. “It was tough,” she said simply, when I met her years later, “but it was worth it”.

Now that is a person whose glass was always full – with carrot juice, as a matter of fact.


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About Beata Bishop

Beata Bishop is a writer, lecturer and psychotherapist in private practice, working along Jungian and transpersonal lines. Her special interests include the role of the spiritual dimension in all kinds of healing, and the body-mind link in sickness and health. Her book, A Time to Heal (First Stone Publishing, 2010), describes her journey from life-threatening cancer to robust health using an unorthodox nutritional therapy. She can be contacted on e-mail:

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