by Dan Joseph
Frequently, I have a conversation like this with my clients:
“I feel like I’m always stuck at a certain point in my life,” says the client.
“Stuck?” I ask.
“Yes, no matter how much I try to improve things, I keep falling back into the same level of stress. Or loneliness. Or whatever.”
“Like there’s an invisible ceiling that stops you from being happier?”
“Yeah, a ceiling. If I try to break through it, I just fall right back. If I can’t get past that ceiling, why even try.”
Many of my clients describe a dynamic like this in our first session or two. Some have taken Herculean steps to climb out of their distress – a lifetime of therapy, a dozen or more different medications, moves to new cities, and so on. They truly have expended significant effort to improve their state of mind – with only temporary success.
When I begin to discuss “invisible ceiling” dynamics with clients, I also bring in the concept of a “floor.”
“I understand that ceiling,” I say. “However, is there also an invisible floor?”
“A floor?” they ask.
“Yes. When things begin to drift down from that ceiling, do they reach a particular point and stabilize?”
“In what way?”
“Well, does your loneliness or stress get worse and worse, or does it drift back to its normal place and stay there?”
“It mostly settles back to its usual place.”
“And the depression – does it become more and more intense until you’ll do whatever it takes to stop the fall? Or does it sort of stabilize in the same place it usually is?”
“It usually stabilizes.”
“So it sounds like there’s not just a ceiling, but a floor. You don’t get free of the loneliness – but you also don’t feel completely overwhelmed by it. There’s an upper and lower range that generally stay in place. Together, they form something of a ‘comfort zone’ – except it’s not comfortable. We’re going to work on raising that ceiling … but also raising the floor.”
My clients are usually intrigued by this. The concept of a “floor” gives them a sense that they’re stuck in a range, rather than spiraling down indefinitely.
(One note of clarification: there certainly are people who are spiraling down without a floor in sight. These folks are usually hospitalized, and as a private practice counselor, I rarely see this type of client. I would probably use different approaches/metaphors with those clients.)
Not too Warm, Not too Cold
I find that this floor-and-ceiling dynamic parallels an interesting theme from A Course in Miracles. The Course talks about the “ego,” which is a frightened part of the mind that tries to keep us self-centered and self-protective – even at the expense of our happiness.
The ego, according to the Course, plays a subtle game. It doesn’t want us to become too miserable. But it also doesn’t want us to become too happy. It wants to keep us in a very narrow zone. It needs this narrow zone to maintain itself.
When people become too miserable, they tend to seek help. There are countless stories of people beginning a spiritual journey (or therapy) when they “reach bottom” and become too unhappy to soldier on with their old patterns. They hit a point where they realize that their old way of life is completely failing to work. They become willing to abandon these patterns and seek a new way of living. This threatens the rule of the ego.
Similarly, when people experience a sense of great joy, they often ditch the ego like a suit of armor at the end of a long war. A taste of true freedom shows us that there is another way to live life. It gives us access to the “wise mind” – the alternative to the egocentric part of the mind. There are many spiritual journeys that begin with a “spiritual experience” of transcendent happiness.
So the ego can’t let the floor drop too far. And it can’t let the ceiling rise too high. Both are threats to its power.
Think of a tyrant who is controlling a group of people. If the tyrant creates too much suffering, the populace will revolt. If the tyrant allows too much freedom, the populace will gain confidence and revolt as well. The only way that the tyrant can maintain power is to keep the people in a narrow range – miserable, but not too much so. Defeated, but not abjectly so. Controlled, but with some tiny hope of eventual freedom.
This is how the egocentric part of our mind works. It “sells” us on the concept that it is keeping us safe and happy – all the while vigorously distracting us from accessing our higher, wiser mind, which is the true source of our safety and happiness. Keeping the floor and ceiling in place is quite a project.
So how do we raise both the floor and the ceiling? There are countless methods. However, let me focus on one that I use in my sessions.
I say to my clients: “Here’s a theory that I work with. The theory is that self-forgiveness, self-acceptance, and ultimately self-love is the real way to raise the ceiling and the floor. You deserve to be happy … but your mind is probably resisting that idea. So we’re going to flood the mind with messages of self-support until things begin to shift.”
Now, most of my clients are surprised by this approach. They’ve tried everything under the sun to break through the ceiling – but most have never tried a sustained, daily practice of filling the mind with self-loving thoughts.
And this is where things become interesting. My clients are initially intrigued and eager to begin our work. But as we begin the process, the egocentric part of their minds begins to resist the change.
“You know, who am I to be happy?” they’ll say before too long. “I’m totally screwed up.” “I’m a complete failure.” “I’ve made such terrible mistakes. Let me list them all for you.” Sometimes the resistance to elevating the ceiling becomes quite graphic.
As it emerges, we begin to see – very clearly – the downward pressure that keeps the ceiling in place. The forms are different for everyone, but the core theme is: “Who am I to deserve happiness? Who am I to be free?”
The ego, the inner critic, the defensive part of the mind – call it what you’d like – is committed to keeping that ceiling low. It does not want us to feel happy. It does not want us to feel free. It survives by engendering a sense of guilt, threat, and powerlessness. And it will increase the sense of guilt, threat, and powerlessness if it feels its power slipping away.
As we tap in to the wiser, higher part of the mind, and begin to receive and accept its loving thoughts, the ego tends to push back rather desperately. “Heck with that narrow range – push the ceiling down, now!” it says. “Push that floor down, now! We’re losing her!”
Like a spinning top that’s beginning to lose momentum and wobble, the egocentric part of the mind begins to generate rather silly-sounding messages at this point.
“Don’t reach out to that person. He’ll probably reject you … because, well … because you’ve spent too many years rejecting yourself … and, well … now you’re damaged because of that and … well, the only real solution is to keep focusing on what a screw-up you are … and maybe if you focus on your screw-ups for long enough, you’ll learn to be a loving person … and people will like you then … or something. But don’t reach out to that person, whatever you do.”
The logic becomes quite bizarre. I mean, really bizarre. And at that point, much of the game is up. This is when things begin to shift.
We continue to flood the mind with self-loving messages. Then we attempt to act in accordance with that sense of self-love. The ego panics at this; we respond to it with more self-love; and then continue to act in a self-loving manner.
The most fulfilling part of my work is seeing – often subtly and slowly – how the ceiling and the floor rise in people’s lives. “You know, I do deserve better than this,” they eventually say. “Perhaps I can take that step that I’ve never wanted to take before. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll try something else!” It often takes weeks, months, or even years to reach this point of change. But it’s a wonderful thing to see when it happens.
We all deserve to be happy and free – as free and happy as children of the Divine. Our minds may resist this, but we can shift our allegiance to a new, non-tyrannical guide. The ego pushes down, but our wise minds lead us up.
Perhaps there is an easier way. Perhaps there is a happier way to live. And perhaps – despite what we may think about ourselves – we deserve to be free. These are the type of thoughts that allow the ceiling and the floor to rise.