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But it was just a little thing… (a Metaphor to Understand Overwhelm)

Updated: Aug 4, 2023

Clients often tell me that they can’t understand why what seems to be only a small event in their life has ended up triggering their distress and challenges. I usually talk them through a metaphor that helps them reflect why this may be.

Imagine that someone is walking along a path made up from small pebbles. They have a rucksack on their back and as they walk along the path they pick up a pebble and pop it into the bag. Now, this rucksack has a hole in the bottom, so a single pebble will simply go into the bag and fall back out onto the ground.

However, if a handful of pebbles goes in at a time, then the bag will start to fill up as the pebbles can’t exit as quickly as they go in. The person can probably go on for quite a long time putting pebbles into the rucksack, especially if they have periods where they go back to only putting one in at a time. But what happens if the periods where they are putting fistfuls of pebbles into the bag outweigh the periods where they are only putting one or two in at a time – it will slowly and relentlessly fill up…and eventually just placing a single pebble into the rucksack will mean it becomes too heavy and the person collapses under the weight.

The pebbles are like the trials and tribulations of our daily lives. They are inescapable, but most of the time they arrive in a manageable stream. Humans are incredibly resilient creatures and so when we are faced with an onslaught of issues we can often seem to take them in our stride…until we don’t…when we reach that point when everything has built up so much that the final pebble creates collapse.

Whenever someone tells me that they can’t understand why such a small thing has caused them so much difficulty we always explore a little deeper and usually can start to understand how a catalogue of problems has contributed to the erosion of their internal resilience, thus preventing them from managing the current crisis effectively.

Although CBT is a very present focused therapy, equipping you with skills and tools in the here & now, that’s not to say that historical issues are ignored; in fact, they are an important part of understanding the big picture of what is going on – so often, things from the past are echoing into the present.

So next time “just a little thing” happens, remember it is going into your rucksack along with all the other “just a little things” that you have been collecting throughout your journey of life...and they may all add up to a significant weight! If you have been feeling overwhelmed and would like some help in building your resilience back up then please get in touch – no problem is too small to deserve attention.

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