Pink Elephants

Coach: “If a pink elephant was the thing that you believed was holding you back, or perhaps the thing in the room you have been avoiding, what was your pink elephant?”

The structure of this question is peculiar in many respects. Most of all is the apparent contradiction between the meaning of general cultural of “pink elephant” and the manner in which it is used. A “pink elephant” is something that isn’t real; it is the hallucination of a drunkard. It comes from the book John Barleycorn in the description of an alcoholic: “The man whom we all know, stupid, unimaginative, whose brain is bitten numbly by numb maggots; who walks generously with wide-spread, tentative legs, falls frequently in the gutter, and who sees, in the extremity of his ecstasy, blue mice and pink elephants. He is the type that gives rise to the jokes in the funny papers.”

But here the pink elephant is used in reference to something more real and tangible.  Not as a mere hallucination, but rather as an objective entity that has the power to restrict the movement of a person, or as something that occupies space within a room.

And here is the other thing, it is framed to be an either/or of two complete different situations; something that holds a person back, or something in a room that that is avoided. I am assuming there is a slight confusion with the term, “the elephant in the room” or perhaps, “a white elephant” which have very different connotations to each other and to pink elephants.

The question is also framed in the past tense, presumably because this question is being asked at the end of a change work event. It’s thus a loaded question that of course presupposes that this “pink elephant” is no longer present, yet the chances are very high that there was no such pink elephant in the first place – being held back and avoidance are only two of a very wide range of possibilities in which people experience difficulties.

Such presupposition in the context of the end of a change work event and on camera for the purposes of testimonial provide a significant peer pressure to which to conform.

I have been in a similar situation. In front of a group of people a change worker asked me, “So how was the problem that you used to have when you thought about it now?” I think he was trying to be clever. I said I didn’t feel any different and nothing had changed. However, unfazed, the change worker got clever and replied, “That wasn’t what i asked you” and repeated the question with an amused tone and a churlish grin, much to the amusement of the people in attendance. Needless to say I didn’t return to the session following the break. These days, I’d probably just punch the guy.

I understand however that other people are probably far nicer than I am and possess a far greater tolerance towards their fellow man. I think the other thing is that people want to fit in and belong, and as a result such peer pressure can be normal for them. Simply put, they are more socialised than I.

Anyway, enough about that. Onto the reply:

“I, in many respects I felt there was something holding me back and I didn’t know what the pink elephant was, and I am just the queen of…let me rephrase that, I used to be the queen of procrastination…“

Midway the client remembered the past tense frame of the question. Two things are revealed here.

1. there is, or was, some thing that held her back. She respected whatever this “thing” many times and in many ways. I’ll rephrase that statement: “the thing that held her back is something she held in respect.” Ok, that sentence isn’t actually true, but with that in mind now reread what she said: “I, in many respects I felt there was something holding me back”

There is a significant relationship between her method of respecting (there are many respects) and the behaviour of the “thing” that held her back. The thing that was/is respected is framed by the coach as a “pink elephant” (i.e. it has been framed disrespectfully).

2. “I am the queen of [procrastination].” The use of queen here is significant. She isn’t a princess, a knight, peasant or serf, she is THE queen. Basically, she might not do very very much, but she is very important. She changes the tense of being the queen now to the past tense, but I don’t believe her. This is just her being nice and maintaining congruency with the original question. This is her….being respectful!

So what we have here is a brilliant demonstration of how she procrastinates. But I feel this might require a little bit of explanation as to my reasoning. So, please bear with me.

One aspect of procrastination is that procrastinators lie to themselves and make decisions that aren’t really all that decisive. So they say, “I’ll do it tomorrow” which they won’t of course but at the moment they say it, they actually believe that lie. Why do they do this? Well, because it isn’t a nice thing to call someone, anyone, not even yourself, a liar. In many situations it is nicer, better socially and more polite to go along with the lie. This is what nice people do.

If the coach had asked me the question about the pink elephant, I’d have launched into an explanation of why that is such a stupid question and I’d have refused to answer it. This is why I’m seen as a difficult dinner guest and am regarded at parties as the mildly autistic weirdo who is best avoided.

As a result I am fascinated when I see people playing along with something that I personally regard as idiotic. I suspect that deep down people actually know that it’s idiotic, but social pressures and being a nice person prevent them from getting outside of it mentally.

What is apparent is this is very much an issue of identity – the Queen of Procrastination. She didn’t say, “I feel lazy” or, “I can’t be bothered.” It’s not just a kinaesthetic, it’s an entire identity. And an important one at that.

This would lead me to thinking about who is it that treats her like a queen? There is quite a high status element here, and how much of this status would be lost by not procrastinating? Sometimes getting down and dirty with the peasants and actually doing some work can lower one’s status, other times it may raise it.  It all depends on who is watching, or who is believed to be watching.

How much disrespect would need to be shown in order for things to get done? How would this affect the relationships between her and the “thing” that she respects that holds her back?

Which of course would lead me to the qualification of what respect and disrespect actually is for this person. How is she measuring this?

Now, I need to go back to the original question. The question phrases and frames these issues as a “pink elephant”. In Metaphors of Movement we would regard this as an anthropomorphication. An inanimate that is made animate. A concept that is given a life of its own.

In metaphor, such anthropomorphications tend to have a distinct taxonomy – they are both the thing represented and an organisation of people to whom the person has the same relationship as the thing (this is the basis of level 2 of the MoM training).

However the person speaking here didn’t accept that. She pivoted on pink elephant and switched the referential to herself. She made herself “Queen” – one might even read that as an unconscious warning to the questioner about minding her manners. (She might as well have said, “You might be the coach, but YOU WILL DO WELL TO REMEMBER THAT I’M THE FUCKING QUEEN!”)

So for our queen to render her “some thing” to a pink elephant would have been too disrespectful. She didn’t anthropomorphise it to a pink elephant because it is already anthropomorphised. The “some thing” that held her back is a some one.

It bothers me slightly that this some one is now placed into the past tense. This some one is already behind her, she/he has her back, is in the background, put her first and so on, and the attachment has clearly been strong enough that the effect is to have been “held back”.

It isn’t the person that holds her, it is the mechanism of the attachment that does it. Detachment is not necessary, nor is a departure from the other person, but these are issues that get into the sublime complexity of relational double binds and are outside of the scope of this blog post but to summarise, in a weird way, it is the procrastination that maintains the relationship status quo.

“…and i was just saying which instigated, ‘let me get the video’, me saying that i can now recognise the patterns of what i do so much more easily, so when i do start procrastinating i can go, ok i can see i am putting that off because of that, and understanding the process is really, really valuable because i can, yeah, i can kinda think through so what is stopping me, why am i, and normally i can unravel it to sort it out, to get past it. Yeah, you know, it’s a fabulous valuable tool.”

There are references here to things that are external to the video, so I will focus purely on, “…and understanding the process is really, really valuable because I can, yeah, I can kinda think through so what is stopping me, why am i, and normally i can unravel it to sort it out, to get past it.

What is immediately obvious to me here is the “Maybe Man” pattern – “…kinda think…” This is something that is common to procrastinators where decisions are rarely definitive, but more open to possibilities, things are “kind of, sort of, maybe, might do, possibly” shade of grey. Few things are black and white. “Maybe Men” are popular socially and easy to be around. They are easy going and notoriously unreliable. Unfortunately for a minority of “Maybe Men” popularity can be mistaken by them for importance and an undercurrent of self importance can be observed in many instances.

What is also revealed here are two coping strategies – “unravelling” and “getting past”.

Compare the differences between: Unravelling a knotted ball of string and getting past a minefield. They would involve profoundly different behavioural strategies.

My thinking would go, “Unravelling it to do what with it?” “Getting past it to go where?”

“Unravelling” and “getting past” are two very information dense structures that would keep any MoM coach busy for a week.

“So, yeah, perhaps I’m not throwing my pink elephant away and going “it’s gone” (its actually quite cute and tactile), but no, it’s all good, it’s a really valuable learning lesson, and the clean language, i find myself i always talk to myself, but i find myself using the clean language and that being very very very useful as well.”

I ought to mention at this point that there is nothing in this video clip that I recognise as Clean Language, so none of this critique should be taken as a suggestion otherwise. Nor am I suggesting or implying that anything that has gone on in the change work event is not useful or valid. I’m just working on what i see and here in the video clip.

But, that said… well, I suspect that she now has a different method to procrastinate by and a different set of distinction by which to define her procrastinatory experience.

Q: “So when talking to yourself and using clean language, what happens to pink elephants?”

I nearly choked on my tea when I heard this question. The “pink elephants” were a creation of the coach, not the client.

“Um, they get identified. yeah, and sometimes it is a case of, “Oh God, yeah, is that happening because of that”, and you kind of think, “where did that come from?” Yeah, you don’t realise why you are not doing something, or you are doing something, so perhaps these pink elephants that you never knew you had sort of get identified.”

Maybe Man appears in full in this last statement as well as a switch from “I” to “you”

Who identifies the pink elephants? It is not I [the client], it is you [the coach].

There is also the well disguised suggestion that the coach herself has pink elephants: “Yeah, you don’t realise why you are not doing something, or you are doing something, so perhaps these pink elephants that you never knew you had sort of get identified.”

This statement takes a similar form to, “I have a voice in my head that says you are an idiot.”

But we are so familiar with people talking “you” in place of “I” we tend to assume to they are talking about themselves, but they are not. “You” means “YOU”, the person to whom they are speaking.

1 thought on “Pink Elephants

  1. there is, of course, a pink elephant in the room. it’s unclear from the context whether it was something the “therapist” had in the room and was used to “embody” the “problem”, or whether the client brought it with her.
    one can see though, that the client clearly wants to continue to hold onto it closely…

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