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A world before groatie buckies

This June, I’ll have been in therapy on and off for 11 years. And last week, I found myself reminiscing with my therapist about what we each remembered of how I was doing life when we met in 2011. That morphed into a reflection on what seems to have changed, and what seems to have stayed the same. Because my experience has been that, however long you’re in therapy – whether it’s weeks, or months or years - while your life may change in all manner of ways, also you stay very much the same in the essentials.

That might sound pretty dispiriting; and if it does, then I’d like to introduce you to The Paradoxical Theory of Change. The PTC is an idea from Gestalt psychotherapy that suggests that the more you try to be what you’re not, the more stuck you get. Or conversely, the only way to change is to become more fully what you are. Paradoxical!

Becoming more fully what you are requires work, however, because many of us have a hard time knowing who and what we are. All kinds of influences – family, friends, education, society, dominant ideologies – mould us: tell us explicitly or implicitly who we should be; that how we are isn’t good enough, or acceptable, or loveable... and some of those people and institutions may have their own agenda for wanting us to be a certain way.

So a vital part of therapy has been finding out who and how I organically am. Engaging with what I find, because it’s me. Some of it’s gold, and can be celebrated. Some of it calls for grief and letting go. Some of it’s just pain puzzling.

And after 11 years still I keep stumbling across beliefs and attitudes I didn’t know I held. Another surfaced in the small hours of this morning. Yesterday I read a blog post by Orkney artist Clare Gee about a visit to the beach, and she said something that stuck with me. Clare’s talking about groatie buckies, a local specialty, small shells that get washed up on the beaches here, and traditionally bring the finder luck. She says: “These tiny cowrie shells are spread thinly enough to be tricky to find, but are not so rare that you give up looking.”

This throws me, because before I moved here, I’d been visiting for nearly 20 years; and I’ve known about groatie buckie hunting for most of that time. And I’ve never found one.

And now I think about it, I’m pretty sure I’ve never looked for them. Unlike Clare, I gave up before I started looking.

So, for one person they’re a delight, and a challenge, and just the right amount of tantalising… and for me, it seems I’ve shut my eyes, and chosen to live in a world where groatie buckies aren’t possible; are a kind of myth; may exist for other people, but not for me.

Am I surprised to realise this? No, not really… because, though it’s very specific, it’s also kind of familiar.

[I once made a friend laugh uproariously by commenting “there’s a shoe polish sponge in my desk drawer that I don’t remember putting there – but it seems like the kind of thing I would do”. My friend thought it was hilarious that I could simultaneously not-know myself (not remember) and also know myself pretty well (believe this was consistent with how I perceive myself). But this is what my newly-discovered groatie buckie belief feels like to me – the kind of thing I would believe.]

I am though, kind of sad to realise it. I’m pretty gutted to have gone all this time without such a lovely thing in my life: both the idea, and the thing itself; for our beliefs shape our reality, and if I don’t believe in groatie buckies, by definition I don’t find them.

Who is “me” in these observations? And who is she watching?

In that recent reminiscent conversation, my therapist introduced me to “Amanda” - that habitual, predictable creature, who in essence hasn’t changed much in the last 11 – or even the last 41! – years. She formed ideas about herself, and the world, and guidelines about how to interact with it when she was young; and those ideas are remarkably and wonderfully resilient. And sometimes limiting or even damaging…

What has changed however, is the slow but sure evolution of this companion observer-me, who can calmly and kindly witness Amanda’s doings and thinkings, and make more or less sense of them, and offer grounding and equilibrium. And this observer-me, she is vastly different. There must have been seeds of her there to get me to therapy in the first place, but at the time she was overwhelmed and silenced by Amanda’s strategies and defences for managing life.

Observer-me provides a counter-balance to Amanda, an opportunity to reflect, rather than react. She can be wise and intuitive and playful; she can be proud and confident and humble. She generally doesn’t need to control or punish Amanda, or anyone else. She can smile ruefully about the groatie buckies I’ve missed along the way, and decide to look for them in future too. She says you’re never too old to find your first groatie buckie.


If something in this post resonated for you, you may also like this poem by Robert Bly: One Source of Bad Information.

(Cowrie images licensed under creative commons, source:

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