In a recent article I discussed a number of models and analogies that help when I’m talking about mental health. One strategy which didn’t make it into that article is the box on the shelf. Fran and I find it a useful tool when handling things we’re concerned, frustrated, or anxious about. The idea is to imagine yourself putting your thoughts and worries into a box and setting the box on a shelf. It gives you a break from thinking about it all the time. When you’re ready, you can take the box down from the shelf, open it up and work on whatever it is that’s been worrying you. Once you’re done, you put it away again until next time.
What Goes in the Box?
The box can contain anything you’re hung up about. It might be an issue you’re having with a friend or family member. It might be a friendship or relationship breakup you’re struggling to navigate. It could be something at work that’s annoying or frustrating you. Whatever it is, you’ve likely been wrestling with it for some time. Maybe you can’t see a way through, or you’re waiting for something — or someone — to change so you can take the next step and move forward. The issue is playing away at the back of your mind almost all the time so that you find it difficult to focus on other things. That’s the time to put it in a box and set it aside for a while.
What Kind of Box?
It’s a virtual box and you get to decide what kind and size you find most appropriate. You might imagine it as an ornately carved wooden box, an enamelled tin box, a jewellery box, or treasure chest. You might equally image it as an antique suitcase or a battered cardboard box. Whatever feels right to you. Fran has occasionally used an actual box to help reinforce the imagery.
Opening the Box
When you’re ready to think about your issue, find some space and time where you can focus on it without being disturbed. Close your eyes and imagine yourself taking the box down from the shelf. Sit with the box in your lap. Remind yourself that there’s nothing to fear, then open the box and take out whatever it is you placed in there.
No matter how difficult or painful the issue may be, take a little time to observe it from the outside, as it were. Turn it over in your hands. How big is it? How heavy does it feel? Is it hot or cold? What shape and colour is it? Is it solid and rigid, or can you unfold or open it a little to examine it more closely? Sit with it as long as you feel comfortable, then return it to the box and close the lid. When you’re ready, return the box to the shelf.
You might not feel you’ve gained any new insights or made progress, but you’ve done enough for now. Give yourself permission to focus on other things for a while, knowing the box is safe on its shelf. You can take it down again at any time. As Fran expresses it, “You give it your attention. Then you put it away so you don’t have to obsess about it constantly.”
A Few Examples
You might be wondering how Fran and I use this in practice. It’s not something we use all the time but it came up in conversation recently. For several days we’d discussed a number of issues Fran was having. We seemed to be going round in circles without making much progress. I invited her to imagine herself turning the issues over in her hands, exploring them in whatever ways worked for her (for example, discussing them with me and other friends, or writing her thoughts down), then putting them back on the shelf for a time so she could focus on other things.
Fran thanked me, then asked if I was doing the same with some issues I’d been dealing with. I hadn’t, but I’ve used it since our conversation. I’ve also used it in the workplace. Just the other day I realised one particularly intractible technical issue was causing me to become frustrated and distracted. I messaged my co-workers: “I’m going to put this in a box on the shelf for now, because it’s really stressing me out!”
It can also bring a note of humour and relief to difficult situations. “You’re going to need a bigger shelf for all these boxes!” I joked with Fran on one occasion, reflecting how many things she had going on. Another time I observed, “Sometimes it’s not so much a case of putting the box on the shelf, as digging a hole, dropping the box in the hole, and setting the whole thing alight!”
Boxes Are Not Forever
The box on the shelf is a strategy for dealing with troublesome or persistent issues a little at a time, setting them aside in between so you can get on with other things. It’s not intended as a way of hiding things away or putting them off altogether. My friend Louise expressed it well. “I like the box idea as a way of dealing with things step-by-step,” she said. “As long as they’re not left in the box forever, never to be dealt with.” She shared a line she’s found helpful in the past: “Shelving things has never worked out for us!!”
When the issue’s been dealt with, there’s no further need for the box. You might imagine yourself emptying it of anything that remains inside so you can use it again. Or you might want to throw it out altogether. It’s up to you. As Fran puts it, “[o]ne way or another, there comes a time to let the box go.”
Other Box Models and Analogies
Writing this article has reminded me of other box models and analogies. Continuing the idea of putting troublesome memories and thoughts out of reach, fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson suggested the idea of a trauma box, “[b]ecause people can put their traumas into a box in their mind.”
Schrödinger’s Cat is a well-known thought experiment in the field of quantum mechanics, involving a cat and a box. Less well-known is Schrödinger’s fishing tackle box, an idea which helped me explore a number of issues relating to my family and childhood. Pandora’s box also springs to mind, although in its original form the container opened by Pandora was a large storage jar rather than a box. Whatever its nature, the item had been left in the keeping of Pandora’s husband. The story can be interpreted as a cautionary tale about the dangers of delving into things not meant for us. The 1995 movie Jumanji starring Robin Williams is play on the Pandora theme, albeit with a decidedly happier ending.
I’ve focused on putting troublesome thoughts, ideas, and issues into boxes, but sometimes we may choose to pack loving, caring feelings away, against a time when they may more readily be expressed. I’ll close with the opening lines of a poem written many years ago.
my love, come quickly,
For a while we must put aside desire
In a little box, labelled: “Passion. With care.
Do not open until we are both sure what to do with it”.
We must hide it underneath the bed with your copies of New Society and my hopes of tomorrow.
— From “Lovepoem (6)”
You’ll find that poem and many more in my anthology Collected Poems: 1977–1984.
Over to You
In this article I’ve explored the box on the shelf, a strategy Fran and I employ when processing difficult situations and feelings, especially those which seem intractable or likely to persist for some time. What strategies do you use when dealing with such feelings and situations? What works for you? We’d love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.
Photo by Erda Estremera at Unsplash.