Sometimes you hear it said that the key to success is to be able to “adjust” to life’s conditions. I’m not sure I buy that.
To be sure, a reasonable amount of flexibility is a perfectly desirable personality trait. People who tend to be rigid and one-dimensional in their worldview tend to have difficulty relating to other people, switching tactics when what they’re doing does not work, and creating lives that are well-rounded and fulfilling. We live in a fluid world, therefore a certain amount of adjustment to conditions is necessary.
However, if we make “adjusting” to external circumstances our primary focus, we miss the opportunity to create, inside of us, a psychoemotional fortress that is impregnable regardless of what happens in the outside world.
It’s the creation of this fortress, in my view, that constitutes the primary work of therapy.
Our goal is to create a world inside of us that we carry with us— wherever we go, whatever happens to us, whatever relationships we get into, whatever job we happen to have. It is to create within us a world that supports us in feeling strong, safe, and stable, no matter where we go or what we do.
I call this world the “Memory Palace.”
I’ve written before about the power of imagination to shape us. When we’re kids, it’s just kind of assumed that we live a great deal of our time in an imaginative world of our own creation. It’s assumed we’re going to spend a big chunk of the day playing “make believe,” imagining ourselves to be other people, in other times, in other places. It’s a sound assumption— we do, in fact, do this when we’re kids.
What nobody tells us, though, is that we do this as adults, too.
Even the most well-balanced, psychologically healthy people live primarily in a world of their own creation. An inner world. A world we don’t really tell other people about, because, well, grown ups aren’t supposed to play make believe, now, are we?
But these interior worlds exist. We play them out and enhance them by watching movies and reading books and playing video games and writing fiction, but the real value to any of those things is the fact that they give us the opportunity to inhabit those interior worlds we’ve been creating inside of us for years.
You read that right. You’ve been working on creating your internal world for years. You already carry it wherever you go.
So is this world you’ve built over years, and that you carry with you wherever you go, an impregnable fortress, a palace where you can go to feel refreshed, recharged, encouraged, empowered, relaxed, and heroic?
Or is the world you carry around with you a prison, where you feel confined, powerless, inadequate, sad, and exhausted?
A lot of us haven’t devoted much attention to this interior world we’ve created, again, simply because we’ve been taught that it’s not our interior world that matters, it’s the exterior world of others’ demands and expectations and rules that is really important. We’ve been conditioned, in other words, to pay less attention to our own worlds, and more attention to others’ needs and wants— in fact, we’ve been led to believe that this is the “grown up” thing to do.
I’m here to tell you that it’s the creation and maintenance of this interior world that needs to be your number one priority. After all, YOU CARRY IT WHEREVER YOU GO.
If you don’t develop your interior world into a Memory Palace of your own design, you don’t stand a chance of being of much use to anybody else in this world, except to robotically serve their own needs and wants. And, believe me when I tell you, your self-esteem’s going to notice if your life has primary been reduced to being a tool for other peoples’ whims.
How do we design and create our own Memory Palace within, to be a place we can go for refuge and encouragement? It starts with visualization.
Yes, visualization. That very simple trick of imagining a place, a time, or a thing other than that which is right in front of you. There’s no magic or “woo” in visualization: in fact, it’s one of the most empirically validated forms of personal development work that has ever been researched. Visualization, as it turns out, taps into parts of our brains that we don’t get to access every day in the course of our daily grind. It activates emotional and behavioral centers in our brain that don’t tend to be activated very often.
We start by visualizing a physical setting for the Memory Palace.
In the book “Infinite Jest,” the character Coach Schtitt encourages his tennis pupils to imagine a world they can create for themselves within the base lines of the tennis court. In the book “Hannibal,” the character Dr. Lecter visualizes his Memory Palace as a literal palace, of Renaissance design. There are also innumerable examples in fiction and mythology of potential palaces and fortresses you can use— the Batcave, Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, King Arthur’s walled city of Camelot.
The important thing is that this physical setting, when you imagine it, makes you feel good. It makes you feel safe. It’s a place you can go, in periods of stress, to calm down and re-center yourself.
Research suggests that people who actually imagine a safe place, and who have this visualization tool ready for when stressful times arise, recover from stress much more quickly and are much more able to handle situations that arise than people who have not prepared themselves with this psychological refuge.
There are many ways for us to continue developing our Memory Palace; visualizing a physical setting for it is just the start. But start thinking about what your Memory Palace might look like. Even if if feels silly, superficial, or far-fetched, just try it out— it’s free, and you have literally nothing to lose.
You may even discover that you’ve inadvertently been lugging around a prison wherever you go.
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