Mother Nature is a Patient and Persistent Teacher
The other day I was stoked to go out for a run in a new pair of running shoes that I really liked. As I jogged, I could feel signs of the shoes not quite fitting me, which I hadn’t wanted to face before because they were on sale. Upon getting back home and taking off the shoes, I found some good-sized blisters. I really wanted to like the new shoes, but these blisters were telling me something that I’m better off listening to.
Most of us go through our lives figuring out what sticks. Meaning, we test what makes a difference, what doesn’t, and what will catch up to us. For the most part, this is adaptive and useful. It is when one begins to try to manipulate, avoid or escape repercussions that can begin to cause some trouble in life. This is where the power and simplicity of wilderness therapy comes in to foster us getting back on track to paying attention to those messages.
There are countless ways to avoid consequences, whether it’s “running away”, ignoring, or “numbing out”. Consequences, for the most part, are fluid, which can contribute to a person wanting to manipulate or change them. They can be physical, for example, if you fall, you might break your arm, you might get some bruises, or perhaps you get up untouched. Consequences can be emotional, say, if you hurt someone you care about, you may feel guilty or remorseful. Substance use can temporarily numb those feelings. These ripple effects of our choices are simply messages that inform us: be careful, or, accordingly, don’t say things in the heat of anger.
Many young people who find themselves in wilderness therapy have become skilled at trying to manipulate or avoid or numb out these messages. Mother nature is a patient and persistent teacher to push us to hear such messages again. In wilderness therapy, there are less opportunities to disengage with the repercussions of our choices. There is space to come face to face with consequences, in the field and from home life, and how we can actively engage them. There is time for one to process ways to use them to help avoid slipping into the same patterns again. Our feelings are telling us something, and it is in our best interest to listen.
In the field, there is an abundance of natural consequences. If we don’t take the time to prepare our fire-making sets, we’ll likely spend more energy with less success making a fire. If one avoids their chore while being part of a group, the other group members will have to pick up the slack. Those group members can’t be avoided in day to day life. There are few opportunities to cheat, run away, or numb while in wilderness therapy. Mother nature demands paying attention to the cause and effect, and therapists support clients in examining their patterns. These patterns offer a powerful parallel process to clients’ home and social lives.
Additionally, imposed consequences, co-created with our skilled staff, tap into that parallel process and illustrate the choices available to young people to cultivate something different. The world is offering feedback, here much like at home, and it serves us better to listen and find ways to make the same mistake less comfortable to slip into again. Through this process, we can lean in and learn from the repercussions of our choices instead of trying to look the other way.
Learning and experiencing that there are repercussions of our choices—that we have to sleep in the bed we make—leads to lasting change. At both a practical and emotional level, living out our choices and their impact all the way through is paramount for making a different choice. Once this is internalized, meaning once one knows there are certain consequences that are crucial to pay attention to in terms of happiness, there is a higher likelihood to cultivate success in everyday life and in relationships.
So, despite really liking my new pair of running shoes, I’ll be happier facing that the blisters are telling me not to run in the shoes again. Connections, similar to the blisters and my shoes, are spelled out for clients during sessions with staff and summarized in weekly Milan groups. This support across treatment teams assists young people with facing the ripple effect of their choices. The wilderness provides a setting for them to better understand real-life cause and effect processes and invites healthier choices as they take steps in their life.