“How many umbrellas do you have in your car?,” a client asked me recently. Seems like a random question, but this turned into a poignant discussion that sparked a lot of curiosity on my part. How are umbrellas related to control and even our outlook on life? In many ways!

Let’s discuss.

So, how many umbrellas do you have in your car? Your home? Where did these umbrellas come from? Did you buy them, or did you randomly acquire them from absent-minded houseguests or a healthy lost and found box at your place of employment?

If you purchased your umbrellas, what do they look like? Are they plain, unassuming, regular-old-nothing-fancy umbrellas? Or are they colorful and vibrant, making a statement about the way you relate to the world?

This question from my client got me to thinking that our relationship to umbrellas is a lot like our relationship to the way we move through the world.

Let’s first address how many umbrellas we own. So…how many? C’mon, fess up.

I admit to having a multitude of umbrellas that I’ve collected over the years from various jobs or having them left at my house. Also, I’ve got some “historic” umbrellas from the combination of both my belongings and my husband’s. In my car, I have one umbrella. Why?

I never stopped to think about it until I was asked. I have one in my car because I believe that’s all I need. If I dig a little bit deeper into why I’ve made this choice, I think about my relationship to when it rains. When I think about how I feel about when it rains, I instantly think about my hair.

(Men, I don’t know if you can relate to this, but I know my fellow females are all like, YES!)

If it’s raining and I want to arrive at my destination looking like I did when I left my house, then an umbrella is required. This then leads me to consider my desire to control the way I am perceived by others. How do I want to be seen?

Well, like many of us, I want to seem like I have my sh*t together. I want to be perceived as the kind of person who doesn’t get caught in the rain — prepared for all occasions because that’s what people who have their sh*t together do — they have umbrellas. They are prepared for anything, especially rain. Now that leads us to control…

Ah, control. A topic I find entering nearly all of my therapy sessions (with me as the therapist as well as with me as the client.)

The past several years of my life have been a tutorial in how to let go of control.

In 2012, I started working for Presence Behavioral Health’s Professionals Program where I was a therapist for high-functioning, professional patients who had become addicted to drugs or alcohol.

If you’re familiar with addiction, you’re probably familiar with the 12-steps, #1 being “we admitted we were powerless over <insert drug of choice> — that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Admitting powerlessness is a very tall order, particularly for folks who are used to success due to their ability to manage their lives and the lives of those around them. I wanted to investigate for myself what it might feel and look like to surrender some semblance of control and trust in something larger than me.

Letting go of control was a humongous undertaking for me. I had historically thought of myself as an anxious person, but in reality, it was an intense desire to control everything that had my anxiety turned up to 11.

If I felt like I could control the who/what/where/when around me, then surely I wouldn’t feel the horrendous anxiety that tensed my muscles, made my stomach churn, and at times took my breath away. But none of my tactics actually seemed to work.

Though I would exert all of the control I could possibly muster, there was always some surprise lurking around the corner that I hadn’t prepared for that would send me into a tizzy. A canceled appointment, a forgotten item from the grocery, an incorrect take-out order…all life situations that had the potential to ruin my day. Yes, this letting go thing would be a humongous task.

The first book I stumbled on to that changed my life in this regard was Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach. I can’t possibly summarize the jewels of knowledge that pour from this book, but I’ll leave you with some nuggets and you can check it out for yourself.

She says, “We lay the foundation of Radical Acceptance by recognizing when we are caught in the habit of judging, resisting, and grasping and how we constantly try to control our levels of pain and pleasure…As we let go of our stories of what is wrong with us, we begin to touch what is actually happening with a clear and kind attention. We release our plans or fantasies and arrive open-handed in the experience of this moment.” (pg. 30)

Let me relate this to my experience with the umbrellas, or rather, the deeper desire to control the way I am perceived: radical acceptance means that people are going to see me the way they see me regardless of whether I’ve got an umbrella or not.

Radical acceptance is not a magical gift that is left by a unicorn under your pillow. It is a practice. It’s something we have to open ourselves to on a daily, sometimes minute-to-minute basis. How would your relationships change if you let radical acceptance color your connections?

Back to umbrellas: Now, I only have one umbrella in my car because I assume that’s all I need to get from point A to point B with my coiffure in tact. What about those of us who readily admit to a multitude of umbrellas in their car? What up with that?

My client, from whom this initial question stemmed, might share reasons such as this:

  • What if one breaks and I need another?
  • What if I’m with a friend and they also need an umbrella?
  • What if there’s someone I don’t know without an umbrella and I want to help him/her?
  • What if one of the umbrellas rolls under the seat and I can’t reach it?
  • And the list might very well continue…

This is where we shift into the examination of the isms: optimism and pessimism.

What makes one a pessimist or an optimist?

The authors of Neuowrite have this definition:

If you generally expect negative outcomes in your future you are a pessimist, whereas if you generally expect positive outcomes in your future you are an optimist. The past is a bit more complicated: if you think your failures are due to your own inner failings which are stable across time (you deserved to fail) and you think your successes are due to external factors that are unstable (you got lucky) then you are a pessimist. If instead, you believe your failures were due to external factors that are unstable (you got unlucky) and you believe your successes were due to stable inner virtues (you deserved to succeed) then you are an optimist.

Where the umbrellas come into play here is the underlying reasons for which one might justify having a multitude of umbrellas: do I assume I will have what I need, or that I need to be prepared for the worst?

Neuwrite says that our predisposition to optimism/pessimism is predetermined by genetics, but is highly influenced by our environment. Low socio-economic status in conjunction with negative life events has the greatest predictor of one becoming a pessimist. They also say that though pessimists have a potentially more realistic view of the world, they also tend to suffer negative health and mental health consequences and often live shorter lives than their optimistic counterparts.

Huh, well that sucks. Guess what the antidote is? Therapy and mindfulness practices are some of the most effective ways to deal with pessimism. #timetomeditate

One secret that I feel like therapists don’t always tell you is that therapy isn’t necessarily about feeling better. Therapy is about changing the underlying thought patterns that are keeping you trapped in the loop of feeling awful. (I say this because I have seen many a pessimist who would counter that they’ve tried therapy for years and haven’t felt any better. I would guess that they haven’t been willing to let go of some maladaptive ways of thinking for one reason or another, but maybe that’s just the optimist in me).

A final note on umbrellas and their relation to mental health connects us to the lovely Rihanna and the video posted above. One nonnegotiable need we all have as humans is connection and the desire to belong. And Miss Ri Ri is open and willing to share her umbrella, thus creating a space for connection. Do we need to have our own umbrella if we’ve always got someone in our lives who is willing to share? I’ve got a big, rainbow umbrella I’d be willing to hold over your head next time it rains.