The princess and the pea

Have you heard the fairy tale of the princess and the pea? Sleeping on a great pile of mattresses, the princess could not sleep because somewhere, deep down in the pile, there was a pea between two of the mattresses.

Such a small thing, deep down, having a big impact on behaviour at the top level. And so it is with our deepest fears.

I often have clients who consider important to try to understand where and when certain things first emerged in their lives. Consider a client who feels that how he views the world is as a result of the way his brother used to treat him when he was a kid. Although it can be powerful to reflect upon where things come from in most clients, digging back in the past can also be a source of more frustration and pain – it can be like wallowing in the thick, black mud of our sordid past and can be unhelpful in moving toward a more fulfilling life.

It really depends on the client, and I make no hard and fast rule about reviewing the past – as long as it helps the client move forward and is helpful for them in the present and the future.

This particular client no longer lives at that time, and he no longer lives in close proximity to his brother. However, he reports that this event or events of his youth are what impacts upon all of his actions in the present. For him, it is the ‘pea’ under his mattress.

I don’t like to break it to clients so bluntly as I will here – but I find that unhelpful. Can this client ever go back into the past and change what happened? No. They are therefore ‘stuck’ with this as an excuse for all of his maladaptive and unhelpful thoughts and feelings. Anything that comes up for this client, he can blame something that is both external to him, and impossible to change, as the cause (his brother in the past).


I wonder if you can focus on a memory, good or bad. Now try your hardest to completely erase that memory from your mind. When you are done, now go back and test if that memory is still there.

What happened?

Memories are not physical things. They do not exist as specific entities within your brain. You recreate the memory at will by initiating the firing of specific brain cells, in a specific sequence. A memory is an hallucination. So why are hallucinations so powerful on our behaviour in the present?

The pea under the mattress does not lie in your past. It lies somewhere else. It lies in the view of yourself, which you carry through time. It is in this present moment, and in every present moment that has been (your past). It will also be with you in every present moment that will come in future. But like memories which are created only in the present – so is your deepest view of yourself. You create this as a ‘filter’ on experience and stimuli in every moment. It exists only in the present, as everything else that happens in your brain.

That is a challenging idea, is it not? We are so conditioned to seeing time in a continuous fashion that we can deposit things along it like things stuffed into a row of lockers. We can go back and open a particular locker and examine this or that which lies within. In fact, that is not true. We cannot access the past and open any of those lockers. We can only hallucinate that we can.

There is really only one ‘locker’. On the front, in big bold letters, it says “NOW”. Any memories are created NOW. Every thought about the future is created NOW. Every feeling is created NOW. Imagination and memory are wonderful examples of hallucination. And like everything, if it is helpful, then keep and utilise it. If it is unhelpful to you living a full and rich life, then do something about it.

We have deep seated beliefs about ourselves. These can be positive or negative. It is these beliefs that are the pea under our mattress. They impact upon how we interact with the world.

Have you ever looked to see what ‘pea’ lies in your self belief that drives and impacts your behaviours? What did you learn when you found it?

Live well,