Are You a Woman Feeling Stuck? Here's a Way to Fly


I came across an allegory that blew me away. A philosopher named Wittgenstein wrote about the perils of a fly in a jar. It goes like this: Wittgenstein said that his aim as a philosopher was ’to show the fly the way out of the bottle’. The fly flies into the bottle perhaps thinking it will find a morsel to eat, upon finding the futility at the bottom of the bottle he flings his body against the sides of the bottle  over and over in order to be free until, in utter exhaustion, he falls to the bottom of the bottle in complete despair. What did the fly forget? The one thing the fly forgot was, to look up!

How often do we forget to look up? We become mired in the roles we play and  we feel stuck, so stuck that we can’t see the way out, we simply don’t look up.

Sheila sits across from me, she appears forlorn.  There is a pallor to her face, she is plain looking and her speaking is without inflection, in fact, there is a sadness in her eyes. She looks like she needs someone to pluck her from her life and put her in a happy place and I wonder if I, as a therapist,  can quell the urge to save her. 

She says to me in utter confusion that she doesn’t know why she is unhappy.

“I don’t know why I’m here, I just feel sad, there is an empty feeling inside of me.” She looks as if she has given me a present, and I wonder if she wants me to fix it for her,  she doesn’t elaborate. I ask, “What made you come in now? what happened right before you decided to look for a therapist?”. She begins to tell me how great her life is. “I have four children all launched, they have partners and careers. I have grandchildren whom I love so much that I just can’t get enough of them. I would do anything for them. My husband has a lot of money so I could do whatever I want, if I knew what that was. I just don’t know what I want to do, and I don’t know why I’m so sad.”

 Sheila feels like she has a good life, good children, dutiful husband, the means whereby she doesn’t need to work, and she can travel as much as she likes. Sounds great but a very sad woman is still sitting across from me. As we unpack the flotsam and jetsam of her life a new picture emerges. She has a husband who is needy, he only takes, he is awkward and focused on golf and the next golf trip. Sheila’s children have been raised, they have left the home, she is dissatisfied with her marriage, and now,  she looks in the mirror and sees nothing, who is she.

“ What happens if you don't arrange for your parents trip what happens if they call a travel agent?  ‘They will continue to call me until I actually do it, they don't believe in doing things themselves, they believe that I should take care of them. It's always been that way.’ 

 I respond, ” Your father is a lawyer, and your mother runs a household, I'm confused, it seems like they should have some basic abilities”. She states in a matter- of- fact way,” Well, when we were children we had to be in our rooms by 7:00PM  all the way through the age 16. She (her mother) wanted no part of us. She didn't want to take care of us she wanted her own life she didn't want us to interfere with her. If my sister cried I was supposed to take care of her ,my mother was not going to come to the room .” I am shocked. “ It sounds like a huge responsibility for a child and it doesn't sound like you felt very taken care of. I guess that's where you started to learn how to nurture people other than yourself, you put yourself at the bottom of the list.” 

“So, you raised yourself, and your sister, and then you married someone who wanted to be babied.” She responded, “Wow, yes. He also expected me to go on trips with him and it didn't make a difference to him that we had four kids, I was supposed to drop everything and go with him golfing, mind you, I hate golf !”.

 I wonder how she gets her needs met, “What would happen if you would say “no”, I have other things to take care of, I need to take care of the kids, or just, I don't want to go? “. No response, a change of subject.

Sheila appears paralyzed without knowing how to break free, she doesn’t even know that she is paralyzed. Women have been told to be givers, it’s natural and can be quite beautiful. What is missing in that message is that women can give to themselves while they nurture others. Not only that, but a woman can just nurture herself if she likes. Thus, the mirror. They look into the mirror and if they aren’t giving then what do they see? Whom do they see? Who are you?  

Sheila has parents who are dependent and demanding, and they have been that way her whole life. She has a mentally ill sister. Her parents abdicated the job of parenthood and gave that role to Sheila, and she filled that role with poise being the good daughter that she is. She made sure her sister was dressed appropriately, that she ate healthful food, and that she had friends. When her sister got older Sheila made sure her sister was financially taken care of. 

Sheila is surrounded by takers and so, she has defined herself as a giver and if we take that away, what then is she?

There is a misnomer, empty nest syndrome refers more to the father than the mother. We were all led to believe, by the media primarily, that when our kids leave the house we fall apart. Studies show that fathers are more upset when the kids leave the house than their wives. Women are upset for a very short while and then say, “goodbye.”  No more laundry, no more short order cook, no more trying to make everyone happy, she IS alone and free, BUT... This freedom, this happiness eludes some women. Why wouldn’t a mother be at least relieved when she is no longer at the beck and call of her children? This is the trouble Sheila is finding herself in. She has wrapped herself up into everyone else but herself.

 The woman who never nurtured herself before the kids left home, the woman who most likely does not have a career she loves, she is perhaps not in a loving relationship, this woman is missing something in her life. She doesn’t know how to get that thing she doesn’t have a name for, she is confused because she doesn't know what it feels like. Maybe she never felt it, or maybe she can’t remember it, or maybe she has changed. She doesn’t know what she’s looking for.

 What she does know? She knows she is unhappy, and she doesn’t know who she is.

Sheila began to see her outline in the mirror. 

Sheila and I started chipping away at the neediness of others. She slowly negotiated boundaries with her sibling. She told her sister that they would speak on the phone on Mondays and Wednesdays at 7:00pm, and that they would have a special day together one Sunday a month. She painstakingly created  boundaries for herself with her parents. She said to them point blank that she was not responsible for her sister and that they were, they needed to step up. As Sheila only checked up on her sister twice a week, something wonderful happened. Sheila spent more meaningful time with her without the heaviness of the day to day strain. 

Sheila began to remember what she loved a long time ago.

Sheila loved ceramics. Sheila loved solitude, Sheila loved getting together with friends. Sheila loved walking in the park. She tried not to marry her happiness to the mood of her husbands’, if he was unhappy, she didn’t need to be, she could go about her day and find her own happiness. She tried to negotiate what she wanted to do with him and what she really didn’t like, and Sheila really really didn’t like golf!

Sheila began to emerge and began to realize that she had the ability to create her own life, and the same way she shrank herself to help others by following an old trajectory, one that said what she wanted didn’t count,  she could detour and eke out a new path.

So the fly. We fly around and bang against the walls of the jar because we feel that what we want comes last or is unimportant and so, we never feel that things can change. We can’t imagine change. So simple, we need to look up, we need to see the possible.  We forgot to imagine that our lives can grow and that we are not stuck like the fly. There is an opening in the jar, waiting for us, WE CAN FLY!

This is how you might begin to see  your outline in the mirror. 

       4 Beginning Steps to Finding Yourself 

1. The first important step is to account for  how  

        much time you spend on yourself and how much time you   

        spend on others? Can you let go of anything?  

        No one is indispensable! 

 2.  Next, this is very hard, chip away at extra time consuming,              

        mindless activities that you don’t enjoy. An example of that  

        might be, asking your parent, child, or spouse, to Uber              

        wherever they want to go instead of being their  

        chauffeur. Another example; making lunch for the kids, after 

        a certain age they can do it for themselves. That is a 

        particular win-win situation. You free up some time and they 

        learn how to take care of themselves.

3.     While you are doing this, find joy in the every-day; did you   

        enjoy your coffee in the morning?  is the sun shining?  did 

        you love talking to your friend? Make a list of those items,

        nothing is too small or insignificant.

4.    Get to know yourself in a mindful way.You can do this by     

       identifying your feelings in the moment.  It’s a journey. These

       are all beginning steps.