African violet photo
Photo by Alex Blăjan on Unsplash

An “African Violet” Life

Do you ever get discouraged, disappointed or frustrated throughout the day? Do you ever feel like your circumstances are much more negative than positive? Does your outlook seem more pessimistic than optimistic at times? If we are honest, most of us answer yes to these questions. We all experience down times, times in which our glass feels half empty rather than half full. Certainly God has given us a full range of emotions, both positive and negative. As Christians we are going to have times in which we feel depressed or anxious. But what can we do about it? One of the greatest things we can do to deal with our down times is to grow the African Violet part of our lives.

An African Violet Life

Milton Erickson, a now deceased psychiatrist, once went to the home of a friend in Milwaukee. His friend had a Christian aunt there who was very old and very wealthy. She lived in a huge Victorian home with incredible antiques, but his friend was concerned because she was depressed. And so Dr. Erickson went to the home at his friend’s request to visit this aunt.

The aunt took him on a tour of her entire home. All the blinds were closed. It was dark, gloomy, and depressing. The last place she took him to was a bright and cheery room full of gorgeous African Violet plants. It was in stark contrast to the rest of the house. Standing in the beautiful room Dr. Erickson felt compelled to speak, “I can see what your problem is,” he began.

“What do you mean?” said the old woman confused.

Looking deep into her eyes he simply stated, “You are not really a very good Christian.”

Completely insulted, the depressed woman finally managed to ask, “What do you mean?”

“Here you have this great gift for growing African violets,” Dr. Erickson gently explained, “and you keep it all to yourself. If I were you, I would get your church bulletin, and whenever someone had a birthday, or a death, or a wedding, or an anniversary, or whatever, I would take them one of your beautiful African Violet plants as a gift.”

After that advice, Dr. Erickson left and never spoke to the old woman again. As Dr. Erickson told this story to a group of students, he pulled out an old yellow Milwaukee newspaper article. The headline read: “African Violet Queen of Milwaukee Dies… Mourned by Thousands.” As usual, a curious student raised his hand and asked, “Why did you have her give out plants instead of treating her depression?” After a short pause, the wise teacher explained, “I decided that it would be easier to grow the African violet part of her life than to weed out the depression.”

Weeds or Flowers…What is Your Focus?

That aunt of Erickson’s friend took to heart what he said to her. After he left, she began growing violets throughout her home. More windows were opened and light filled the previously dark house. As her violets bloomed she would take them to people all over Milwaukee. She made friends and invited them over to see her violets. All of this led to her developing an incredible and fulfilling life of ministering to others.

What does this have to do with your negative emotions? Plenty. Whenever you start to experience down times, times in which you feel depressed or anxious, your focus can change. Instead of being able to focus on what is positive or on possible solutions, when we experience depression or anxiety, we tend to focus on our problems. That is the true danger of these negative types of emotions. If we do not deal with them in a constructive manner, our outlook can become negative or “problem-focused.” When this happens we run the risk of becoming consumed or overwhelmed by our own negativity or worse, feeling helpless and hopeless. One of the main reasons why people launch into clinical depression, panic attacks or have suicidal thoughts is when they feel an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and helplessness. Being problem-focused can certainly rob us of hope and can make us feel extremely helpless.

The key to guarding against having a negative outlook or a problem focus is to become “solution-focused.” Solution-focused people deal with their problems in the same manner that Dr. Erickson encouraged the African Violet Queen to do: Don’t try to weed out the negatives. Instead, grow the positive parts of your life. In other words, instead of focusing on your problems or the negative emotions, focus on your strengths or on possible solutions to your problems. In order to become “solution-focused” when you go through difficult times, try to remember what worked in the past. You are looking for exceptions to your problems or times when you didn’t feel negative. For example, if you are feeling depressed, think back to a time when you weren’t depressed. What was different about that time? What were you doing different? Notice that we didn’t ask: “What was someone else doing differently?” The reason is it’s probably easy to remember what others do that makes us happy. However, we want the focus to remain on what you can do for yourself. If you believe your happiness before was because of someone else then you run the risk of becoming dependent upon others. We want you to recognize what you were doing differently that made you happy. We want you to find the exceptions to your problems. We want you to become proactive in looking for things that used to cause personal satisfaction. If prayer, exercise or reading made you happy before, for example, start doing those things again. Keep in mind that when someone is depressed they usually stop doing things that gave them pleasure before. In order to guard against this fact, discover whatever you did before that was pleasurable and start doing those things again. Become solution focused instead of problem focused.

Remember, no matter how discouraged, disappointed or frustrated you may get throughout the day, no matter how negative or pessimistic your outlook on life is, you can change your focus. Instead of focusing on how miserable or negative life feels, turn your focus toward solutions. Instead of trying to weed out the negative parts of your life, commit to growing the African Violet parts of your life by becoming “solution-focused.” The best way to become solution-focused is to review your life for the exceptions to your problems. Remember back to when you felt happy or satisfied. Ask yourself what was different about that time. By doing this, God can use you to minister to many people. Perhaps you are the next African Violet Queen (of King) of Milwaukee.

Greg Smalley, PsyD
Website | + posts

Dr. Smalley previously served as the director of Marriage Ministries for The Center for Healthy Relationships. He is the author or co-author of twelve books concerning marriages and families, and currently serves as the executive director of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family.

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