What is a “Clean Slate Mindset”?
Couples Counseling – Matone Counseling & Testing – Clean Slate Mindset
By: Shirley A Miller, MS, LMFT
The first time I mulled on the idea of keeping a clean slate mindset was many years ago when I was a playground supervisor at my children’s elementary school. “Billy” was a 6th grade boy who was seemingly always in trouble. I’m ashamed to say I was not particularly fond of this angry, large-for-his age, trouble maker. But as days went by, I witnessed a dynamic that worked against Billy to keep him in the role where he’d been pigeon-holed. Sometimes he was set up to misbehave. Nearly always he was expected to make a bad choice. And I decided that I needed to attribute a clean slate to Billy every morning. Expecting him to make better choices and assuming that he was working from good intentions not only gave Billy a space to grow but grew my character as well.
Fast forward a few decades and I find myself talking with couples about employing a clean slate mindset toward each other. Most couples I meet are comprised of two wonderful individuals. The kind that I’d be happy to have as neighbors. Each is liked and respected by others. And usually, they love each other deeply. But they are frequently caught in a dynamic that they participated in developing automatic negative attributions toward each other. With each small unmet expectation or unreturned attempt to connect, a history of negative assumptions begins to grow. Along with the negative assumption comes a bit of resentment and a preemptive defense. Who among us hasn’t experienced a repetitive behavior from our partner and heard ourselves thinking (hopefully silently), “Here we go again…”
To be fair, most of us do have somewhat predictable repetitive habits or reactions that can be irksome. Some are small, some not quite so insignificant. So, history does indeed teach us that we can predict a likely negative outcome. But – here’s where the “Never say always” kind of adage comes into play. If I say, “You always do that”, my partner will instantaneously think of any exceptions rather than hear any validity to my complaint. And I will do the same when confronted with a similar accusation. On the other hand, if I am gracious enough to be aware of the times when my partner “does better”, I can focus more on my partner’s good qualities and on the efforts he puts into making our relationship better. This is especially true when a couple is working through issues in therapy. It’s important to remember that patterns will reemerge from time to time because we’re human and we’re sometimes stressed, tired, or preoccupied. If our response to our partner is, “Here we go again!”, we invalidate the positive steps taken, the good intentions, the loving desire to better connect. If, on the other hand, we face each situation with a “clean slate mindset”, we can validate that our partner usually operates out of good intentions. In fact, we can more easily look at our partners with empathy and wonder what they might be going through at that moment and how we might show up for them.
It’s an act of kindness to approach our partners (or children or parents or friends) with a “clean slate mindset”. It’s an act of goodwill to assume that they operate out of good intentions. And empathy tells us to look underneath what irks us to find how we can show up for someone that is not in their best moment. It’s an investment with dividends.
Written by Shirley A Miller, MS, LMFT