The Parable of the Shopping Cart

Have you ever gone to a supermarket, gotten a shopping cart, started to push it up the aisle, and realized that it tended to pull to the right (or left)? It’s like a car that needs the alignment done. At first you don’t think much about it. You just compensate by pushing it a little more to the left (or right) to make it go straight. But if you speed up to get down an aisle where you don’t need anything, you have to push more forcefully to keep it going straight. If you load the cart with a lot of groceries, as it starts to get heavier, you have to push harder to keep it going straight. If you try to go fast while it’s heavily loaded, then you have to push really hard to keep it going straight. It’s easier to just slow down. Of course with a car, you have motivation to get the alignment done– you don’t want to wear out your tires. That’s where the metaphor turns a psychotherapist into the equivalent of your mechanic, but I’m sticking with the shopping cart for now.

Can you relate the shopping cart image to other areas of your life? I’ll bet you can. My clinical experience is that we all have certain tendencies as to how we react to various stressors in life. Specifically, some people will become more anxious when stressed, and some will become more depressed. Some of us may experience both, depending on the stressor. When the shopping cart of my life is too heavily loaded, or going to fast– or both– I have to push harder all the time to keep it going straight.

If we go back 200+ years, the idea that people had basic personality types was well established. There were supposedly four humors, the predominance of one or the other leading to the four temperaments. In more recent times, theories of personality have been reworked in various ways, but most people would agree that we all have characteristic ways of being in the world. So, in shopping cart language, some of us are more likely to pull to the left, some of us to the right when we get overloaded or in a hurry.

For people in therapy, it’s a reminder to take care of ourselves without becoming self-victimizing through “should” statements about how we wish we could perform. To give a physical example, if my doctor has told me that I have a back problem & will aggravate it if I lift more than a certain amount of weight, I’d best follow the advice and not try any heavy lifting. Unfortunately, psychological conditions are not always as clear-cut, and family, friends, and employers are not always understanding.  I’ve heard from so many clients whose friends and family have told them to “Just snap out of it” or “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” or equivalent, unable or unwilling to accept that a mental disorder can impose limitations on what a person can do. Psychological problems can be disabling, and not taking care of ourselves because the problem is invisible can only make things worse. That’s why it’s good to have some kind of self-care plan already in mind, before things start to go sideways. That’s why we want to take time to think about what can make us feel good, what can get us through a hard time, and have a self-care plan in advance. It’s good to be able to have someone to talk to, but it has to be someone who understands. Otherwise, I may be better off binge watching stand-up comedy on Netflix. I also have to be able to say “no” to people,  especially during the holidays. I may not be able– emotionally– to attend one more holiday gathering, pick up one more kid in the car pool, or bring an additional dish to the potluck. When I feel the cart start to pull, I slow down– before I crash into the shelves. And I don’t overload it, either.

image from:

About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
This entry was posted in behavioral health, choices, Distress tolerance, mental health and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Parable of the Shopping Cart

  1. Swiss Schall-Hart says:

    Great post!
    Have you ever had someone else’s shopping cart hit the back of your ankle?

    • jamesmatter says:

      That sounds like more of a relationship issue! But it fits the metaphor– when the shopping cart that is my life is overloaded and going too fast, I’m more likely to get out of control and crash into other shoppers.

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