I’m fairly certain that everyone experiences that strange need to overload every possible piece of arm space with plastic grocery store bag handles, in order to avoid that second trip to the car. Or, at least I do. I recall a time when, in this state, I was descended on by my near rabid-with-hunger roommate. The swish swish sounds of her happily rifling through the bags was interrupted minutes later with: “Whhhhhhat is THIS?!” As it turns out the offending item was a plastic squeezey bottle of organic supermarket brand ketchup.

Later, she regaled our company with an anecdote on the day I, *gasp* didn’t buy Heinz ketchup. I rolled my eyes, certain that the group would launch into a merciless anti-big box brand commentary, as my liberal thinking friends are prone to do. But they didn’t. Instead, everyone was similarly aghast, and extolling the virtues of Heinz over all other possible ketchup creators. Puzzled, I asked them why. “Because that’s what my mom always bought.”

No, this isn’t a lesson on the power of branding in marketing. What it is a discussion of is the nature of norms and change. In therapy, I am often told by clients that they feel stupid they didn’t identify a different way of thinking before. To which I always answer with a question: “Well, what kind of ketchup do you buy?” and they say “Heinz”*. You see, it’s like this. When you are grocery shopping, wheeling your cart down the ketchup aisle, most people pause for a moment, grab the Heinz, toss it into the cart and keep on going. They do this because that’s what they have always bought, always done and are used to. It’s easy and it’s simple.

We do the same things with our norms from childhood. We act, think and believe certain things just because they are familiar and they are just what we have always done. But have you ever stood back and looked at the sheer magnitude and variety of most grocery store ketchup sections nowadays? There are sixteen million different brands, squeeze bottles or glass, picnic packs or individuals pouches, chipotle, fire roasted tomato, organic, gluten-free, spicy or gourmet. There is a LOT of choice. But, the Heinz ketchup buyers, acting on their norm from mama’s kitchen, don’t even see this choice. It doesn’t even exist.

We don’t see the myriad of choice in the way we view or live life, either, until an event occurs which forces us to notice and then question our norm. For some people this is the result of a life event: an illness, a break-up, a fight with a friend or family member. It can be anything. For my clients, the catalyst is therapy. Therapy manufactures these moments of examination en masse, speeding up the process, pushing people toward a better, more adaptive perspective.

The catalyst in the ketchup aisle is a bit more simple. It’s often just one of those little yellow “On Sale” slips, hanging sideways off the display. When those are noticed, even some of the Heinz ketchup buyers will stop and look back at the wall. They’ll see for the first time that myriad of choice, and hone in on that lovely looking organic ketchup that is now $1.57 cheaper than their beloved Heinz. They’ll weigh these choices against each other, factoring in the fact that the Heinz does have 46 ml less, as well, and they will stand there in the aisle, vacillating between the two. Heinz? Organic. Heinz. Organic? Heinz… until they grab the organic, drop it in their cart and wheel away. In therapy, there is always this moment of two minds: the vacillation between the normative self and the newer, more adaptive perspective. And for a few subsequent strolls down the condiments aisle, even if our ketchup buyers like the organic stuff, they will pause and contemplate going back to their childhood Heinz. But, after a while, organic ketchup will be the new norm and there will be no more Heinz.

In the same way we leave the brands of our childhood behind, we can leave the less suitable perspectives and behaviours from our past experiences behind, to forge new and happier futures for ourselves.

And I should know, I used to buy the stuff myself.

– Andrea
*(Yes, I realize one day my clever analogy will be ruined by another organic non-Heinz buyer, but for now, it works)