When life's ivy is out of control

Posted by Kenetha Stanton on

overgrown ivy
One bed that's overgrown with ivy


The people who owned this house before I did were extraordinarily fond of ivy, and they used it in a significant portion of the landscaping.

It has its helpful benefits: it fills in space quickly, it smothers out most weeds, and it stays green all year. Without rigorous, constant control, however, these very benefits also make it prime candidate for attempted world domination.

The past few years, I've been in a continuous battle to keep it from taking over my driveway, patio spaces, sidewalks, and the ponds. But that hasn't been enough. In several places, it's gotten out of control enough that it's also smothering out tall decorative grasses, annuals, large landscape rocks, and even shrubs.

This last weekend I started removing it entirely from one of (the many) landscape beds where it has taken over to the point of causing major problems. It's a project that I am going to be working on for a while to come, I suspect, because it does not go easily.

But as I was tearing out strand after strand of ivy from the ground, the shrubs, the edging, and the bulbs that it had overgrown, I found myself thinking about how often I've faced this exact challenge in my inner life where I've let some form of "ivy" get out of control.

Recognizing inner ivy

Our inner ivy is the habits, patterns of relating, or habitual ways of reacting that have gotten out of control to the point where they are taking over our lives in unhealthy ways.

The challenge with recognizing these is that the habits or patterns often started out as helpful mechanisms to deal with some situation we were facing. And they may well have been very successful in dealing with that specific situation.

But as we continued to employ the same mechanism over and over and over, it took on a life of its own and may well now be dominating our lives to an unhealthy extent.

For example, I got hit with a whole string of small bad news surprises one day recently that left me feeling very discouraged. I immediately gravitated toward my usual coping mechanism of giving up on getting anything else done that day and burying myself in a book (to escape) instead.

This mechanism of dealing with disappointment and overwhelm can be a very helpful form of self-care that gives me some space to recover, but it becomes unhelpful when I resort to it too often.

The downside of burying myself in a book is that, although may make me feel better in the moment, it keeps me from making progress on the things that matter most. This lack of progress quickly leads to ever-increasing bouts of discouragement, overwhelm, and eventually depression. Without care, it quickly grows out of control to cause more harm than good.

There are, of course, many other forms of inner ivy that can range from the lenses we use to see the world, our habitual patterns of reacting to things, or the thoughts and stories we employ to explain our lives.

It's only through careful attention to the effects of these repeated patterns on our lives that we can notice when one has moved from helpful to smothering out other good things.

Dealing with inner ivy

Once we have recognized that there is some form of inner ivy gone wild, the challenge is figuring out how to deal with it.

One approach is to completely eliminate the unhelpful pattern in our lives, like I am doing with this one landscape bed. In some cases, complete eradication is the only successful approach to dealing with something out of control.

The other approach is to draw more aggressive boundaries around where this "ivy" is allowed to grow. This is the approach I'm using in some of my other beds where I'm keeping the ivy but trimming it back much more than I ever have before and keeping a closer watch to ensure that it doesn't exceed the limits I have set for it.

When it comes to my example of ignoring my to-do list to bury myself in a book whenever I am discouraged, I'm choosing the latter approach.

I'm not about to give up reading altogether because it really does bring so much joy to my life, but I am carefully watching to make sure it's not interfering with the things I need to accomplish. I've seen it spiral out of control on me until I crash and burn too many times before.

In the case of my recent discouraging day, I gave myself a half hour or so to mope over lunch, and then I got back to work on my list of things to do for the day. I didn't allow reading (a.k.a. avoiding) to take over the work that needed to be done, and I felt better for having made good progress by the end of the day.

Choosing the best approach to take will depend on the degree to which the ivy is still providing some benefit, the degree to which its doing harm, and the likelihood of being able to keep it within helpful boundaries.

In my front bed, it provides much more negative than positive and is more challenging to control, so it's getting eliminated there. In other beds, it is still providing more benefit than harm, as long as I keep it carefully within bounds, so I'm putting my effort into control instead of elimination.

Questions to ponder

What is one form of inner ivy in your life? What is one habit or pattern that is threatening to do more harm than good due to overuse?

What clues might help you recognize the appearance of this ivy in the moment it arises?

How will you choose to address this ivy when you see it?

Is it still providing enough benefit for it to be worth controlling instead of eliminating? If so, what does that look like?

Is it doing more harm than good? If so, what would it look like to eliminate this ivy completely from your life?


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