Why fighting a problem can create a problem



2356337414_0aaa79313d_oMost of you will have seen that famous film scene, where a character is trapped up to the waist in quicksand but sinks even deeper the more he struggles. The best option in such circumstances is to relax because then your body, which is less dense than quicksand, will float.

In therapy, too, the more a client fights their “problem” the harder it can be to change.

Psychologist Steven Hayes has written powerfully about this process, in his paper Hello darkness: Discovering our values by confronting our fears. In what seems like a counterintuitive approach, Hayes points out that genuine change or healing only comes from moving towards our fears or what is troubling us.

It is about changing our relationship to what is troubling us. Instead of trying to eradicate uncomfortable thoughts or feelings we can learn to allow them to be present. By consciously choosing to allow them to be present they somehow become less powerful.

In this way we don’t fall into the trap of “experiential avoidance”, which is when we avoid what we are experiencing in the present moment because it is uncomfortable.

Hayes cites sadness as an example: “Instead of getting rid of sadness, patients learn to detect how sadness feels in their body, how it tugs at their behaviour, how it ebbs and flows, and begin to feel at a deep level that they can carry sorrow with them while still living the life they want. “

In therapy the therapist or counselling can help the client begin to change their relationship with what is troubling them. The client can explore what may be underlying difficult feelings or behaviour, and give these underlying causes attention also.

Usually we adopt a problem-solving approach in our lives, so if our car breaks down we get it fixed. In a way this is the approach of cognitive behavioural therapy, which attempts to change ‘negative’ thoughts and feelings into ‘positive’ ones. But when it comes to deeper emotional and psychological troubles we need a different, more subtle response.

It is only by genuinely accepting where we are right now, almost relaxing into it as in the quicksand, that we can create the conditions for change to take place.

I have found that in the moments when I am able to feel difficult feelings without trying to escape from them through distractions or addictions I feel a lot better about myself afterwards.

I think framing this response as a choice can be helpful, as in, “I am choosing to experience this sadness/emptiness/anxiety right now, in order to feel stronger, more whole and have higher self-esteem.”

By framing it as a choice we can feel more empowered and not simply a victim of our difficult feelings.

Photo courtesy of Cecilia Espinoza, Creative Commons, Flickr, 





The puer aeternus, or ‘Peter Pan Syndrome’

4885731902_9e2a428240_oDo you ever come across men who have an engaging charm, spontaneity and creativity but who somehow seem emotionally very young and perhaps ungrounded?

Chances are you are thinking of the puer aeternus* archetype, also known as the ‘Peter Pan syndrome’. Puer aeternus means ‘eternal boy’ in Latin and the name was coined by psychologist Carl Jung to describe an archetype, i.e. a kind of symbol of a certain type of behaviour or energy that is part of all our psyches.

These kind of men can drive women mad, as they usually have a very attractive energy and are fun to be with. Yet, deep down, they’re not really interested in a mature relationship with a woman.

Peter Pan is a great example of the puer (pronounced ‘poo-air’), as he is a boy who never grows up but who just wants to fly, to have fun. An obvious example of the puer is Michael Jackson, who was also besotted with the Peter Pan story.

The puer is a free spirit who lives for the moment. He represents youth, passion, idealism, beauty and creativity.   These are all positive qualities. The danger is when a man becomes so identified with this archetype, this energy, that he neglects other values that do not fit in with the puer. These other values include taking responsibility, sticking at things, and self-discipline.

The negative side of the puer is that he can be rather grandiose or self-centered an, shy away from the more difficult or mundane tasks of life. He often also struggles in relationships with women, enjoying the early excitement and passion but unable to stick with the demands of a committed relationship once the honeymoon period is over.

In his book Iron John, author Robert Bly describes these men as ‘flying boys’: “Peter Pan belongs among the flyers, as do most ashram habitués, devotees of ‘higher consciousness’…and some Don Juans who want such heavenly perfection in women that they are obliged to leave each one in whom they fail to find the missing pearl.”

There is an argument that the puer is the product of an overprotective and domineering mother, and an absent or passive father. Hence, while he may want to seduce or is ‘in love with being in love’, he struggles with making an authentic, deeper connection with a woman.

While the puer may appear happy and carefree, there is a depression in his soul. In fact his soaring is a compensation for the emptiness he is only dimly aware of.

Bly says that the task for the puer is to descend, in psychological terms, to experience hardship of some kind. This could mean experiencing major loss of some kind, such as a job, a bereavement, an illness, a divorce. Experiencing the descent enables the puer to become aware of the painful feelings that have always been there but not previously acknowledged. In working through the hardship, knuckling down to life’s blows where previously he would have flown away, the puer begins to grow up.

Accepting the parts of him that previously he ran away from – the shame, the sadness, the feelings of not being good enough – is another way of saying that the puer begins to discover his own ‘shadow’. This was the term Jung used to describe that part of us that we don’t like and therefore deny.

This also seems to be one of the lessons of Peter Pan, as Peter loses his shadow when he flies into the house of the Darling family. He becomes afraid of it because it is so big and seems to have a life of his own. He only gets it back when Wendy sews it back on.

Like Peter, puers need to acknowledge their shadow shelf, the part of themselves that they have rejected, in order to mature and truly be in relationship with a woman.