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, 





By Patrick McCurry

I'm a psychotherapist based in Canary Wharf, London, and Eastbourne, UK.

2 replies on “Why fighting a problem can create a problem”

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