Hope I’m not dating myself here, but did you ever have one of those silly Chinese finger traps? You know, that gag gift that as a kid you got all your friends to get their fingers stuck in? If you’ve never seen one, the Chinese finger trap is a small woven bamboo tube that is meant to be a simple puzzle, but it’s actually a pretty amusing practical joke that’s entertaining for all involved. Even unsuspecting adults will put their index fingers in both ends of the tube and when they try to pull their fingers out, the bamboo constricts and traps their fingers. The more you try to pull or jerk your fingers out, the more the tube constricts. To loosen up the grip of the bamboo, you must gently push your fingers inward, which will create enough wiggle room and space for you to get your fingers out.
As a Licensed Professional Counselor, the Chinese Finger Trap is a helpful metaphor that I like to use with my clients who struggle with debilitating anxiety, as it’s a good illustration of how pushing against or resisting pain can actually aggravate the problem and make things worse. Obviously, the default response is typically to pull away from or avoid those things that are emotionally or physically painful for us, as we are trained in our society to dodge any negative feelings or emotions that come our way.
In the mental health field, one of the basic skills a counselor learns is how to teach clients to utilize their coping skills when they feel overwhelmed or distressed. Depressed? Go do something to distract yourself so you don’t have to think about your problems anymore! Anxious? Go find something that induces relaxation so you can calm yourself down! Angry? Walk away from the situation to get some air or “leave the situation” so you don’t do something you will regret!
According to Cal Banyan, one of the leading authorities in hypnotherapy and hypnosis, the “distract from the problem” treatment model actually points clients in the wrong direction for solving their problems. In Cal’s book, The Secret Language of Feelings, he describes this whole process as the Feel Bad/Distract cycle. In an effort to escape the occasional misery and suffering that comes with the human condition, we try to numb ourselves out or avoid any less-than-pleasurable feelings. When we become too dependent on these tactics to avoid experiencing painful feelings, we engage in what Cal calls “too much” behaviors….drinking too much, eating too much, working too much, watching endless hours of TV…or even sleeping too much!! These types of distractions only fuel the fire, unfortunately; feelings need to be acknowledged, accepted, processed, and then action needs to be taken to address the root of the problem. Utilizing coping skills and engaging in pleasurable activities is fine, and in fact recommended, but only AFTER you get to the core of what is causing the negative feelings!!
The important thing to remember here is that it’s a completely normal part of life to have feelings of sadness, anger, or loneliness, yet our culture teaches us that we should just distract, distract, distract until we reach the holy grail of happiness. True happiness is a bit of an elusive concept anyway, but chasing it by methods of distraction when life gets hard will only lead us further down that deep, dark hole of depression. It seems like such a simple concept, yet the field of therapy and self-help have exploded in recent years and depression and anxiety are STILL at an all-time high! Avoidance behaviors only worsen those feelings of guilt, anxiety, depression, and self-loathing, but most people are too busy trying to distract themselves to realize that.
While reading Cal’s book The Secret Language of Feelings, even as a mental health professional, I can appreciate Cal’s simple formula outlining the 1-2-3 self-coaching process for addressing all the major “negative” feelings and emotions. Cal teaches us that those nagging “bad” feelings inside of us are there to give us useful information about what we need, want, or desire. If you are angry, for instance, figure out what it is that is unfair and address that situation, rather than wallowing in your bitter frustration by self-medicating with a 12 pack of beer. If nothing can be done about the injustice, acknowledge your anger and frustration, allow yourself to feel that, and then move on. Life is too short to allow ourselves to be consumed by negativity and controlled by things out of our control.
As a counselor and hypnotherapist, my job is to give my clients the tools they need to take control of their lives and take positive action when needed. Feelings and emotions are normal and healthy, even the “bad” ones, and it’s ok to feel sad, disappointed, or angry sometimes. If we can learn to take a step back, assess the situation and why we are feeling that way, then we can begin to accept the feelings and do whatever is needed to resolve the core issue. By tackling our problems head-on, we can begin to free ourselves from our own self-imposed traps and create some breathing room to think through our best options.