Instead of tackling a problem ‘head on’, what if we just avoid it? This sounds counter-intuitive, but I don’t mean pretending the problem doesn’t exist; quite the contrary.
I have injured my rotator cuff — not something I was aware I had until I injured it, or rather until I went to a shiatsu practitioner to fix it. I am now more aware than I was of the sets of potential movements the different muscles and tendons in my arms enable, and I am also now aware of a principle for healing my physical injury that has a lot of resonance for my counselling work.
The idea is not to keep the arm still — in a splint, say — as Western medicine might suggest. This would promote rigidity and tension in the muscles all around the injured part, which is protected by an external apparatus, at the end of the day creating more pain and more problems. This is a question of pushing the tension and pain outwards a little further and hoping it dissipates a little on its way out.
Instead, I was advised to keep the arm moving as much as possible, in order to keep the majority of healthy muscles relaxed and pain-free, but not to do anything which provokes the actual painful spot. This means learning a bit about which muscles are responsible for which motions, then paying close ‘in the moment’ attention to the range of movement I have available, and stopping just before the pain.
This seems to me to be analogous to a gentle, non-invasive and effective way of dealing with non-physical problems. In fact, it brought explicitly into my awareness for the first time a way in which I sometimes intuitively work. I say sometimes because it is not always what is needed, and I wouldn’t recommend it as a ‘method’, but the analogy with my sore arm has provoked me into giving it some thought.
So, trying to make it explicit for the first time, it looks something like this.
The client has an area of extreme emotional pain, or a particularly painful thought pattern — an obsession, an addiction, or an addictive kind of problem such as self-harm or an eating disorder. Tackling this problem ‘head on’ can provoke resistance. This could be in the form of anger, emotional shut down (either in general or with the counsellor in particular), or a flare up of the problem itself, making it impossible to do anything but survive the symptoms. The resistance itself causes more pain, more problems which usually spiral out into other parts of life, and a delay in the healing of the original problem.
We might think of this as just ‘the process’ and it may continue, with the resistance being calmed, another attempt to ‘get at’ the problem being followed by another flare-up or shutdown, followed by calming, etc. I can’t help thinking, though, that this whole ‘process’ may sometimes, even often, be unnecessary.
What if we just avoid the problem? This sounds counter-intuitive: after all, we can easily avoid our problems without going to therapy, and by the time we arrive we’ve usually spent our lives doing just that. But I don’t mean pretending the problem doesn’t exist; quite the contrary.
As with the muscular problem, you can become extremely aware of exactly what the problem relates to in your life, what exactly it is that you are typically trying to do, when you get stopped by the pain or the problem. Often, you discover you can just not go there, and once we know exactly what the problem is, there’s no need to dive right into the pain and work out its meaning from the epicentre, or to remain fixated on what caused the original injury.
You can also pay as much attention as possible to all the ways in which you are living how you want to live. Even if it doesn’t seem as if there are too many of them, there’s always something, if only the fact that you’re still breathing — and paying proper attention to what is working in your life, moods, feelings and thinking patterns, is going to help your whole emotional and mental system work in a more relaxed way, rather than be predominantly on the defence against pain.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on December 4, 2017.
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