by Greg Bodin, MFT
Usually people seek out therapy because they feel stuck. Perhaps they are struggling with anxious feelings or thoughts, substance use issues, relationship challenges, or a variety of other issues where they perhaps have tried to make changes or cope with something painful but still feel like the result is problematic. They avoid social situations that make then feel anxious, they drink too much when they’ve had a bad day at work, and they keep getting in the same fights with their partners. They may even label themselves: I’ve always been anxious, I’m probably an alcoholic, I suck at relationships.
How do people get stuck? It starts with pain.
I don’t want to oversimplify or overgeneralize the mental health challenges people face, but I do notice a common thread in most of the clients I work with (and all people, actually). It usually starts with something painful. It might be something external like another person’s actions that triggers the pain or it could be something internal like a memory or negative thought. Here are a few examples:
John gets an invite to a party. Just reading the invitation triggers memories of awkward social situations and thoughts of how he feels “less than” and how he can’t think of a single thing to say when he’s with someone. Then the pain kicks in—feelings of anxiety and shame.
Tom’s work keeps piling up. He missed a deadline and had a weird interaction with his boss. With each passing hour at work he feels more and more painfully tense and overwhelmed.
It’s 11:00 pm on a Tuesday and Rick’s at home. His partner, Tim, is out with friends and was supposed to be home by now. Rick notices himself getting nervous and angry and thinking thoughts like “he always does this” “he clearly doesn’t love me” and “what if he’s in an accident.” Rick’s anxiety continues to build and his anger turns to rage as the minutes pass.
We try and respond to the pain.
We all try to manage pain in our lives—often we try to get rid of it, escape it, or avoid it. This usually isn’t helpful and it mostly doesn’t work.
John already knows he’s not going to the party. He cannot deal with what it brings up and the best way to address it is to avoid it. This sucks though, because he keeps feeling more and more isolated.
Tom is so over his job. He is exhausted and frustrated and overwhelmed. He skips the gym and heads home where he opens a bottle of wine. Two glasses in and work seems more distant, three glasses and he’s feeling much better about things. The next morning Tom wakes up to an empty bottle and that sad feeling of being stuck and not sure how to change things.
Tim walks in and Rick blows up. Rick is so angry and scared and wants Tim to know it. They’ve had this fight so many times that it’s almost like its rehearsed. After the blow up Rick feels deeply sad and distant from Tim.
What happens when pain rules behavior?
John, Tom, and Rick all have different challenges but there is a common theme. They are all feeling pain and all are making choices in response to it.
John chooses to skip a party to avoid pain.
Tom chooses to drink to escape pain.
Rick chooses to blow up at his partner to stop the pain.
The challenge with this is that these behaviors aren’t getting these guys any closer to the kind of life that they want.
John very much wants to be social and stay connected to friends.
Tom would like to have something more interesting and fulfilling than a bottle of wine on a Tuesday night.
Rick really wants to have a better relationship with his partner.
Mental health = psychological flexibility
So what is a way forward? How do you get unstuck? Ultimately it is when pain does not dictate our behavior. Instead, we remain flexible in our responses and choose behaviors that actually matter to us. This doesn’t mean that the pain goes away, in fact, it means we have to experience it! But the flexibility of responding in a way that is meaningful gets us a little unstuck and moving in the direction of how we want our lives to go. What might this look like?
John decides that it is important for him to go to the party. To do this he is going to have to be willing to be uncomfortable. He decides that he’s willing to feel socially awkward for an hour and after that he can leave if he wants. He also decides that he’s going to try something new and have a couple of ideas of small talk topics that he can use. This is all new to him but he decides to be flexible and give it a try.
Tom wants more than a drunk night at home when he has a stressful day. He thinks about what might help—just not drinking isn’t really going to do it. He knows that going to the gym helps him deal with feeling lousy but decides that he also needs to do something that doesn’t feel like escape. He decides to try volunteering one night during the week. As he becomes more flexible in his responses to work stress he notices that he is able to have the difficult feelings and that they eventually subside. Work is still stressful but one night a week he feels like he does something meaningful and he feels better about himself the next day.
Rick knows that it is OK to feel upset when his partner doesn’t check in that he’s running late but his way of dealing with the difficult feelings isn’t helping him or his relationship. Becoming more flexible in his response means that he needs to begin to take care of himself when he gets upset rather than just exploding at Tim and that he also needs to communicate his needs to Tim when he feels calmer. Rick approaches Tim about this a couple of days later and has a calm discussion about why this bothers him. The conversation goes a lot better than last time.
Note the pattern here—in all three instances, the pain was still there (John is still feeling awkward, Tom is still overwhelmed and Rick is still angry with Tim) but each person chose a behavior that felt more meaningful and useful and that wasn’t an attempt to avoid or escape pain. Responding flexibly to the pain isn’t a magic bullet, but it does leave each guy feeling a little more like they are living the life they want.
John feels like he is more social and meeting people.
Tom has a new tool for dealing with work stress.
Rick actually had a calm discussion with Tim and feels a little closer to him.
So how does this work in real life?
John, Tom, and Rick are just examples to show how the pattern of pain avoidance leads to stuck and rigid behaviors that aren’t helpful. Think about areas where painful feelings, thoughts and experiences dictate your behavior in ways that you don’t like. Is there a way you can be slightly more flexible and choose something different? Something that feels more meaningful or important to you? Sometimes therapy can be helpful especially if you find the pain overwhelming or aren’t sure what more flexible behaviors might look like or need to build skills to change your behaviors. Ultimately, even small changes in your behavior can lead to a life that feels richer and fuller.