When I ask people what’s made them seek therapy, by far the most common answer is “I’m stuck.” Few people come when their problems start; most people try try try to solve them themselves, but are not able to. And like a vehicle sinking into mud with tires madly spinning, many people dealing with suffering increase the very thing they’re doing that’s contributing to their suffering. There are various ideas and explanations for stuck-ness, and I thought I’d write about a few of them.
STRUGGLING WITH SUFFERING Many people don’t like their emotions and fight against acknowledging, feeling, or communicating them to others. A therapy called ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) suggests that this process - fighting against your own thoughts and feelings - is precisely what creates and increases anxiety and depression. Resisting emotional pain only leads to an increase in emotional pain, sometimes because individuals behave in ways that make things worse: e.g. drinking, drug use, aggression, avoidance etc.
ACT sees “stuck-ness” as a lack of acceptance, and calls the process “the struggle switch”. The solution ACT proposes is mindful awareness of your adverse feelings/thoughts, and acceptance of those feelings, neither fighting against nor following through with expressing those feelings/thoughts. As a therapist, I see quite a number of my clients benefiting from this approach - learning to create internal psychological distance from painful or scary thoughts or feelings, and shifting behaviors towards those that represent their deepest values.
WILFULNESS Reality exerts pressures and makes demand on us; people, institutions, acts-of-God force responses from us. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) uses the words “willing” and “willful” to describe the attitude a person has towards these pressures. “Willing means rolling with the punches and accepting reality. This can mean grieving losses, adapting within ourselves (changing ideas) or working to create change in our environment/relationship. “Willful” means refusing to acknowledge reality, and continuing with the same ineffective responses, despite knowing the responses aren’t working.
It’s my feeling that for a therapist to call someone willful is often just a judgment (especially if the therapist is a bit lazy). Calling a person willful isn’t an explanation, but a confrontation. It can be useful because it highlights a person’s refusal to adapt, and amplifies the negative consequences of a person’s refusal to adapt. One helpful way to see willfulness is to trace it as a historical pattern - is it rooted in trauma? Terrible childhood experiences? Neglect? Was willfulness modeled by a parent? There are, I believe, almost always reasons for willfulness.
STOICISM Some folks value autonomy and self-sufficiency to the extent that they are loath to ask for help. This is truer for men, but it isn’t exclusive to the male gender. For these individuals, to need help is to be weak. Therefore, they are more prone to remain stuck, and to continue to do whatever they’re doing that isn’t working. Their affiliation is to their value - which is generally linked to their family, and their culture. Working with stoic folks, I often find myself talking about the difference between Western cultures, and tribal cultures where strength is understood differently, and autonomy is not worshipped the way it is here. Ours is a lonely culture, becoming lonelier and less trusting - and that trend is making it harder for people to ask for and find help.
I hope you found this interesting. There are other ideas I thought of writing about: • Self-Invalidation/Neglect • Traumatic Re-enactment/Re-experiencing • Attachment Issues • The emotion of Shame
If you have thoughts, comments, or questions for me, please write to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org Thanks! Jay