Twenty years of practicing therapy makes you aware of certain patterns. 

One is the series of questions I ask clients struggling with an intractable problem:

  1. What have you done to solve it?
  2. What was the result?
  3. What did you do then?

My clients’ answers, too, tend to follow a pattern:

  1. I did X.
  2. It didn’t work.
  3. I did X again.

Ruth’s son is failing academically. He hates school and refuses to study.  This scares Ruth, so she forces him to go to summer school.  Result: Ruth’s son is failing academically.

Jay’s wife distrusts him since his affair.  “Tell me the truth,” she begs.  Jay craves her trust, but hates criticism and conflict.  So he keeps secrets and hides his feelings.  Result: Jay’s wife distrusts him.

Sandy feels inadequate and unlovable.  So she tries to win love and approval by solving everyone else’s problems.  This encourages everyone to bring their problems to Sandy, which she finds overwhelming and exhausting.  Result: Sandy feels inadequate and unlovable.

Bert struggles with writer’s block.  Fearing failure, he finds ways to avoid working on his book.  The more he avoids writing, the larger his fear of failure looms.  Result: Bert struggles with writer’s block.

And so on.

Here’s the thing:

Whatever our goal may be, our deepest priority is usually emotional comfort.

It’s why we cling to our so-called comfort zones.

It’s also why we’d rather do something familiar and ineffective than something new that might actually work.

So, like snakes eating their own tails, we go around and around in the same circles.

“Insanity,” wrote Einstein, “is doing the same thing and expecting different results.”

Take a look at your most persistent problems.

You may find that you’re just a bit crazy.

9 responses to “Snakes

  • Cathy Taughinbaugh (@treatmenttalk)

    Great post – so true! Fear of the unknown can hold us back from trying something new. Thanks for the reminder to shake things up a bit.

    • Steve Hauptman

      Thanks, Cathy. Personally I think of it more as a fear of discomfort. And as I get older I notice an increasing unwillingness to tolerate that, even for the sake of worthwhile goals. Discomfort feels somehow unfair. And I have to really push myself past that prejudice to create something new.

  • Angie

    Yes, it is a scary moment to find yourself out of your comfort zone. I am one of those who does not like conflict or any kind of acrimony and yet i crave honesty!! I have an overly healthy sense of anything that i feel is unjustified and have a huge problem confronting it…. so i tend to sit a stew over things – making the problem that much worse.

    • Steve Hauptman

      Yeah, me too. And as a therapist I have to constantly fight the feeling that I’m not all that good at practicing what I preach.

      Then again, maybe that’s why it’s called practice.

  • Vital Simplicity

    Maybe Bert doesn’t feel like writing a book just yet. Maybe he wants to go swimming or fishing and nurture himself more before he feels like it? 🙂 On this end, the best ways I find to change patterns is to realize how long stuff has NOT worked, get sick and tired of it, and either change my environment or get honest. I tend to gravitate towards changing my environment because getting honest is not as much fun — OK, and it’s uncomfortable. OK, and getting honest suck at first. 🙂 But since reading this post, I realize that it’s probably the best place to start.

    • Steve Hauptman

      Bert appreciates your empathy and compassion. 🙂

      Steve, though, has been trying to teach him to see writer’s block as a form of compulsive control, an avoidance of the anxiety that goes with creating something new and offering that something to the world. Steve argues that this anxiety is inevitable, something Bert needs to learn to live with if he wants to write professionally. And as noted above, postponing that learning hasn’t worked so great up until now.

  • Vital Simplicity

    Can you ask Steve if trying to force ourselves to break through blocks is the best solution? I ask this not to be confrontational with Steve, but to try to process better my own blocks. I have found that trying to push through them leads me to more internal resistance and rebellion. A perplexing issue that I face daily. What I do find is that when I let go and see and accept my fears (especially fears of others’ reactions and perceived control over me or fears of being a failure or useless), the blocks are magically released. Easier said than done.

    • Steve Hauptman

      Hi, Julie. Steve here.

      Good question.

      No, I don’t believe in forcing through blocks, though I can see how my previous answer might lead you to think that. I assume that a block, like any other defensive reaction, exists for a reason. The reason may be outdated or inappropriate in some other way, as I think it is in Bert’s case. (He has unrealistic fears of both failure and success.) But you don’t remove a block by attacking the block. You work first on understanding the reason. (Bert and I have talked about this extensively. Basically, I think, he’s scared of change. It’s a control thing.)

      And then, if you can, you try to have what’s called a corrective emotional experience. For example, I think Bert’s avoidance of writing only worsens his fear of it. So I encourage him to experience the anxiety a little bit each day and find out it doesn’t kill him.

      I’ve persuaded him to set aside some time every day for writing. We’ll see what happens. If I’m right (and he doesn’t sabotage the plan) we should have a shitty first draft of our book done by the end of the holidays.

  • Vital Simplicity

    Thanks for thoughts and the laugh, Steve. Solid points. Will give them a whirl. I am sure your shitty rough draft will be quite superb. There was an author who one day decided to write 500 words a day and ended up writing a bunch of books. That’s kind of inspiring too. Worked for me for about 4 days — a record. 🙂 Happy writing trails.

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