The Box

In case you hadn’t picked up on this yet, I’m a fan of metaphors and word pictures.  I think that sometimes, those descriptive tools are what allow me to help others engage with tough stuff.  This post is about one of my favorite metaphors–the box.  Do you have a box?  Or a closet?  Or a hole?  Not sure what I mean by that?  Let me explain it a bit more.

“The box” is the description I use for that place in our minds and hearts where we put the hardest stuff.  It’s the place that holds our deepest pain or most intense fear until we are able to engage with it, until we have recovered our strength, until we’ve received the support we need to feel safe enough to break down.  Do you have one?  I know that I do.  I’ve been thinking about the box a lot recently–and it’s come up in more than one session.  I have mixed feelings about the box.  I think about it as a double-edged sword.  With one edge, the box delivers some pretty significant benefits.  With the other, it has the potential to increase pain.

Benefits of The Box

The box can provide a buffer.  When the situations in our lives are too painful, or too intense, to handle all at once, we can place the feelings we’re dealing with in our box.  The box allows us some space to rest.  When we place our tough stuff in the box, that means that we get a break from it for a bit.  We can take the time to rebuild our resources.  I think that sometimes we underestimate the value of having some respite from processing tough emotions.

The box can also allow us to engage with difficult emotions a bit at a time, with respect for our strength.  Sometimes, I describe my therapy room as a version of the box.  My clients have the permission to leave their most difficult work in the room at the end of session, and re-engage with it when they return.  This version of the box provides clients with a sense of safety as they take on their most difficult memories and feelings.  When you give yourselves permission to have limits on dealing with painful feelings, the feelings can be less overwhelming.

Costs of The Box

The box can be a fantastic help when we’re facing intense pain.  But I think that when we choose to use the box, we need to see it as a time-limited coping strategy.  It doesn’t work in the long-term.  The box can give us a tool to wait to deal with our pain until we have regained strength and gotten support.  Sometimes, there is a temptation to put our most difficult feelings or memories into the box and just leave them.  We can even convince ourselves that this is a permanent decision.

In my experience, while this is tempting, it doesn’t work.  Trying to permanently put our pain in the box may feel as if it is working for a while.  Some people are able to use the box for months or even years at a time.  But what I have seen in my office is that when we put our pain in the box for an extended period of time, we also tie up other emotions.  If we use the box for long enough, we become less able to feel joy, to connect with others, to take the emotional risks that are part of living.

Last Thoughts

If you are facing intense pain, I think that using your own version of the box may be a short-term method for managing the pain.  It can help you gather your resources, and give you time to reach out for back-up.  But I hope that you remember that the box doesn’t work in the long term.  If you try to put pain in the box without re-engaging with it, you’re trying to contain radioactive material in a leaky container.  So, if you’ve been using the box, please remember to seek whatever support you need so that you feel able to open it and deal with those painful emotions in a safe way.


Photo Credit: Photo by {grace} via Flickr

6 thoughts on “The Box

  1. Hi Ann – I love this post, yes, the box has its purpose…like when we are too weak, or too overwhelmed to face our traumas, or pain, the box is a great protective & coping mechanism. But then, it can backfire when always used as the go-to method of coping. Yes, the box gets full and then causes a great deal of psychic trouble, like depression & anxiety, showing up in confusing full force, for “no apparent reason.” No reason expect years of pain & fear waiting to be acknowledged & processed…..good post!

    1. Kathy,

      Thank you for expanding on the language of how the box can backfire. I think it is important to understand all of the aspects of our coping tools.


  2. How funny that you just wrote a post about this, Ann… I don’t know whether you happened to have read my “Unplanned Detour” post but in my most recent session with my therapist, we needed to create a box for some of my pain right now for the very reason that you explain the need for having one…

    The pain is too intense and overwhelming for me…I need to face it slowly within the confines of my therapist’s office right now. Actually, when we first “created” it using EMDR, I didn’t know whether it would help at all, but it does seem to working as a temporary aid 🙂

    1. Dorlee,

      I hadn’t read your post yet, but I will now. Thank you so much for sharing your own personal journey as a lovely illustration of how “the box” can work. So glad to hear that you are finding it a helpful tool.


  3. Pingback: Invisible Pain

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