Have you ever played with a Chinese finger trap? You know, the braided cylinder that you stick two fingers into?
What is your natural impulse when you realize that your fingers are caught in the trap?
You pull them out, of course (at least, the first time you do this). Except that in a Chinese finger trap, pulling the fingers away from one another only makes the cylinder tighter and tighter.
Now, most of us over the age of six or seven know that the trick with a Chinese finger trap is that you have do something different than your first impulse. In fact, you have to go entirely against that impulse and take the paradoxical step of pushing your trapped fingers even closer together. Only then will the trap release.
You have to do something different than you expected.
This is actually a fantastic analogy for many of the difficulties that my clients (and maybe you) face on a regular basis. Here’s how it goes:
You have a problem, and either your impulse, or social messages, or people in your circle say that to solve Problem A, you need to take Action Y. But for you, Action Y turns out to be like trying to pull your fingers out of the Chinese finger trap. It doesn’t work. It might even make Problem A a little worse.
Now, if life were simple, like a Chinese finger trap, maybe more people would decide, “Hey, even though everyone says Action Y should fix Problem A, that’s not what is happening for me. I am going to try a different action.”
But for most folks, the dialogue inside their heads sounds more like this, “I’m trying Action Y and I’m still having Problem A. But everyone says that Action Y will fix Problem A. I must be doing something wrong. Maybe I should try Action Y again, but slightly differently. Or maybe I haven’t put in enough effort. I will try Action Y again, and do it harder this time. Maybe I don’t have enough willpower. I’ll try Action Y again, and I’ll really stick with it this time.”
Does that sound familiar? Can you think of a Problem A in your life (healthy actions, good boundaries, self-care, etc)? Have you tried the same sort of solution over and over, only to be stuck with Problem A in the end? Do you beat yourself up about how you must be really screwing up if Action Y isn’t working for you? Maybe the problem isn’t you. Maybe the problem is the action.
If that sounds familiar, I’m going to invite you to try an experiment with me. Sometime in the next few days, try something different. Maybe even try something paradoxical, like pushing to free yourself from the finger trap. But don’t let your action be any version of Action Y. Make it something entirely new.
I think that things will change. Maybe only a little bit, and probably pretty slowly. But they will change.
If you have a story about getting out of one of life’s “finger traps,” please share in the comments. If you need help coming up with some possible alternative actions, just let me know!