I keep a supply of Chinese finger traps in my office to show to patients. When you push your fingers into each end of these straw tubes and then try to remove them, the tube diameter shrinks and grabs the digits firmly. The more you struggle, the more your fingers are trapped. The only way to create enough room to get your fingers back out is to do something counterintuitive: push them deeper into the tube, which only then relaxes its grip.
These toys demonstrate a basic principle about why so many of the issues people bring into therapy seem insoluble, despite determined and well-intentioned efforts to deal with them: fighting a problem can itself create a problem. I remember giving one of these finger traps to an especially anxious client and watching as he practically pulled his fingers out of their sockets in his frantic attempt to get them free. Suddenly, abandoning his struggle with the toy, he let his hands relax. Okay, he said knowingly, I get it. He pushed the ends of the tubes inward and then removed his fingers easily. I knew he meant more than understanding how the toy worked, though. He saw in that moment a model of how his battle with anxiety had constricted his life, and that the strange alternative I was putting on the table might not be so strange after all: only by moving into his pain could he ever find the room to live fully.
A moment or two after this small epiphany, he surprised me by voicing an even deeper issue. As if…