When the handle on my living room door stopped working, it was very frustrating.
I’d try to turn it but it wouldn’t shift.
I was locked out of my own living room.
I called a handyman.
When he arrived I told him what was wrong. When I turn the handle, nothing happens.
He nodded, then honed in on the problem.
He took out his screw drivers and opened up the door handle. He had a look inside and said “Aha!”
He found the cause. So he fixed it.
Now when I turn the door handle – it works again. Brilliant.
This is how mechanical things work. We notice a problem. We look deeper into the problem, and we find the answer there.
As it works so well for mechanical things, it is tempting to use the same approach with human psychology.
We notice a problem in our psychological life, or with our emotional well being. So we follow the same process.
We look deeply at the problem. We believe that we will find the answer there. Much like it was with the door handle.
The answer, we think, must be connected to the problem.
But we are human beings. Our psychology is far from mechanical. Causes are far from being so clear.
My clients teach me many things. One of those is that the answer can exist anywhere.
It can be a million miles away from the problem.
Focusing on causes makes sense for my handyman.
But when suffering psychologically, the same narrow focus misses almost all potential answers.
If we feel down, we can seek “the cause”. It can be frustrating when we can’t pin point one.
Even when we think we have found the cause, it’s often something in our past.
Sadly, nobody can change the past.
It can feel even more hopeless.
The psychotherapist Irvin Yalom wrote of his clients: “Sooner or later they will have to relinquish the goal of having a better past.”
We can however have a better future. So we can focus on what we want instead. That opens a multitude of other possibilities.
We can look for times when we already had aspects of that better future.
We can get curious about how that happened. Then we can repeat it.
When we look at it this way, we discover solutions that we would never have found if we simply stared at the problem.
Here are some examples.
When anxious, do crotcheting.
When miserable, do boxing.
When depressed, photograph graffiti.
When feeling isolated, make a model Dalek.
In my own life, my guitar is still my best remedy in times of difficulty.
All these strategies are deeply helpful to the person who noticed them.
Yet none have anything to do with “the problem” itself.
None involve honing in on the problem to find something to fix.
All would have been missed if we had focused on the problem in the way the handyman did.
I even saw an example from the medical world recently on a BBC documentary about Tourette’s Syndrome.
Tourette’s is a debilitating neurological condition. The sufferer experiences often severe tics, some verbal and some physical.
The most effective soother of one young man’s symptoms was to grab a chainsaw and go twenty foot up a tree!
Who would have imagined!
When he was doing tree surgery, all his tics stopped.
Even when there are real medical causes, looking outside of the problem can bring the most effective of answers.
The mechanical world misleads us into thinking that the answer and the problem must exist in the same place.
To follow that idea is tragic, as it misses the abundance of answers that are waiting to be discovered.
It is like a starving person in a kitchen filled with food, who insists on only looking in the one empty cupboard.Alun Parry is Director of The Liverpool Psychotherapy Practice