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If You Don't Want It, You've Got It

Several clients over the years have come to me with the task of helping them cope with some emotional problem. It appears that this is a widely held expectation for counseling. It makes sense that people want to rid themselves of the problems they are having, or at least reduce them, because this is how we solve problems in the external world. For example, if it is raining and you don’t like getting wet, you might run for shelter, or stay inside. What many do not understand is that, in the long run, this strategy is ultimately ineffective when it comes to internal experiences.

How do you find shelter from intrusive thoughts or painful memories? You might try distracting yourself with television, drugs, or even something pro-social, like calling up a friend. Nothing wrong with that, but did you really eliminate the thoughts? I bet they’re still there, waiting for the distractions to come to an end so they can once again, take center stage. So essentially, when a client comes in with painful thoughts, what they are hoping the counselor can do is help them “cope” or find better distractions. Here’s what my thesaurus gives for the word cope.



1 she couldn’t cope on her own: manage, survive, subsist, look after oneself, fend for oneself, carry on, get by/through, bear up, hold one’s own, keep one’s end up, keep one’s head above water; informal make it, hack it.

2 his inability to cope with the situation: deal with, handle, manage, address, face (up to), confront, tackle, come to grips with, get through, weather, come to terms with.

How does that sound? Surviving? Weathering? Bearing? Is this really how you want to live your life? I want to express sympathy for anyone who is hurting. I hurt, too. But the goal for my life is not to not hurt. I want more. I want to thrive, and I want you to thrive. It’s been said, “Good is the enemy of great.” If I believed that your life would be better if only you could cope better, then I’d have no qualms about helping you to better distract yourself from your pain. But I have a feeling that this would be like helping you out of a hole by giving you a shinier shovel. The one you’ve been using is giving you blisters, but this new shovel has an ergonomic grip and has an iPod plug so you can listen to your favorite playlist-“Songs I Dig.” (Sorry, I had to.) Shovels are made for digging, and digging is not the way out of a hole.

So if I am not going to help you cope with your problems, what good am I? What I am going to suggest may sound heretical. Maybe your problems are not the problem. Usually, it’s your solution, if your solution is making attempts to eliminate, reduce, or avoid pain. This is called the control agenda. Effectively, what the control agenda does is create more of the problem. There is a saying, “If you don’t want it, you’ve got it” or “What you resist, persists.” Our thoughts are based in language so for you brain to process not having something, it also has to process having it. A client once complained that she worries so much about getting cancer that she might as well have it. She was exactly right. Even though she was perfectly healthy, vigilant about what she put into her body, reading all the latest health reports, and creating her life around not getting cancer, she was living as if she already had it. She couldn’t enjoy her health because she was so focused on illness.

I’m not saying that we should want pain, but avoiding it isn’t really working, is it? Learning to accept pain is a scary thing for most of us. We’re wired to resist it and pull away from it. But just see what happens when you gently open up to it instead. Mindfulness helps us let go of resistance and open up to the present moment, with all that it holds, with acceptance.