The Psychology of the Sand-Pit: Clinical Lessons from Winnie-the-Pooh

Article excerpt

Remember the time Winnie-the-Pooh, Rabbit, and Piglet got lost in the woods? Again and again, they tried to find a way out, a way home, but every time they set off, their efforts to escape kept returning them to their point of departure, to "a small sand-pit on the top of the Forest." Pooh Bear became "rather tired of that sand-pit, and suspected it of following them about, because whichever direction they started in, they always ended up at it."

How easy it is to find ourselves in a similar predicament with our clients! Despite getting paid to guide them out of their sand-pit, we at times succeed only at leading them right back into it. When this happens, it's possible to decide that they somehow "need" their problem, that they're "not ready" to change, or that we lack the skill to help them effectively. Alternatively, we can turn to A. A. Milne for inspiration on how to get unstuck, on how to change the way we're trying to help.

In the story, Pooh finally realized that the attempts to escape from the sand-pit were failing precisely because he and his friends were attempting to escape. If setting out in search of his home resulted in their returning to their starting point in the woods, then, he reasoned, going in search of the sand-pit should allow them to find their way home. The reversal of intent worked, and soon the trio achieved their freedom.

Pooh's dilemma and subsequent "Aha!" reveal much about the doggedness of problems, as well as the liberating quality of therapeutic change. To keep yourself and your clients from inadvertently returning to their sand-pit, you need a good grasp of both.

People seek our services because some troubling chunk of experience is rattling them, bringing them down, driving them crazy. Most often, before they call us, they do their best to get their problem out of their lives or under control, but it refuses to budge and, indeed, seems to control them. They typically ask for help in getting away from it, getting rid of it, or getting around it. But as Pooh discovered, such negation-based solutions just make matters worse.

Negation Creates Attraction

Try this experiment. Before reading beyond this paragraph, remember a time in your life when someone you trusted, respected, and perhaps even loved, seriously betrayed you. Recall the moment when you were confronted with the devastating reality, and relive the shock, fury, and nausea that hit you when your world turned upside down.

Okay, great. Now, stop thinking about the betrayal. Just make the images disappear. Stop those painful emotions dead in their tracks. Come on, stop them! Stop!

Having trouble? It's a lot easier to fire up such memories, feelings, and thoughts than it is to douse them. Ordering an idea or emotion to cease and desist is an exercise in futility. By trying to banish an unwanted experience, you necessarily highlight it, rendering it more important and less likely to disappear.

Your clients' problems don't persist despite their concerted efforts to negate them: they continue  precisely because of such efforts. Negation creates an intense magnetic attraction between people and whatever they fear or despise. This is why Pooh's epiphany proved so liberating--by going in search of the sand-pit, he quit trying to negate it, thereby enabling himself and his friends to leave it behind them.

Your job as a therapist is to facilitate your clients' leaving their sand-pit behind them, too, and you'll be most successful in this enterprise if you stop trying to get their problem to stop. Cure yourself of the desire to cure it, and get rid of your effort to get rid of it. Instead of striving to make the ­problem vanish, look for ways it can lose significance. Therapeutic change becomes possible when, with a Pooh-like reversal of intent, your clients head toward, rather than back away from, the problem, when they connect with it--by embracing it, getting curious about it, protecting time for it, or increasing it. …