Dig yourself out of the avoidance hole

When we deal with uncomfortable thoughts by only avoiding them, we can make the problem even bigger. A little like digging a hole you’re already in.

Dig yourself out of the avoidance hole
photo credit: AlexiUeltzen via photopin cc

The night is still young, and as I lie here in bed looking up into the darkness, a darkness so black that the ceiling is invisible, I begin to remember the story I started last night. That’s what I do when sleep refuses to come. I lie in bed and tell myself stories. They might not add up to much, but as long as I’m inside them, they prevent me from thinking about the things I would prefer to forget. Concentration can be a problem, however, and more often than not my mind eventually drifts away from the story I’m trying to tell to the things I don’t want to think about. There’s nothing to be done. I fail again and again, fail more often than I succeed, but that doesn’t mean I don’t give it my best effort.

I put him in a hole. That felt like a good start, a promising way to get things going. Put a sleeping man in a hole, and then see what happens when he wakes up and tries to crawl out. I’m talking about a deep hole in the ground, nine or ten feet deep, dug in such a way as to form a perfect circle, with sheer inner walls of dense, tightly packed earth, so hard that the surfaces have the texture of baked clay, perhaps even glass. In other words, the man in the hole will be unable to extricate himself from the hole once he opens his eyes. Unless he is equipped with a set of mountaineering tools—a hammer and metal spikes, for example, or a rope to lasso a neighboring tree—but this man has no tools, and once he regains consciousness, he will quickly understand the nature of his predicament.’

Paul Auster. Man in the Dark.

‘Imagine that you’re placed in a field, wearing a blindfold, and you’re given a little tool bag to carry. You’re told that your job is to run around this field, blindfolded. That is how you are supposed to live life. And so you do what you are told. Now, unbeknownst to you, in this field there are a number of widely spaced, fairly deep holes. You don’t know that at first—you’re naive. So you start running around and sooner or later you fall into a large hole. You feel around, and sure enough, you can’t climb out and there are no escape routes you can find. Probably what you would do in such a predicament is take the tool bag you were given and see what is in there; maybe there is something you can use to get out of the hole. Now suppose that the only tool in the bag is a shovel.

So you dutifully start digging, but pretty soon you notice that you’re not out of the hole. So you try digging faster and faster. But you’re still in the hole. So you try big shovelfuls, or little ones, or throwing the dirt far away or not. But still you are in the hole. All this effort and all this work, and oddly enough the hole has just gotten bigger and bigger and bigger. Isn’t that your experience? So you come to see me thinking, “Maybe he has a really huge shovel—a gold-plated steam shovel.” Well, I don’t. And even if I did I wouldn’t use it, because digging is not a way out of the hole—digging is what makes holes. So maybe the whole agenda is hopeless—you can’t dig your way out, that just digs you in.’

Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., and Wilson, K. G. Acceptance and commitment therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change.

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