What you can do when everything you try makes things worse

There are some problems in life that are like that. The harder you try to escape the problem or overcome it the worse it gets. No matter what you do you remain stuck. Or you get temporary relief, but the problem essentially remains the same. If you have experienced common problems like panic disorder, social anxiety, obsessive thinking or impulse control, you’ll know what I mean.

The Chinese Fingercuffs Metaphor is an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) intervention we use to help you approach that kind of problem in a way that can make a lasting difference – a transformation of the way you see the problem – not just a solution to it.

I searched high and low for a video that demonstrates how to conduct this metaphor to maximize a client’s ability to make that transformation. I couldn’t find one, so together with Nicole Lockwood, one of the psychologists here at ACT of Living, we decided to make one.

After the video, there’s some notes on why we do the exercise the way it’s shown here.

Notes for using the metaphor

It’s all in the set-up.

You’ll notice in the video that I was very specific about the rules: no touching the cuff with other fingers or with the free hand, no tearing the cuff. Why? Because often when clients find themselves in these ‘no-win’ situations, there simply isn’t any ‘outside’ help available.

We don’t want to lead a client to believe that there’s a white knight or Lone Ranger coming to the rescue. It’s more empowering for them to stay in the struggle long enough to find their own way out.

We’re all in this together

When the therapist joins the client by putting his or her finger in the other end of the cuff, it shows that we can get stuck just like clients do. Even though the therapist might have the experience or knowledge to get out of the trap, or the confidence to be able to do it, we still have to follow the same steps as the client to find our way out. Starting by being willing to be stuck rather than ‘fighting’ the stuckness.

 …and then we’re on our own.

After therapy is over, the client will have to deal with the issue that brought them to therapy, but without the therapist’s active guidance. So the therapist demonstrates dealing with the situation of having both fingers trapped in the cuff. While it’s slower getting two fingers out rather than just one, this is important because choices in life often ask us to take care of two concerns at once – career and family, work and health, money and enjoyment.

Whatever you do, be willing to laugh.

Almost every time I do this exercise with anyone their finger gets stuck. That needs to happen to illustrate the metaphor. Since Nicole hadn’t seen a fingercuff before, I was counting on her to get stuck too. But guess what happened on the first take? Actually, don’t guess – see for yourself:

And if you’d like to learn more about how to conduct the metaphor, you should get the new book Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: 100 Key Points and Techniques by Richard Bennett and Joe Oliver – lots of other ACT techniques and metaphors in there too.