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The Existential Moment: Protections – Pt II: Living With Them

“Choose one,” the nurse said with a smile.

Having just finished his appointment with the pediatrician, the six-year-old boy peered into two small boxes. One had candies; the other had small toys.

“What’s this?” he said, picking up a small, flexible, nylon tube, with holes at both ends.

“Put that finger in the end,” the nurse said. The boy complied, inserting his index finger. “Now put that finger in the other end,” the nurse added, pointing to the index finger on his other hand. Again, the boy did as instructed.

He touched his index fingers together in the center and looked at the cylinder. He then slowly pulled his hands apart. In shock, the boy gasped in relative panic as the ends clamped around both fingers, trapped!

The Chinese finger trap is a good illustration of the law of reverse effect: try something and get the opposite. The framework is helpful to remember when working with psychological protections (i.e., “spacesuits”). When we push or confront, we may get resistance.

Working with “spacesuits” is part of the art of therapy. Still, there are points to keep in mind.

First, framing the spacesuit as such orients us. It’s not a defense needing breakdown but a caretaker meant to protect. Unfortunately, however, it also limits, even paradoxically, harms.

Second, facilitated by this attitude, holding opens a space of possibility. We must be thoughtful about our feelings and how those impact our behavior.

Third, the holding space allows for acceptance grounded in empathy, leading to validation. So, for example, we might say, “of course, you yell….”

Finally, acceptance and validation open the door to exploration, here and now unpacking of or working with a spacesuit and the core wound at the center. It might include tagging, vivifying, deepening, and so on. Presence is the means and ends of exploration toward healing and growth.

These points are not a step-by-step manual but touchstones for an iterative journey. The Chinese finger trap will clamp down. That’s OK; expect it. It’s part of the voyage.

Links to Related Resources and Blog Posts:

Read The Existential Moment: Protections – Part I: Spacesuits on EHI’s blog.

Read all the Existential Moment series posts on EHI’s blog.

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The Existential Moment: Micro-skills: Reflecting

Reflection is a bit like the work of the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. We mirror or reflect our client’s experience—the content presented, the process or experience in the moment (e.g., nonverbals, tone, pattern of speech, etc.), self and world constructs (e.g., “I am…”), protective patterns and inner tensions, and core vulnerabilities or wounds.

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