People Are Not Broken, Only Trapped

Author: Kirk Strosahl, PhD 

As long as people follow unworkable rules—no matter how much those rules are promoted by their culture—their coping strategies will fail and they will remain distressed. 

The goal in such cases is to get people to identify the rules they are following and the unworkable outcomes that result. This could apply as readily to a person with no mental health history who is dealing with a divorce by drinking the pain away as it does to a survivor of childhood sexual abuse with a ten-year pattern of drug addiction. Neither of these individuals is “broken” in the sense of needing years of therapy to correct personality damage. They are both pursuing the same agenda: controlling painful emotions, thoughts, or memories using strategies that ultimately will only promote more pain. 

The main implication of this stance is that every individual has the ability to learn how to step back from unworkable rules and adopt a different approach. 

History Gets in the Way 

People who are suffering often develop ornate explanations of their problem and how previous events in their lives have contributed to the problem.

In focused acceptance and commitment therapy (FACT), we have a salient saying: 

“The most dangerous thing about your past is that it is about to become your future.” 

The FACT therapist spends little time exploring and analyzing the client’s history. The focus of the therapeutic conversation is on what the client is doing now, not what happened back then. This is not to say that history is irrelevant; it is very relevant. The history the FACT therapist is interested in is the stuff that shows up in the present and functions as a barrier to living in a vital way. 

See also: Discovering New Opportunities in the Present Moment

Indeed, many FACT interventions trigger the appearance of clients’ problematic history, which will then be the focus of interventions. In FACT, we believe that history is something we have to live with, not live by. Personal history creates our intelligence, but it can also make us dumb as stones if handled incorrectly.

When clients are stuck, they tend to withdraw from many important life activities; for example, they may stop seeing friends, quit going to church, exercise less, or spend less time with their partner or children. 

In FACT, life functioning, not number and type of symptoms, is what matters in the long run. Quality of life is determined by footprints— where people are actually going in life—not by what’s going on between their ears.

The goal is to prod clients into action without having to be there to guide them forward or see how it all turns out in the end. If clients are living life in “approach mode,” life itself will be their teacher. 

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