The Monkey Trap, by Peter Zafirides, MD

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The Monkey Trap by Dr. Peter Zafirides

An image of Practitoner Peter Zafirides
Practitoner Peter Zafirides

18 April 2011

In a recent therapy session, one of my patients described her depression in a way that totally blew me away. I really felt compelled to share her story with you. Although she did not have TMS, there are many relevant psychological learning points to draw from as you move through your journey to freedom from pain.

A little background however before we go any further. Mary (not her real name) is in her mid-50s and has struggled her entire life with both chronic depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder manifesting itself as hoarding. At this point however, she feels her hoarding is about to consume her.

As we were talking, she recalled a time she read about various ways monkeys were trapped in the wild. Specifically she remembered reading about a specific monkey trap used in Madagascar. The design of this trap is fairly simple. It essentially is a jar with a long neck that opens up to a larger bowl below. Food (“bait”) is placed at the bottom of the jar and the monkey inserts his hand to grab the food. But, when the monkey grabs the food he makes a fist, obviously. The only way he can get his hand out of the “trap” is to let go of the food. But in releasing the food, he lets go of his meal. So now we see the dilemma. In essence, the monkey is “trapped”.

Mary stated that this was exactly how she felt with regards to her emotions in general and her hoarding in specific. She felt it was impossible to successfully stop hoarding her items. She likened her hoarding to the monkey “taking the bait” in the trap. When Mary found an item she wanted, it simply wasn't possible for her to “let go” of it. She knew that her hoarding is wrong. She knew it will cost her more emotionally in the form of guilt and loss of self-esteem by “giving in” to the compulsion of hoarding. But she simply could not “let go”. And so, Mary is stuck. She said rather frankly in our session “Dr. Z, I know exactly how that monkey must feel.” I looked at her and clearly saw a combination of both desperation and resignation in her eyes. I found her description of The Monkey Trap to be an incredible visual example describing her struggle that has some important messages for all of us as we move through difficult times in our life - be they emotional and/or physical.

What can we learn from Mary and The Monkey Trap??

Firstly, we must appreciate how our emotions (in Mary's case, anxiety and depression) can greatly skew our decision-making ability. It does so by narrowing our perception of available options and solutions. This is one of the biggest demoralizing aspects of negative emotions like depression and anxiety. The amazing irony is that we still have the same options, but our emotions skew our view of them. We tend to see “no way out” of situations when our emotions get the best of us. In Mary's case, she believed there was no way she could overcome either her depression or hoarding. Much like the monkey in her Monkey Trap analogy, she felt she could not get her “hand out of the trap” when it came to her emotional problems. Mary truly felt there was “no way out”, that she was stuck. She truly believed her “hole” (range of options) was small, but I impressed upon her that in reality the opening was wide open. She had many choices. She had many options. Only her emotions – feelings - made it seem as if she was trapped. This is the potential power of negative emotions.

TMS Learning PointWe must always realize the power of negative emotions. This does not apply only to anxiety and depression, but physical symptoms as well. The pain of TMS is a response to negative emotion – anger, rage and fury. Like emotional pain, physical pain greatly narrows our focus. The “trapped” feeling caused physical pain is almost a universal phenomenon. Let us always remember that there IS a way out with regards to TMS. You are not “stuck in the trap” of pain. You will succeed!

Secondly, we have to realize that our emotions have the capacity limit our sense of control. In this way, emotions can get us into trouble by greatly narrowing our view of options and - with that - our sense of control in our lives. As I work in therapy with my patients, I encourage them (as I did Mary) to not be afraid to try to “pull their hands out of the jar”, if you will. I try to help them see how their emotions – like fear or anger, for example - can impact their ability to act. In reality, we really do have many options and available solutions when we are faced with an obstacle or a challenge in our lives. All of us do. Often times, our own self-doubt and insecurity will make us feel as if we are trapped, that we can't “pull our hands out of the trap”. The irony of it all is that there is plenty of room to remove our hands. Once we dare to push through our fear and self-doubt, we realize there really isn't any “trap” at all, other than what emotions, like self-doubt and fear, conjure up for us.

TMS Learning Point'The truth is, you have plenty of room and enormous strength to materially improve your level of TMS pain and suffering. You can dramatically change your life for the better. You are not alone. YOU can absolutely do this. There is plenty of “room for your hand”, my friends. The hole is wide open!! The only trap that exists is an emotional one.Realizing this reality is the first step in empowering yourself towards incredible success. Once you dare to believe in the principles of TMS and trust in the path to recovery through the TMS healing process, your world will begin to change for the better.

I marvel at and truly believe in the incredible strength of the individual. In Mary's case, despite all the depression, anxiety and frustration in her ability to change, she is still choosing to carve out a life for herself. She keeps coming to work on her problems with me. On a conscious level, she may not totally believe that she can “pull her hand out of the jar” just yet. But she still continues to come to therapy. To me, I believe this means she feels she is capable of changing her behaviors. The path to her success may not be perfectly clear, but her persistence is testament to the belief in herself, and her ability to change. Even though you may not be completely sure where your road to recovery from TMS will lead to next, trust in the process. Know that many have been down this same road before you. You are not alone in this journey.

You absolutely have the capacity and strength within you to make positive changes in your life that are lasting and meaningful. We all do! Compassion for yourself and the ability to forgive yourself are two principal tenets as you embark on your path to recovery from TMS.

Take the time to challenge yourself because you are that powerful. You are that strong.

Never, ever doubt how truly powerful you are.

Be Well,

Peter Zafirides, MD

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