If you poke me with a sharp stick I’ll get upset. Not at first perhaps, but if you persist, eventually, you’ll provoke a reaction in me. I might even become a threat to you or myself.
Applying the idea to psychological wellbeing, I have been using the ‘sharp stick’ metaphor for some years. It originated in my Anger Management workshops to illustrate how anger can be kept alive. I have realised that the same mechanism is at work in many other situations.
In the workshops a question would often arise about someone who was ‘always angry’ or ‘born angry’. Neither of these statements can be true because emotions are transient, they come as and when needed and go when their job is done. If I am trapped, or hurt, I may lash out in anger, once the threat is removed the anger subsides. If the threat isn’t removed, say, because I am held in captivity (literal or metaphorical), the full emotion of anger still doesn’t remain because it’ll be transformed into something else.
It is impossible to feel any emotion all the time, because emotions just don’t work like that. However… some people are in a constant state of alert. By harbouring anger-provoking thoughts (the sharp stick), they are constantly prodding and goading themselves into emotional flare-ups.
Not that anger is necessarily bad; it can be inspirational and a call to make something happen, so I am not implying that anger a negative emotion. Like all emotions is has a job to do. Because it is associated with survival and safety though, it is a particularly seductive and persuasive emotion, and sometimes it does the job too well, which is why we start to carry the sharp stick around.
The same can be true with any emotion. The stick stops us getting over things and can prolong the agony. It can also do the opposite. For example; loving thoughts can provoke compassion, sexual thoughts can generate lust and nostalgic thoughts can produce sorrow.
There’s no denying that all of these have their place. The problem arises when we think that recurrent emotional responses are triggered by some outside agency, when often it is the stick that’s doing it.
Originally, my message to therapists in training was to help the client ‘find and remove the sharp stick’. Now I think that it’s not actually necessary to find the stick (i.e. what’s goading the person to the emotional response), simply understanding that there is one may be enough to stop using it.