How to Move Through Pain to Unleash Your Inner Potential
Back in 2011, The New Yorker published a piece about the work of Barry Michels and Phil Stutz, blowing up what, as writer Dana Goodyear explains, was an open secret in Hollywood. Stutz, a psychiatrist, who was Michels’ mentor and now writing partner, first developed the tools after he finished his training as a psychotherapist in the ’70s and felt like there was a strange dichotomy between Jungians, who focused solely on the unconscious, and cognitive therapists who focused solely on behavior, and never the two did meet. He believed that the answers did not always lie in the past, that getting into forward motion in the present, and creating a behavior-based loop with the unconscious, could grant patients access to a realm of infinite potential, where the universe would begin to seed their minds with ideas and their path with opportunities.
It is a phenomena that they’ve both observed hundreds of time, and it’s the thesis of their brilliant and easy-to-action book, The Tools, which articulates exactly what you need to do to combat everything from productivity issues and writer’s block to deep insecurity and fear of public speaking. They’re working on their next book now, and while you wait for that, you should sign up for their occasional newsletter, which include stories, quotations, and pieces of psychological and philosophical wisdom. Meanwhile, you can find their first piece for goop, “Three Tools to Unpoison Relationships,” here—along with more extended interviews with both Phil and Barry on Brian Johnson’s podcast, Optimize.
Below, they both explain how they use the tools in their own life—plus how to put them to use in the day-to-day.
A Q&A with Phil Stutz & Barry Michels
What characterizes a Tool?
STUTZ: A Tool is a procedure that, when you do it, will change your inner state right in that moment. Many of the Tools are visualizations, but not all. A Tool puts the power in the hands of the patient, where it belongs. As they use a Tool, they start to make inroads into their dysfunctional patterns and start to change as a human being.
For example, if someone suffering from depression were too depressed to get out of the house and exercise, therapy might help them understand why they are depressed, but a Tool is something they could use to help them actually get up off the couch and do it.
What’s your favorite Tool?
MICHELS: The tool I use the most is Reversal of Desire, which is designed to get you to do things you typically avoid. It can be hard for me to sit down and write, confront people, and even make difficult phone calls—I always find myself hoping the call goes straight to voicemail. I use Reversal of Desire not just when I need to do something I’d like to avoid, but also when I think avoidant thoughts. By using it I put myself in a state of mind where I’m always moving toward the things I avoid, rather than away from them.
Is this universally perceived to be the most helpful Tool?
STUTZ: I’ve worked with a lot of agents, so let’s use them as an example. You’d think agents would have real courage and never avoid things, but there’s a whole strata of studio executives that agents won’t approach. They will call someone on their level to pitch a client, but they’re often terrified to make the call to the strata above them.
Quite simply, they avoid expanding into a realm where they feel frightened or uncomfortable. The Reversal of Desire Tool allows them to make that call. Even if I help them understand why they can’t seem to make the call, they still need to actually make the call.
One way to speak to your unconscious is to change your behavior. If an agent can make just one phone call, maybe to the chairman of a studio, even if the guy hangs up on him, it doesn’t matter. The fact that the agent took action feeds back into his unconscious, and it’s like opening a door to that realm. If you keep making the calls, keep telling your unconscious this is what you want, all sorts of things begin to happen. New information may come in dreams, in a moment of instinct, or in a shrink’s office. In one way or another the unconscious starts to offer ideas of other people to call.
When I first got to California I was probably 33 or 34 and I knew nobody. For the first three months I had zero patients. I knew I had to do something, but I didn’t know what.
So I made a list of people to contact, and it was almost like a little angel sat on my shoulder and told me to contact the scariest person first. To my credit, or because I’m crazy, I actually did it.
Every morning I would look down the list, and see who scared the living shit out of me. Most of the calls weren’t successful. But what I noticed is that every day, if I made the difficult call, I would get more ideas about other contacts that had never entered my mind.
My unconscious went from a bypass to a super highway. Within about six weeks I had a viable practice. After three or four months I had about 25 patients, which to me was a miracle.
I call this process “creative action.” You take the action first, your relationship with your unconscious becomes more creative, and you get more ideas. I’ve seen it work for artists, writers, and anyone who is trying to solve a problem.
How does the Reversal of Desire Tool work in the moment?
MICHELS: Let’s say you have a confrontation tomorrow and you’re worried about it. The first thing to do is feel the discomfort of confronting someone. It’s probably an ugly combination of worry, anxiety, anger, and defensiveness.
Next, you take all those feelings and push them out in front of you in the form of a big, black cloud. This is a key step because you’re now separate from those feelings. And the separation gives you the opportunity to say, “I see how these feelings have held me back in many situations, not just this one, and I’m determined to move through them, instead of letting them stop me.” The tool allows you to do just that.
The first step of the tool is to scream silently to yourself, “Bring it on!” and move right into the cloud. Once you’re in it, you scream silently, “I love pain.” In this case “love” simply means I am one with this pain—I’m inside it. To get through something, you have to become one with it; then, and only then, can you let go of it. In the third and final step of the tool, the cloud spits you out; you find yourself soaring into a realm of pure light…and you say to yourself, “Pain sets me free.”
How long does it take to do this process?
MICHELS: Not long at all. The first time you use it, you might need 30 seconds or a minute to walk yourself through the steps. But pretty quickly you’ll be using it, and all the tools, in 3 to 5 seconds.
Do you need to use a tool more than once?
MICHELS: Yes, you might. There are many times I’ve used the Reversal of Desire and still feel avoidant. Sometimes I do it four or five times before I finally do the thing I’m avoiding.
We’re so conditioned to avoid pain, how do you convince people to move toward it?
STUTZ: The average person desires to avoid pain and fear. It’s why we don’t go to the gym, or make that scary phone call, or put ourselves out there in whatever way. The Reversal of Desire gets us to move toward the pain. Most patients think I’m nuts at first, until I explain a secret about pain: If you move toward pain, it actually lessens. It’s when you run from it that it becomes a monster that pursues you.
Think about a cold pool. If you stick just your toe in, it feels freezing and you’ll probably never get in. But if someone pushes you in, after a few seconds you adjust and there’s no more pain.
MICHELS: One of the ways we convince people to move toward pain is by promising them that they’ll actually feel less pain in the long run. When you move toward pain, you often find yourself attracting opportunities into your life that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. When I was in my late 20’s I was a lawyer and hated it. I wanted to quit, but quitting was going to be painful—there was the loss of prestige, and also just raw fear, because I had no idea what else to do with my life. This was before I learned the Reversal of Desire, but somehow I found the courage to move through the fear and angst and I quit. It was scary—but when I look back I realize that so much of what I love about my life now came out of that decision. The first year after leaving law I decided I wanted to become a psychotherapist, and from day one I realized it was what I was meant to do. The next year I met my wife at a psychotherapy conference—we’ve been married 30 years and have two wonderful kids. And the following year I met Phil Stutz, The Tools co-author and one of my best friends.
These are three of the best things in my life…and they wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t thrown myself into fear and uncertainty and pushed through to the other side. That’s the heart of what the Reversal of Desire tool does—it gives you a systematic way of overcoming pain and moving forward with your life. And because you’re moving forward, you sync up with a higher force that’s always moving forward, which then brings opportunities into your life you never would’ve found on your own.
What do you mean by “higher forces”?
MICHELS: When we say higher forces we’re simply referring to something that comes from beyond your ego. It’s the sense that there’s something out there that’s bigger than you. It’s how you feel when you’re gazing at the stars on a beautiful night or when you fall in love for the first time—your heart overflows with a rush of love and generosity, and the feelings seem to have a life of their own.
The tools help you create a bridge to those forces that exist outside your ego. Our mission is to give people access to the incredible potential that’s unleashed when you channel those forces.
STUTZ: The Tools connect you with the realm of possibility, or infinite potential. They’re a way to put you in a different context where you can sense what’s possible; where you feel you can do something you didn’t think you could. They don’t guarantee specific results, but they will move you into a zone of enhanced possibilities, which can be life changing.
Barry and I believe there’s a spiritual battle going on in the universe, and on the individual level the battle is over our personal evolution. We call the “bad guys” Part X (we focus on this inner enemy in our next book), and they don’t want you to reach your potential or get to that zone of possibility. Part X is trying to block your evolution and growth, and one of the most important things you can do to have a meaningful life is to fight back.
You use the tools to access these “higher forces,” which are bigger than you as an individual but available for you to use if you can tap them. Think about the stories of mothers who lift up cars to save their kid who is trapped underneath. We believe our potential is far greater than most of us think it is, and there are real forces that can help you reach that potential. Each Tool is designed to trigger or connect you to a particular higher force.
Can you give an example of a “higher force?”
STUTZ: Forward motion is an easy one to understand. Your relationship with the universe depends on the force of your forward motion. If you’re in motion, things tend to go better. You encounter serendipitous events that help you reach your destination. You attract helpful friends, partners, or employees.
For example, if someone needs to make a decision and they’re not ready, I tell them not to make the decision. Put yourself in forward motion first. Ask yourself what you’re avoiding, even if it’s something in another part of your life, and correct it immediately. Get into forward motion and then consider your decision from there.
I used to play basketball in college. I was a sub for a kid who was All-American, so I didn’t get to play very much, and usually it was at the very end of the game. If I was tired, frightened, or frozen, I didn’t play well. It came to me that I needed to be “in the game” before I ever got in the game. So I began to engage with the game, to yell at my own team, and point out things to them. And it worked—if I needed to play, I was already really into the game.
So it’s kind of like acting “as if?”
STUTZ: It’s more like being committed. Commitment has nothing to do with your goal. It’s a state that includes aspects of flow, courage, and willpower, which come from a higher force that you can access when you move beyond your ego.
The higher forces want to help us, but they are so strong they can burn us away and eliminate us altogether. We need some kind of vessel or receptacle to receive these higher forces. And that has to come from the higher part of us, the infinite part of us, which we access using the Tools.
Here’s the key: There’s only one way a human being can be infinite and transcend the physical body, and that’s by the will to keep on going forever. The goals can change, but the attitude has to be that “I’m going to keep working on this, and working on this, and if I succeed I’m still going to work on it. And if I fail, I’m still going to work on it.” Why? Because that’s the only moment when I actually become infinite and am able to access those higher forces.
This idea that the work is ongoing and that the Tools take hard, sustained work…do you get pushback on this from people?
MICHELS: Yes, and we try to be very honest with them. If you’re interested in real change, at some point you’re going to come up against the fact that it’s hard work. That’s when the rubber meets the road. Change is always possible, but it’s not easy. That’s just the way it is. So you either play by those rules, or you don’t change.
STUTZ: People think that when they succeed they can kick back and stop making an effort. We call that “exoneration,” and it’s in what we call the realm of illusion—this imaginary place where you’ll have no more pressure and demands—where you’ll be exonerated.
The truth is the complete opposite. We call the truth “ceaseless immersion.” The truth is we are ceaselessly immersed in factors that demand that we keep on working on ourselves. And this doesn’t go away.
There are three basic rules in the universe:
Pain will never go away.
Uncertainty will never go away.
You will always need to do the work.
That said, you can live a fantastic life—one that’s creatively and financially successful, where you’re a successful parent—and avoid some of the pitfalls of living, as long as you live a committed life.
There seems to be an endless list of things to work on, doesn’t there?
STUTZ: The universe helps us by giving us problems we can commit to working on. I think if you’re a parent the most important thing you can teach your kids is that there are going to be problems, and that you can always face them and come out stronger.
The idea that you get stronger by working through a problem isn’t new, but using the Tools to work through your problems is a new approach. If you learn something from your problems, it makes them valuable, and it adds meaning to your life.
You talk a lot about “The Shadow.” What do you mean by that?
MICHELS: The Shadow is a term used by Carl Jung to refer to the part of you that receives the brunt of your criticism and negativity. It’s like an alter ego. Learning to embrace your Shadow is key to recognizing that no part of you is completely dark or without worth. If you can love the “worst” parts of you, you can love everything, and everything unites in wholeness.
As a psychotherapist, I listen to people’s inner dialogue, and I consistently hear highly critical voices say things like, “You’re ugly. Nobody wants to be with you. You’ve never done anything original.”
Every time you talk to yourself this way, you’re creating a negative self-image, or a Shadow self. You don’t want anyone else to see your Shadow because it’s what you think of as the worst part of you. As a result, you become hesitant to express yourself for fear of exposing it. When you’re interacting with people you can be so preoccupied with making sure they don’t see your Shadow that you can’t express yourself with any confidence or spontaneity.
Is there a tool to help deal with the Shadow?
MICHELS: The tool of Inner Authority is designed to harness the self-expressive power of the Shadow and give you confidence. The tool teaches you to bond with and stay connected to your Shadow. When you do, you no longer care what anyone thinks of you, and you are free to express yourself.
Before you can use the tool, you need to get acquainted with your Shadow. To do that, imagine yourself in front of a person or group who judges you harshly—maybe your boss or parents or kids—especially if you have a teenager! Imagine yourself in front of them and feel yourself grow more and more insecure as they judge you. Now imagine yourself in the audience as one of those people seeing your every flaw. The image of the person you see is your Shadow.
This version of you might be overweight, unattractive, stupid, etc., so you’re going to want to put it in a closet and hide it. Instead, take it out of hiding and declare your loyalty to it, saying something like, “I love you. I will never betray you. I don’t care what anyone thinks of us.” As soon as you stop caring what anyone thinks of you, you can express yourself with complete confidence.
How do you bond with this thing you’ve trained yourself to hate?
MICHELS: The moment most people see their Shadow they think, “Ugh, I can’t stand that person!” They just want to get rid of it. The key is to switch to the Shadow’s point of view. It hasn’t been much of a picnic living inside you, being constantly put down and blamed for everything that goes wrong. It’s been a life of constant rejection and humiliation.
If you can empathize with the pain and hurt your Shadow feels, you can let it know you’re sorry, and you can begin to build a different relationship with it. You might say to it, “I started rejecting you very early in my life and I am sorry. I want to stop. From this point on, it changes.” Eventually, you will form an unbreakable bond.
Is that the point when you use Inner Authority?
MICHELS: Yes. The Inner Authority Tool has three steps. You can do them whenever you’re feeling insecure, especially when you need to talk to someone—whether one-on-one or in front of a larger audience—and you feel nervous about it.
1. See the shadow off to one side—it’s facing you.
2. Bond with your Shadow empathically, the way I just described. If you do it correctly, you’ll feel like you and your Shadow are so united it’s as if the audience no longer matters, or even exists.
3. Together, you and your Shadow turn to face the audience, and in one voice you silently command the audience to listen. This is not a request; it’s a command. You’re taking your authority and saying whatever it is you have to say.
You’re working on another book. Will there be new Tools in that book?
MICHELS: Yes, the new book explores a phenomenon many of us experience—this sense that we’re sleepwalking through life. Most of us are never fully engaged and are just waiting for the next magical thing to happen that will give our life meaning. We’re living as if we had all the time in the world.
But we don’t have all the time in the world. Life ends with a hard stop. When you understand that, suddenly every moment matters. You have to bring every ounce of energy you have to the present.
And it doesn’t matter what you’re doing in the present. Whether it’s profound or prosaic, new or part of a routine—it’s your obligation is to bring as much life force to it as you can. It’s not easy to live this way, but the more you try, the more fulfilling and meaningful every moment becomes.
STUTZ: In basketball, if your team comes down the court and takes a shot and misses, the ball usually goes to the other team. Suddenly those on offense are now on defense, and you can watch how some of them run back on defense as hard as they can, even though it can be painful to change direction so quickly and hustle back. Meanwhile, others try and fake it—they try to avoid the pain and don’t bring the same intensity to the switch. People who do things intensively are the minority, and you can usually pick them out, even off of the basketball court.
Intensity isn’t an idea that’s talked about in therapy, but I have heard it discussed by life coaches some in the last decade. To me intensity is really important, and can make your life more meaningful.
You don’t have to reserve intensity just for the big things in life. The philosopher Rudolf Steiner had this idea that that the biggest things enter through the smallest. I love this idea because you can always find something small to do and bring all your intensity to it, no matter how mundane or inconsequential it seems.
Phil Stutz graduated from City College in New York and received his MD from New York University. He worked as a prison psychiatrist on Rikers Island and then in private practice in New York before moving his practice to Los Angeles in 1982.
Barry Michels has a BA from Harvard, a law degree from University of California, Berkeley, and an MSW from the University of Southern California. He has been in private practice as a psychotherapist since 1986.
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