Why Nobody is Exonerated From Pain and Hard Work
The title of this piece might sound like a bummer, but it’s one of the most profound teachings of Barry Michels and Phil Stutz, two psychotherapists in Los Angeles who are the authors of the brilliant and easy-to-implement New York Times bestseller, The Tools. That presiding belief—that the present doesn’t matter because there’s something better waiting around the corner—is one of the more paralyzing and destructive forces in our lives, and Michels and Stutz offer antidotes (which they call Tools) below for moving past this trap and finding meaning and power in our lives today. Their thinking is subtle, so it’s worth reading this at least twice—along with their other pieces for goop: Three Tools to Unpoison Relationships and How to Move Through Pain to Unleash Your Inner Potential.
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. You can hear a more extended version of this conversation on the podcast, Bottle Rocket Science.
A Q&A with Phil Stutz & Barry Michels
Are the tools meant to replace therapy?
PHIL: No, the tools don’t subsume therapy. It’s important to find the genesis of the problem and be clear about where you’d like to end up. But understanding how you developed a habit won’t make it go away. And unless you have something to do right at the moment there’s a problem, you’ll be at the mercy of your inner enemy. We call that enemy “Part X.” Part X is the part of everyone that wants your life to be governed by habits. If Part X tends to flood you with worry, you can attack back by saying “I’m not going to let you take over my psyche and my life. I’m not going to let you determine my view of the future.” And once you attack back, you can actually dispel the worry with a tool we call the Grateful Flow.
Is the idea that when the habit takes up less space in your life or gets less of your energy, you’re more available for the rest of your life?
PHIL: Yes. And there is something else that happens in addition to your symptoms or habits disappearing. No matter which tool you use, you start to develop a different sense of the world. You spend more time in a state of flow. The whole approach becomes something of a psychological and spiritual philosophy, or a way to live.
Are you saying the tools work on multiple levels? That there is a concrete change but also a something deeper going on?
PHIL: The tools work with forces—they turn them upside down and transmute them. It’s like the ancient alchemists. They weren’t really trying to turn base metals into gold—they were trying to transmute the forces of the universe to help the soul. The tools do the same thing. The Reversal of Desire (the first tool in our book) turns the force of desire upside down so you can use it to your own benefit. Everyone’s normal desire is to avoid things that are difficult. The tool teaches you to desire those things.
In the past this ability to transmute forces was considered a sacred ability. What we’re doing is taking that tradition, modernizing it, and applying it to everyday problems. Your everyday problems become the trigger for this alchemy so your soul-force can change. Change really happens. Most people don’t believe it’s possible, but it is. It’s very important to understand that.
“That gives you the opportunity to transmute that lower force into something higher and discover potential you never knew you had. When a person really gets that, not just as an academic, philosophical idea, but as an actual experience, they start to feel a kind of transcendence that’s irreplaceable.”
BARRY: Every human being can transform their own soul forces. A problem stirs up a primal, lower force (like hopelessness, or the desire to get drunk). That gives you the opportunity to transmute that lower force into something higher and discover potential you never knew you had. When a person really gets that, not just as an academic, philosophical idea, but as an actual experience, they start to feel a kind of transcendence that’s irreplaceable.
In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a practice of redirecting what you call lower forces. If you’re a person with a lot of anger, the process transforms the anger meant to hurt people into an anger that’s directed at obtaining justice. If you’re greedy then the process transforms the greed into a hunger for knowledge. Is this similar?
PHIL: Yes, that’s like what we do. The only difference is that we’re psychotherapists treating an individual, so it’s not a uniform training program. Life itself is going to present you with different problems and you need a tool to change your habitual response to those problems.
As you continue to work with the tools, do your problems eventually disappear?
PHIL: We don’t think of this as merely problem solving; it’s more like a way of life. Which means it’s a ceaseless process. You encounter a problem, you use a tool to change the way you respond to it, and you feel a little better. Two hours or two weeks or two years later, the problem comes back and you use the tools again and you feel better again. There’s a cyclical quality to it. Each cycle has the potential to take you higher than the cycle before, but it’s not really about an ultimate cure; it’s about continuing to do the work.
There’s a tremendous desire in our culture to be exonerated. We think we can reach a point where we’re famous or rich enough to not have to work on ourselves anymore and everything will be perfect. This is an insane joke. There are three laws of the universe: there will always be pain; there will always be uncertainty; and life will always require effort. Anybody that says you can be exonerated from these laws is lying.
“There’s a tremendous desire in our culture to be exonerated. We think we can reach a point where we’re famous or rich enough to not have to work on ourselves anymore and everything will be perfect. This is an insane joke.”
BARRY: In our society, nobody comes out and says this. In fact, it’s the opposite. In our society we are constantly being sold the idea that if you buy whatever they’re selling—deodorant, beer, a luxury car—you’ll get beyond pain, uncertainty, and effort.
It’s funny, when we were writing the section of the book on exoneration, I actually watched advertising with a much more critical, observant eye. One evening, this ad came on: “You want to lose weight? Buy this treadmill. We guarantee you’ll lose weight.” I’d heard it a thousand times before but because I was writing about exoneration it suddenly struck me. It’s such a rip-off. Sure you can buy the treadmill. But most people don’t have the willpower to get themselves up on the treadmill; they can’t even get themselves out the front door to take a walk.
That’s how ubiquitous the sense of exoneration is: deep down we really believe there’s a way we can consume ourselves out of pain, uncertainty, and ceaseless effort.
“I believe people accept a lot of the socio-economic imbalances in this country because they hope for exoneration. They don’t care so much about the present because they’re busy thinking about an illusory future.”
And it isn’t just consumerism. Most people think there’s a club of rich, famous people who are exonerated from these three laws. But Phil and I are in a unique position—we treat a fair number of famous people, and we can tell you with absolute assurance that not a single one of them has a magic exemption ticket. They have to face the same three principles just like we do. So you can stop making an idiot of yourself on a reality show—even if you “make it,” it isn’t going to free you from the three principles.
PHIL: That’s right. And reality shows are nothing compared to the Internet. Now anyone with a computer can become famous, and that’s just more of the same poison. I believe people accept a lot of the socio-economic imbalances in this country because they hope for exoneration. They don’t care so much about the present because they’re busy thinking about an illusory future.
If you’ll always have problems and you’ll always be working on them, is it possible to be happy?
PHIL: When you work with the tools, over time you become more satisfied, and everything you do becomes more meaningful. You may not define that as conventional happiness, which we tend to confuse with pleasure. But a sense of meaning is incredibly important; the more meaningful things become, the more you feel connected to something larger than yourself. Part X doesn’t want you to know that this is possible.
BARRY: Part X is the part of you that seduces you into the exoneration fantasy. But the only way to really feel any real happiness is to accept the rules life lays down for you—and harmonize yourself with them. Otherwise, you’re always fighting against life—and losing.
So it sounds like the real problem isn’t a particular habit—like overeating or a bad temper—it’s really the Part X force that gets us to live in repetitive ways.
BARRY: That’s exactly right. Part X is a very real enemy living inside of every human being. It will attack you with an impulse (like overeating), a thought that rationalizes giving into the impulse (like “you’ve been so good—you deserve it”), as well as with overwhelming emotions (like rage or depression when you can’t have what you want).
The question is how seriously do you take this idea of an inner enemy? Is this just an intellectual concept, or do you actually feel Part X as a cunning and devious adversary trying to sabotage you every moment of every day? If you take it seriously—like you would if it were someone in the outside world—your instincts for self-preservation will be triggered. You’ll feel aggressive, resolved, and determined to fight back for yourself. We call this “intensity,” and it’s the precondition for fighting Part X.
“Part X is a very real enemy living inside of every human being.”
If you fight back with intensity, you feel more alive, regardless of whether you win or lose any one battle. You could lose five battles in a row with Part X, and you’ll still be ahead of the game because you fought back with intensity. This is a complete re-envisioning of what we think of as the life force. It’s not something that’s just given—you have to fight for it.
Can you give an example of what it’s like to live without intensity?
PHIL: When you live without intensity, you do things without really doing them—you try without really trying. I played basketball in school and there was always the issue of running back on defense once your team lost the ball. Even if it’s the end of the game and they can hardly breathe, those with true intensity will still run back on defense as hard as they possibly can. Most people live lives of the guys who don’t exert themselves when they run back. These people walk through their lives. Then you have a select few who bring intensity to everything. Barry’s a good example—he’s obsessively intense. This inspires other people.
BARRY: When I was a young shrink coming out of school, I wouldn’t have used the word “intensity” in connection with psychotherapy. But I knew something was missing from the psychotherapy I’d been taught. When I met Phil, what made him different from any shrink I’d met was that he had so much intensity. Frankly, it intimidated me at first, but I was also drawn to it. This was a guy who was so determined to help you with your problems he was willing to pretty much say or do anything to get you to change.
Can you give a specific example?
BARRY: Yeah, I’ll never forget this. I met Phil at a seminar he was giving and he asked everybody to identify a problem we wanted to work on. My problem, at that time, was that I felt like a failure. This was completely irrational—I had graduated with honors from Harvard, then from one of the best law schools in the country, and I’d practiced law at a prestigious law firm. In no way could my life be called a failure. But despite my accomplishments, I still felt like a failure. So I stood up and tried to describe these feelings of failure, and at the end I laughed and said, “You know, this is a perfect illustration—I feel like I failed to explain my problem as well as I should have.” And Phil looked at me in a way that no one’s ever looked at me before, with the utmost seriousness, and said, “Don’t ever do that again.”
I knew exactly what he meant. I shouldn’t have put myself down like that. I said to myself, “That’s it … I’m not doing that anymore.” It wasn’t his words that reached me; it was the intensity with which he said them. What he was really saying was, “You’re in a war with Part X, and at that moment you sided with the enemy against yourself.” It was a very powerful experience for me. It was the beginning of me breaking the habit of thinking of myself as a failure.