The Hairbrush Blues

Sometimes, a strategy to solve one problem works really well, but, over time, creates another problem.

Let me illustrate.

For the past several months, when I get into the car, I put the key in the ignition and hope it will turn. Sometimes it does.

Sometimes it doesn’t.

When it first didn’t turn.–like it doesn’t move…you try to turn the key and it’s like its the wrong key that won’t budge–the first time it didn’t do this, I had it towed by the fine folks at CAA Manitoba to the mechanics.  And…wouldn’t you know it, it turned for him.  He tried it 10 times and it turned each time.


Eventually, it stuck a little the second time I brought it into him, and he tapped it, making some passing comment about the tumblers inside the lock maybe sticking a bit.

So another driver in my tribe found that tapping helped when it seemed like it was broken…only sometimes the “tapping” was more like “hitting” the ignition with the key in it.

When I tried it, that hurt my hand.  Ow!

So, there happened to be a hairbrush in the middle console one day…which I grabbed and used to whack at the ignition.

It worked.


So, every time I get into that car, I hum a little tune to myself:


and every time I grab the hairbrush and whack it, it starts.

Until today.


I was leaving the office to get to a doctor’s appointment to accompany a tribe member, and it wouldn’t start. Given the cold day and the fact I know almost nothing about cars, I assumed it was the car battery.

I called my friends at CAA again (great folks…said it would be maximum 2 hour wait.  At 2 hours and 5 minutes, they called me to let me know it would be another 15 minutes.  That’s my kind of people…acknowledging the difference and letting me know about it so I wouldn’t be tapping my fingers wondering if they’d ever come) and he asked me to show me what happened.

The ignition wouldn’t turn so…WHACK, WHACK …and then I turned it…again nuthin’.

He quickly said the battery was not the problem. The anti-theft system was.

And he said the problem likely arose because of the way the ignition gets hit, and so the sensitive system got thrown off.


When the mechanic in the summer seemed to imply it wasn’t a problem (even it still was), I figured out my own way around it because he didn’t see a need to fix it…and it worked…

…but it created another problem.

I didn’t intend to break the anti-theft system with my whacking…absolutely not.  I only did the whacking cuz it was necessary…but whack it regularly I did.

I chuckled to myself, because I see this most days in the counselling office.

There is often a more important reason to do a behavior than not do it...even though there may be negative consequences to that behaviour on a poster by Carolyn Bergen of Bergen and Associates Counselling

Fixes that solve one problem often create another problem:


  • declining invitations to parties to avoid the anxiety a person experiences at the event, only to end up rather lonely and a social calendar that is emptier than you liked.  No stress…but little fun
  • pulling away from a conversation when you sense your partner getting angry…things chill, and the yelling doesn’t happen…but disengagement and resentment can build over time
  • tensions with a family member are easily avoided by little contact with that person…but creates anxiety as Christmas approaches and family occasions have multiple occasions together occur
  • when people say things that make you feel small, and feel threatening so that you are feeling humiliated and ashamed, you yell, turn the issue around and blame the other to take the focus off yourself…and it works in the moment to help you feel better…but you see the hurt in the other’s eyes and over time it takes a toll on the relationship.
  • not applying for that course, not starting the conversation, not asking her/him out saves you from the disappointment of failing or being turned down…Whew! right?  Yes, but no chance of something pretty cool happening either…and you stay stuck.

A common line around the office is:


 “There is a more important reason for you to do _____ (insert something here) than to not do it…but that, unfortunately, what works in one way, you may pay a price for in another way”



No one knows that better than me–today.  Missing accompanying a loved one to a doctor’s appointment, standing out in the blankety-blank cold talking and working on car stuff, and the advice that I should “plan on the car suddenly deciding not to start again at any point until I get the mechanic to work on “it are all natural consequences to what seemed like such a simple solution.

That’s actually what therapy does a lot of the time.

Once we figure out why it’s important to do something (that people often come to therapy for to ask to “get rid of” because it’s costing them something emotionally, relationally, psychologically, spiritually, physically, financially etc.) then we can find other ways of meeting that need with a strategy that will not have maladaptive side effects.

Like someone might say, “Can you help me stop sneaking behind my wife to go to the bar and lying about it?  She finds out and is furious with me.  I don’t want to do that any more”…and we’ll have a conversation about how that sneaking around somehow serves a purpose (that he is likely not even aware of)…and that we need to look after that as part of figuring out how he can change his behavior.

I still need to get my car started.  But I’m gonna figure out a way to do it without whacking my ignition with the key in it…the mechanic will have to fix it.  It might cost me some bucks…but not fixing it will continue to create other issues that I’m not prepared to live with.

Is there anything you’re not prepared to live with anymore?  What strategy do you use that at some (even unknown) level works, but creates collateral damage? Would you like to find better strategies that don’t create negative side effects?

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