The Princess and the Pea
Once upon a time, there was a beautiful but miserable princess. She was an altogether irritable and troublesome sort who confounded and distressed the royal family and her subjects. She would sleep fitfully, and upon rising in the morning, would be quick to anger, and was continuously nervous, often depressed, and overall not very happy. And so the king summoned from across the land psychic healers from all persuasions. They recommended that they pile mattress upon mattress to so get a good nights sleep, and a psychotherapeutic regimen for her to reinterpret, ignore or otherwise purge her inner angst. Then the court jester, who had an eye for the ironic, had an idea. He reasoned that since princesses are an extremely sensitive sort, perhaps the source of her distress was equally as fine. Thus he searched under each of her mattresses, and at long last found a single tiny pea. Upon removal of the little legume, the princess slept soundly, and regained her cheerful and relaxed disposition. So the moral of the story is: And for wont of a pea, the kingdom was calmed.
The princess was bothered to distraction by a small yet often constant distraction. Having to constantly adjust in frustration because of a pea yet not know the source of that frustration seems the stuff of fairy tales. Yet ironically a modern fairy tale existence of unlimited opportunity and choice can drive one to the same level or irritated distraction as the little pea, and be ignored even though it is in plain sight. A distraction denotes a relatively unimportant option that attracts attention. Like a pea under a mattress or a pebble in one’s shoe, it is an affectively (or subjectively) important but logically (or objectively) trivial thing. The problem is that we believe we can easily reconcile a distraction filled day with our daily rational agenda, and that distractions are somehow a good thing. If we end up every day sorely tensed and stressed, it is not because of an onrush of the trivial. It is, like the proverbial pea, something we just don’t consciously consider, until of course the source of irritation is removed.
The moral to this story is that it is often not high level demands or choices that make us miserable, but the low level continuous and small choices that provide a non-conscious irritant that interferes with not only our sleep but all of our behaviors during the day. Ironically, for contemporary stress management practices, irritants are mainly small potatoes. For psychotherapists in particular, stress is big ticket stuff caused by big ticket problems. Hence if you feel irritable, exhausted, or just plain cranky, it's because of major choices you confront in life that need major league (and expensive) therapy. Simply rearranging your life to eliminate distractive choices is a job for an interior decorator, not a therapist. And so it is not stressed, leaving the patient invariably stressed out. So if you are under stress, don't look for the nearest therapist, just look very carefully for a little pea.