The Panda Project

A few years back, the San Diego Zoo heard from the Chinese government that their request to get a Panda was approved.  They would have exactly one year to complete its enclosure and accept the rare Panda.  Zoo officials were overwhelmed.  Not only would this bring in much needed revenue, but it would be able to claim that they were one of the few zoos in the world to house a Panda.  Fortunately, they had been preparing for this news for the last five years.  They had a state of the art enclosure planned and the money already raised.  State of the art was understatement.  The new Panda pen was going to have native bamboo from his region, waterfalls, rolling grassy hills, ropes to climb and plenty of sunlight.  No expense would be spared.

Six months later and the structure halfway up, the San Diego Zoo received an odd shipment.  Their Panda had come 6 months early.  After contacting their Chinese liaison, he stated that the early shipment was unavoidable and that they would have to take the Panda or give up hope of ever having another Panda.  So of course they held onto the Panda and tried to make him comfortable in an extra cage that they had on hand.  Construction of his new enclosure renewed at a harried pace and was completed, inspected and ready to go in 3 months’ time.  What a victory!  There was just one problem.

When zoo officials unveiled the new Panda and the new enclosure to the world they found that their prize possession wouldn’t move outside of the imaginary boundaries of the old cage that they had been forced to keep him in during construction.  He would pace inside a 30X20 outline, while leaving the newly constructed Panda Playground untouched.  Officials were not worried, but a week later they started to panic.  Expert zoologists were brought in to help fix this problem.  Finally, after a month, the zoo put an ad out in the paper asking for interested parties to submit their suggestions.  A $10,000 reward was offered.

So what would you suggest?

I heard this story from a psychologist giving a presentation on the power of metaphor.  In this example, the Panda is the problem and the lush environment surrounding the Panda is Life happening outside of the problem that is being avoided.  As I’ve retold this story to my clients I’ve gotten many different responses:

  • Get another panda
  • Move their food outside the box
  • Place something that they like to play with outside of the box
  • Have someone guide them across the imaginary border to show them that the boundary doesn’t exist
  • Place treats closer and closer to the edge of the box and then after you’ve got the panda moving, place one outside of the box.

The worst solution I’ve heard was given by the psychologist’s husband who was told the story when he was in a deep depression.  His answer?  Do nothing.  The Panda will eventually run out of room to poop.  Pretty indicative of where he was at emotionally, huh?

What this story allows the reader to do is abstract their problems onto the Panda and play armchair therapist.  Let me rephrase each solution in their proper psychology terms:

  • Get another Panda increase social support
  • Move their food outside of the boxNegative reinforcement (taking away something to increase a desired action)
  • Place something that the like to play with outside of the box Positive reinforcement (giving something to increase a desired action)
  • Have someone guide them across the imaginary border to show them that the boundary doesn’t exist modeling or attributing expert status to a guide who can teach you about the world (ie. therapist, priest/minister/rabbi, RA, parent, teacher, etc.)
  • Place treats closer and closer to the edge of the box and then after you’ve got the panda moving, place one outside of the box.  – Behavioral shaping – encouraging small behavioral approximations of the desired outcome until you are rewarding the desired behavior.

Sometimes when we are struggling, it is helpful to relate our problems to something outside of us so that we don’t personalize the problem so much.  When we personalize, our feelings, ego, and biases get in way sometimes of us using the problem solving skills that we all have already learned.  Getting some distance and talking about the Panda in the room can help us practice those skills and see how everyday solutions can apply to your unique situation.  What Panda are you having trouble moving?

-Logan Williamson, LPC

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