I was recently interviewed by the lovely and talented Nicole Lemaster for the “Coleyology” podcast, a program which focuses on consciousness, mental health, and holistic living.
In this lively, personal, and candid interview, Nicole and I discuss such things as focusing on therapy client strengths, framing problems, co-creating novel experiences, hoodoo, the paradox of trust, writing books, and humor in the therapy room. She was a delight to interact with and I really enjoyed our chat.
My latest book, Unlimited Resources: Simple and Easy Ways to Find, Access, and Utilize Client Strengths and Resources to Facilitate Change, is now available.
I wrote this book for psychotherapists who are interested in directing their therapy sessions toward a focus on client strengths and resources instead of an excessive focus on problem investigation and client pathology. I offer case studies, transcripts, and practical examples to give therapists and coaches simple methods for implementing resource directed ways of working.
My present belief system is that clients seek help from a therapist due to their feeling stuck in some way. Their ability to work through what they perceive as a problem is hindered by their attempting to deal with the problem with a pattern of action/reaction which furthers to cement the pattern and, unfortunately, makes it worse. If clients are continuing to perform the same patterns of action, thought, and emotion toward the problem, then the problem will be maintained and clients will feel it insurmountable to overcome. This will lead to them perceiving their problem as a personal reality and their automatic responses to this “reality” further solidifies the pattern.
In order to facilitate a change in these patterns, I believe therapists must be comfortable talking about and doing things that are unexpected and random. Our therapeutic interactions are there to provide clients with new information which can be used to alter the patterns which have previously caused distress. When new and random information enters their present perceived reality, then their reality has to adjust. Sometimes merely giving straightforward logical information in dialogue may not be very effective due to the brain being stuck in a deeply entrenched pattern. Introducing the random into a session can cause the brain to experience different and new realities which can create a shift in how clients respond to their problems. As Gregory Bateson stated in his classic text, Mind and Nature, “Without the random, there can be no new thing.”
Random information can come from anywhere. Sources such as popular culture, spirituality, childhood hobbies, fine arts, etc. can all introduce new information about different ways to respond to old problems. Further examination of the problem and trying to solve the problem only continues the process of the problem. Introducing the random or unexpected into the problem alters the problem.
I once had a client who was dealing with social anxiety issues and panic attacks due to a variety of factors. He was very worried about running into people he used to know and their observing how little he had advanced in his life. He stated he knew he was depressed and was not in a good place to talk to former friends as he “did not want to burden them” with his problems. When he did go out he would sometimes have a panic attack which would cause him to immediately return home. He felt stuck and more depressed due to his inability to go out often.
PATTERN: Go out –> worry about seeing someone he knows –> think about the present condition he is in and the shame he has about it –> have a panic attack –> immediately go home
I heard him state that he didn’t want to “burden others” with his problems. I immediately latched onto how a desire to not burden someone was actually an act of compassion. I told him that his concern for how other people feel was quite remarkable. I complimented him on how compassionate he was to willingly allow himself to suffer so that others would not suffer. I told him it was possible that his unconscious mind could even be creating these panic episodes to help shield others from feeling his pain. He responded favorably to my conjectures. Our conversation on compassion continued as we discussed many other examples of times he was kind to others. Since he was a religious person, we also discussed the spiritual role of compassion and the many saints who had shown great compassion while going through hardships. The topic of compassion was a “random” entry into the interaction as neither of us expected it to appear. It did not fit the prearranged pattern of the problem.
I then told him that it was not fair for him to waste his compassion being alone at home. We had to come up with some way for him to help others with his strong sense of compassion. I told him he had much to teach all of us about how to become more compassionate in our lives. I reminded him about the hardships that the various saints had to face trying to spread their messages of hope to others. I let him know that he could not fully show compassion by staying at home. He needed to find somewhere to interact with others on a small scale to help them learn to have compassion toward themselves. He agreed that this was important work to do. In time, he found that when he did go out he was not as nervous as before and he found that he could interact with people with fewer panic episodes. The random inclusion of “compassion” into the pattern caused his reality to adjust. His previously self-defeating fear was now a source of compassion to be shared with others.
Random information does not come from a scripted, rehearsed treatment protocol. It can only come from an alive interaction with room for spontaneity. It also does not come from excessive problem investigation. When we allow the random to show up in our therapy room, we can let it flow as we ride the wave of interaction.
Join me and Courtney Armstrong for a dynamic 3-day workshop that will teach you how to effectively heal trauma using a respectful, strengths-based hypnosis approach. This high-powered workshop worth 25 CE’s that is filled with experiential activities and practice sessions that help you discover: 1) why hypnosis is one of the most gentle and effective evidence-based tools you can use for reconsolidating traumatic memories, 2) how to use hypnosis to quickly rewire the brain and activate inner healing states, and 3) how to easily adapt interventions to fit your client’s spiritual, cultural, and personal needs.
This training will qualify you for LEVEL 1 Certification in Courtney’s cutting edge “Trauma-Informed Hypnotherapy“.
You’ll learn that hypnosis is not scary or complicated, but merely a way of communicating with the emotional brain where our emotional memories, attachment schemas, and automatic patterns are stored. You’ll see that when you speak to the emotional brain in a language it understands, it updates rather quickly and painlessly. Clients typically enjoy the hypnosis approach we’ll be teaching you, and often finish sessions feeling relieved and uplifted, rather than tired, retraumatized, or drained.
Don’t miss the fun, fascinating, and educating event!
I received a question the other day about the use of directives in psychotherapy due to my having written other posts about applying absurdity and paradox as effective therapeutic directives. The question I received is “How do you do directives in an ethical manner”? This question caused me to pause as I usually do not think about how I do directives as being unethical at all. Upon further reflection I think the question came about because of the power distribution within the session in which directives arise. In order to give directives, the therapist has to become the “director” of the session and cannot be merely a passive onlooker. This can create concern for those who are uncomfortable with having a larger amount of power and control in their therapy sessions. I completely understand this concern.
To address this concern, first, I must state that if you are a therapist it is crucial that you adhere to the ethical guidelines set forth by the organizations who are involved in your licensing (APA, ACA, NASW, etc.). Thoroughly knowing what is appropriate and what is not in the ethical codes is an important part of being a professional therapist. If there is uncertainty on one’s part about a course of action, I recommend consulting with a colleague or supervisor to bounce ideas off of so that one can have a better perspective on a directive. The allure of power can be seductive so it is imperative that we in the healing profession proceed with caution. At the same time, we need to not be so uptight and worried about what we are doing that we lose our spontaneity and creativity.
Secondly, I think the best way to use directives is to simply ask yourself, “Would I be willing to do what I am asking my clients to do?” If the answer is “yes”, then implement the directives. If the answer is “no”, then do not implement the directive. If we are unwilling to do what we are asking of our clients, then not only are we not congruent with the therapeutic offering, but we are also putting unnecessary burdens and expectations on the people we are trying to help. By approaching directives with this mindset, it creates an opportunity for us to expand our own comfort zones. If we ask our client to do an odd action to change his or her patterns of interaction, then why not implement that same pattern in our own lives? It may help us become less regimented and more creative in how we approach our own problems. I have a rule that I never ask any of my clients to do anything that I would not be willing to do. This helps keep me mindful of the issue of power in the therapeutic relationship and also reminds me that there are areas that I need to work on and expand in myself.
A recent example of this occurred when I had a client who was very anxious about having things in order. She specifically was bothered by the idea of germs in her home. I was able to get her to agree to not wash one of the pans she used in cooking for two days (it was no small feat to get that agreement!). This allowed her mind to observe that not having everything perfectly clean would not automatically lead to excessive germs and sickness. As I gave this directive, I noted that I can be a bit of a neat freak in my own home. I make my bed and wash my dishes daily and do not like things out of order. As a result of giving her the directive to not wash a pan for two days, I decided to implement a similar directive for myself. I did not wash a pan for two days nor make my bed. This may seem like it is not a big deal to some of my readers, but for me it was an annoyance to alter my usual routine. It did pay off as I reminded myself that routines are sometimes made to be broken and it also gave me a level of congruence with my client.
If you direct your client to stand up more for himself in situations where he would previously back down, then make sure you are willing to stand up for yourself in a situation where you usually back down. If you want your client to expand her comfort zone by try something new, then make sure you are willing to try something new outside your comfort zone. By being willing to do what we ask of people we can defend against potential ethical issues.
Performing odd, unexpected and absurd actions in psychotherapy is not something one usually learns in graduate school. In fact, in my many years in training, giving absurd directives was never covered. There were examples of various leaders in the field doing strange things to create change but this was never followed up with explanations or encouragement on how to perform such actions. In really examining the use of absurdity and paradox in therapy we find that it is the unexpected that creates a sense of confusion in clients which opens the space for new possibilities to emerge.
Even though great therapists such as Whitaker, Haley, Erickson, Palazzoli, etc. have used absurdity and paradox in their work, as of late there does not appear to be much information in the literature about how or why to perform such maneuvers. I personally believe that being open to absurdity not only makes you a better therapist, but also allows you to have a happier life. The nature of life itself is absurd, so why not embrace this fact? Absurdity can be utilized for shaking up interactions in a way that forces clients to find a different way of relating to the situation which originally brought them to therapy.
In order to create absurdity in the therapy room, clinicians must be one hundred percent willing to abandon any rigid ways of interacting with clients. They should be prepared to act in a spontaneous and creative manner. To be absurd we need to not make any sense. This statement will clash with the prevailing paradigm of logical, left brained therapy which appears to engulf much of the evidence based research. We are often taught that we need to teach our clients to think and act rationally in order for them to change. Certainly these are good objectives, but I will raise the point that it is in learning to deal with the absurdity of life where we really learn to be happy. When we become confused by things we naturally search for understanding. While we are trying to make sense of certain absurd actions, we automatically are being stretched out of our habitual ways of relating to our world. With this stretching process we become open to new resources in how to respond to the absurdity of the moment and of life in general.
Some examples of using absurdity to create change:
1. I once saw a couple who were having issues due to the wife’s unwillingness to let her husband have any power in the relationship. She was very controlling but at the same time wanted her husband to “step up” and take some control in the household. The husband wanted to do this but every time he attempted to “step up” she would create a fight because it triggered her control issues and he would back down. He was stuck in a “double bind” situation (which was absurd to begin with). Even though both the husband and the wife logically knew what the situation was, nothing was changing. When they came to their first session, I got their approval for them to do anything I asked them to do as long as it did not violate any safety, security or ethical boundaries. I then told them to go home and on the next day that they were home alone with nowhere to go (which was the upcoming Saturday), they were to wear each others’ clothing for the whole day. The husband was to wear one of his wife’s dresses and she was to wear one of his suits. They were instructed to do whatever they wanted to do that day but they were not allowed to talk about how they felt about the change of clothing. They reluctantly agreed. On the next session, three weeks later, it was revealed that the wife had begun to allow the husband to take on more responsibility in the home.
2. A man in his late 50s came to therapy stating that he was emotionally wounded from the constant “destructive” criticism he received growing up. He stated that he was in a wonderful marriage and his wife rarely ever criticized him. He said the problem was anytime she would offer anything that was “constructive” criticism; he would emotionally withdraw because it would activate his old fears and emotional pain from his past history of “destructive” criticism. He was open to trying anything to get past this problem. His wife was called during the session and put on speaker phone. I directed her to constantly criticize her husband for the next three days about everything. I told her to let him know that he was breathing incorrectly eating incorrectly, sleeping incorrectly or anything else he naturally did. Clearly confused, both parties agreed to do it. When the husband returned in a week he told me not only had he not been upset at any criticism, but both his wife and daughter began to open up more to him to let him know how they felt about certain private things. The dialogue in the home was more emotional in a positive way and he felt closer to his family. He was clearly confused how getting criticism from loved ones for three days created the ability for a family to become closer and more loving toward each other.
In order to be effective at performing absurd actions in therapy we need to be sure that we have our clients’ best interests at heart and that we are asking them to do things which we would be willing to do ourselves. We are creating an alive” Zen Koan” in our therapy room when we allow absurdity in. By being open to absurdity and paradox we also free ourselves to become more creative in our interventions. There is not fixed pattern when we utilize absurdity. To do this we are jumping off into the unknown. This may be frightening to some practitioners who cling to standardized regimentation. To me, that is absurd!
For a case study of the absurd I offer the following clip from the Marx Brothers. Get out your notebooks and watch how literally everything within this clip is absurd, yet it creates a wider perspective of what could happen.
I recently came across an old article while doing some research that really got me thinking in a different direction. The article was written by Cecchin, Lane and Ray and published in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy in 1993. It is entitled “From Strategizing to Nonintervention: Toward Irreverence in Systemic Practice”. The article discusses the shifting of focus in systemic therapy away from cybernetics and directive interventions and towards nonintervention and a focus on narrative (this shift was a huge mistake in my opinion). In the article, the authors suggest that in order to avoid the trap of being constricted in any way, therapists may want to embrace irreverence in their clinical work. This will enable them to avoid any potential limitations. It is a fantastic article that still has applications today. I was so inspired by the authors’ ideas that I wanted to share them, along with my own thoughts about how to become an “irreverent therapist.”
How to become an Irreverent Therapist
To be able to act without any restrictions on effectiveness, irreverent therapists need to take 100 percent responsibility for the actions they take and the directives they give. They must be willing to do anything within ethical guidelines to create the conditions for change to occur. If a therapist needs to be silent for the whole session in order to create change, she will. If a therapist needs to be confrontational in order to create change, she will. If a therapist needs to jump up and down on the couch singing songs from the 1960s to create change, she will. An irreverent therapist has an incredible amount of flexibility because her client is the focus of the session, not her theory.
This will mean that the therapist will have to abandon any concepts, ideas, theories, or beliefs which could hamper the successful outcome of treatment. To quote Cecchin, Lane, and Ray, “therapists should maintain a healthy disrespect for any idea which restricts therapeutic maneuverability and creativity.” If you want to be an irreverent therapist, it is crucial that you successfully overcome any desire to stick to predetermined theory or technique that is regarded as the gospel truth. Any allegiance to a dogma is to quickly be rejected in order to flow with the moment as you and your client interact. Practice laughing maniacally when you hear that a specific theory or technique is labeled “the best”.
An irreverent therapist will go out of his way to undermine and create havoc in the rigid beliefs and patterns of his clients. The order of the day is to embrace playfulness and see what happens when an inspired, uninhibited shrink gets to have fun. The irreverent therapist is also expected to poke holes in his own beliefs and patterns as he weaves a web of possibilities in his interactions with his clients. Uncertainty is not only embraced but encouraged in the therapy room. Any viewpoint the therapist or client takes as an absolute certainty in the session must be disregarded and discarded in favor of pure spontaneity and aliveness. Any certainty that the problem the client brings is unsolvable needs to be immediately dismantled in the therapy session. Spend time observing mastery of the absurd by watching a Marx Brothers movie or a Samuel Beckett play (these are much more enjoyable and teachable than most therapy textbooks).
An irreverent therapist pays little attention to how problems got started. He or she will be mostly focused on how things can shift and change. Investigation into past history and narrative explanations are kept to a minimum as the therapist redirects focus away from problem investigation and towards an exploration of client strengths and resources. Diagnostic labels are regarded with much suspicion and even disdain (maniacal laughter can be used here as well).
Try on the mantle of “Irreverent Therapist” for a week. Put it on your business cards. For this title there are no expensive, long term trainings to attend in order to obtain some silly certification. All that is needed is an openness to absurdity, an embracing of compassion, and a sense of humor.
I was recently honored to have been interviewed by Dr. Rob McNeilly. Rob is a medical doctor, a direct student of the late therapy wizard Dr. Milton H. Erickson and the founder of the Center for Effective Therapy in Tasmania. Our quick interview covers such topics as the role of expectancy in therapy, research into the therapeutic use of hoodoo, and how clients can be therapists’ best teachers.
Rob is a masterful trainer in Solution Oriented Therapies and Ericksonian Hypnosis. As a matter of fact, he is now offering a new comprehensive and hands-on online program “Easy Hypnosis – A Common Everyday Approach after Erickson”. This great program has text, audios and videos so the principles can be readily learned and easily incorporated into one’s clinical practice (whatever your previous experience of hypnosis may be). It includes 6 one hour video coaching calls. I highly recommend this experience and urge you to explore the possibilities. Rob tells me that registration will only be open until April 25th, so if you’re interested, don’t wait.
If you are interested in learning the Ericksonian approach to hypnosis from a true expert and direct student of Dr. Erickson, there are details here.
A theory is a generalized explanation and body of knowledge about how something operates. These explanations are used to predict and assume outcomes for specific actions. A theory stands if the results can be consistently replicated by researchers under similar conditions.
In the field of psychotherapy, research seems to come out daily promoting one theory of therapy over another. Each theory proponents pushes their theory to be the most effective and often have substantial research as evidence to its effectiveness. The rigor shown by these researchers can be impressive and their work has created shifts in, not only the content of educational training, but also funding for programs which are designed to assist the public with mental health issues.
I remember talking with one therapist who told me that the only real reason he started using his theory of therapy was that it was “evidence based”. He had not tried any other forms of therapeutic interventions because he felt there was not as much research to back up other theories. He said close to seventy five percent of his clients got better using his approach. My question to him was, “What about the other twenty five percent who don’t change?” He politely changed the subject at that point.
Even though there are some great aspects to having a solid theory of how to do therapy, these theories can sometimes become cumbersome and limiting if we think each individual will automatically fit into our theory. Our clients may not have received the memo that they are to respond a certain way at a certain time due to a certain intervention. When the client does not fit the theory presented by the therapist sometimes the client is then labeled “resistant”. When a client is seen as resistant due to his or her inability to conform to the will of the therapist, the therapist may then become frustrated, angry, feel ineffective or become burned out due to his or her strict adherence to their theory.
The best way to handle the “resistant” client is to throw away your theory. This may be blasphemy to many who cling to their theories in a dogmatic, evangelical way. Many times our theories are good for some clients but not good for others (the twenty five percent). If all we have is one way to assist others we may find ourselves surrounded by “resistant” clients who make us work too hard, feel defeated and uninspired in our vocation. When we allow ourselves to create new interactions in the moment with each new client without a set scripted theory, we may find that every therapeutic encounter can feel much more exciting and creative. What if every client needed his or her very own theory of therapy?
The great scientist Karl Popper believed that theories by nature are abstract, and can only be tested in reference to their implications. Popper asserted that a theory is irreducibly conjectural and brought about by our imagination to solve problems that have come about in a distinct cultural and historical context. He felt that the truth of any theory cannot be verified by scientific testing. It can only be falsified.
To quote the brilliant family therapist Carl Whitaker: “I have a theory that theories are destructive.” Whitaker argued that too much reliance on a theory can cause a loss of objectivity for each unique person and situation. He felt this could result in a loss of compassion and care for the client. He argued that clinicians should consider give up strict adherence to theory and become alive as a real person in their sessions. As he eloquently put it, “Part of the problem is the theoretical delusion that science is curative; that enough knowledge, enough information, the right kind of facts will bring about the resolution of life’s doubts, the resolution of all distress.” I think Carl got this one right.