That’s Absurd!: Using Absurdity to Create Change

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.

 

absurd

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.

Episode 8: Lisa Mitchell Interview

Lisa Mitchell

In this wonderful interview, we get to talk with Lisa Mitchell. Lisa is a therapist, speaker, workshop facilitator, and the director of “The Art Therapy Studio” in Fair Oaks Village, California. She is the author of the acclaimed book, “Creativity as Co-Therapist: The Practitioner’s Guide to the Art of Therapy“. In this interview Lisa discusses the importance of embracing creativity when performing therapy and how to get the most out of one’s clients using creative resources. She also discusses how many therapists can often be apprehensive to opening up to creative expression and how it is crucial to overcome such resistance. In her consultation work, Lisa trains therapists how to come alive and flourish while becoming better therapists when they embrace their creative spirits. To find out more about Lisa’s fantastic approach and workshops, visit her website: www.innercanvas.com

Are You Ready to be Creative?

If you have spent any time reading my blog or listening to my podcasts you know that I am a big proponent of using creativity in psychotherapy. I see too many good therapists who could be amazing therapists if they would just allow themselves to be more creative in their work. The straight jacket many therapists put on themselves by strictly sticking to the textbook can inadvertently dampen their effectiveness.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s time to fall back in love with your work, have more fun, and gain the confidence to embrace more playfulness in your practice. This is why I am excited about this upcoming  event.

I’m speaking at a virtual event ­­ Create Fest 2016 ­­ that you can attend from the comfort of your home.

Create Fest is all about empowering therapists like you to awaken your creative spirit and reignite your passion for your work. What we do as mental health professionals is vital to healing in the world, so my fellow speakers and I are passionately committed to helping you revitalize and enhance your practice.

 

Createfest

 

Join me and a dozen of my “outside­ the­ box” colleagues. Each of my fellow speakers brings a wealth of experience, insight, and one­ of­ a­ kind creative thinking to the mental health field. Come discover some new approaches.

Each day, you’ll get to watch 6 fun and inspiring interviews PLUS 6 live experiential activities, designed to help you integrate and prepare to apply what you learn. This is not your average professional development conference! Create Fest 2016 will be 2 days of powerfully playful and practical ways to invite more creativity into your practice.

To sign up for this unique event, go HERE

If you are ready to have fun, be inspired and learn to expand your effectiveness as a therapist, then I know that I will see you there.

 

Just Questions….

What if you threw away all concerns about theoretical orientations in your work as a therapist?

What if you had absolutely no orientation other than your own inner voice?

 

To many therapists these questions sound like dangerous territory but I think these are the kind of questions we need to ask ourselves.

 

Who are you if you did not have a theory to define yourself as a therapist?

What would that direct experience of an alive, spontaneous therapy session then be like for you?

What if you decided to not “do” therapy at all in your sessions but rather “be” therapy?

What amazing things could occur if you unchained your mind from preconceptions of what a therapy session should look like?

 

These are just questions. nothing more

 

“It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.”
~James Thurber