Friday, February 22, 2013

When old strategies become problems: Part 2

What good is trying to be accomplished? A second example of the sanity and logic that underlie problem behavior, in this case, wanting to stay in bed in the morning.

Threads:                        Getting unstuck, breaking up old patterns
Relevant recent posts:    2/12/2013     When old strategies become problems: Part 1
                                    8/23/2011     Getting unstuck: Part 2
5/13/2011     A frame for how we learn
2/14/2011     Unconscious Learning


It’s easy to support a curious, interested child learning something new.
How will you be as generous with yourself as you solve this problem?

    -to a client, frustrated with their own behavior


A new client often arrives with a problem behavior they hate. No matter how crazy, weird, counterproductive, or self-sabotaging the behavior seems, I have learned there is likely some past circumstance in which the behavior was learned and adopted to accomplish something good. Although the behavior persists in its attempt to accomplish something good, it may no longer fit the current circumstances—it is now a problem.

What’s the behavior trying to accomplish that’s good?
When a client can see and appreciate the problem behavior as an old strategy on behalf of their well-being that can be refined and updated, it often helps change the behavior. Because of this, I immediately become curious: What’s the behavior trying to accomplish that’s so important that it has resisted the client’s every effort to change it?

Example 2

I don’t want to get out of bed in the morning
A client I’ll call Matt, in his thirties, is competent and resourceful. His parents recently moved from across the country into the town where he and his family live. Their proximity has triggered some of Matt’s old childhood feelings and prompted him to seek therapy. The following vignette, drawn from work with Matt and used with permission (see “Footnote: About this example,” below), exposes the sanity which can underlie a problem behavior.

During our work to change the nature of his responses around his mother, Matt said he often didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning. I asked, “How does it go? What do you think or feel that is a part of not wanting to get out of bed?”

He said, “It’s easier to stay in bed if there’s nothing pulling me out of bed.”

Me: “Where do you imagine you learned this? What circumstance have you been in where it really was easier to stay in bed if there’s nothing pulling you out of bed?”

Matt: "Growing up around my mother. It felt like anything I’d do would set her off. Then she’d yell at me and be mean. I could never tell what I’d done wrong, so I didn’t know what to do differently.”

Me: “So, if nothing was pulling you out of bed, like having to go to school, it was easier to stay in bed.”

Matt: “Yeah, so I won’t do something wrong around Mom.”

Me: “Ah, makes good sense.”

Matt: “Yeah.”

Me: “That’s a pretty good strategy, staying in bed, to avoid the risk of setting her off.”

Matt: “Yeah, I never thought about it that way.”

Me: “Where you live now, with your wife and son, do you feel at risk of doing something wrong and setting either of them off?...”

Matt: [laughs, shakes head ‘no’].

Me: “So, you believe now it might actually be okay to get out of bed in the morning…?

Matt: [nodding ‘yes’]

Me: “This strategy of staying in bed to protect you from upsetting your Mom has been persistent for decades, so it’s probably not going to drop away just because we’re talking about it. But we can add something to it. Would that be okay?

Matt: “Yes.”

Me: “So, on those mornings when you wake up and it still might happen that you have that experience of it being easier to stay in bed… see how it feels to say, ‘Thank you for being so persistent in trying to protect and take care of me. I know it’s okay now for me to get out of bed. Thank you.’”

Matt: “Huh. Yeah. [pause] I can do that.”

Me: “Only if you really know it is okay for you to get out of bed, that it is different now than it was growing up around your Mom.”

Matt. “Yeah, I know that, it is different. I can say that.”

There was more
Matt went home and the next morning, when he felt it was easier to stay in bed than to get up, he said, “Thank you for being so persistent in trying to protect and take care of me. I know it’s okay now for me to get out of bed.” Then he got out of bed and began doing his morning things. In a few minutes he started feeling anxious—tight chest and stomach. By mid-morning he realized he was feeling like he used to as a little boy when he got out of bed. By ignoring the old strategy of staying under Mom’s radar, and instead, getting out of bed, Matt triggered the old feelings he would have had as a child when getting out of bed: Anxiousness and at risk of setting Mom off.

He was able to realize this while it was happening. He stayed with his experience throughout the day and his anxiousness gradually lessened.

I understand this as a work in progress: As Matt continues to refine and update old learnings he acquires more options for how he responds now than were available to him as a child. He grows.

Your comments are welcomed.

Footnote: About this example

Stories and therapy vignettes that are inspired by my clients’ coming to change are used with permission, are always altered to protect client anonymity, are not intended to accurately portray therapy, and are often fictionalized syntheses written to make clear some point.

All are offered with gratitude to my clients—all of whom teach me that our capacity for intelligent and life-affirming responsivity and change exceeds conscious imagining. And all are offered in support of people making enlivening change in their own lives and in support of those of us who, in turn, support others opening to more options for being alive and vital.

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