Sunday, March 10, 2013

When old strategies become problems, Part 3

A third example of the sanity and logic that underlies a problem behavior, in this case, worries about an upcoming adventure (and plane flight).

Threads:                        Getting unstuck, breaking up old patterns
Relevant recent posts:    2/22/2013     When old strategies become problems: Part 2
                                    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


But how do you prepare enough for such a thing?

Locked in
When an old strategy is triggered, you more or less lock into the set of responses and options dictated by the associated old learnings. For instance, in Part 1, snakes triggered paralyzing fear; in Part 2, waking up in the morning triggered the feeling that it was safer to stay in bed.

No replacements, just room for something new
Therapy is most often not a case of learning a new behavior to replace an old one. Rather it involves becoming free of the constraints of the old pattern in a way that one’s natural, unfettered intelligence emerges to meet the circumstances in this moment now, not as they were then. 

Example 3

In this example, drawn from work with a client and used with permission (see “Footnote: About this example,” below), an ostensible fear of flying turns out to be rooted in an old learning about the dangers of going on an adventure. The therapeutic work consists of the client becoming aware of the functioning of her old patterned response in a way that she can gently interrupt it. Here’s a shortened and simplified telling of our interaction.

The problem: Anxiously thinking about what might go wrong

A client I’ll call Bett, a resourceful woman in her fifties, wanted my help to “overcome irrational, silly fears…” including the fear of flying. Up to this point, she had avoided flying; now she wanted to go on a vacation that required plane travel and had booked it, non-refundable. She couldn’t stop anxiously thinking about what might go wrong.

Where did you learn to do that?
I asked where she learned to think so hard about what might go wrong. She said her father was a worrier. She vividly remembered when going outdoors on some adventure he would call after her, “You’re going to get hurt; be careful not to break your neck.”

This was Dad’s earnest attempt to make sure his little girl would take care of herself. Bett took it to heart.

The old strategy is an attempt to accomplish something good
When she went outside on an adventure she certainly didn’t want to get hurt or break her neck. What preparation and amount of vigilance go into being careful enough? She didn’t know.

It became clear: In a well-meaning effort to take care of herself Bett had learned to think and think about what could go wrong… without ever arriving at the sense that she had thought and prepared carefully enough to avoid something bad happening.

A new adventure triggers the old strategy
Now, with respect to the old learning, Bett’s booked plane travel qualified as an adventure… triggering this old strategy.

Learning to recognize the old pattern
Bett recounted a number of past instances of being anxious and thinking about what might go wrong in anticipation of an adventure. We both could appreciate this old behavior, although ineffective, was an effort to accomplish something good.

Gently interrupting the old pattern
We explored the possibility of Bett comfortably preparing for and going on an adventure. She said she’d like that. I suggested, “Although this old strategy of worrying means well, it may be time to refine it. Perhaps whenever it starts up—and you find yourself endlessly thinking about what might go wrong, see how it feels to say something like:

“Thank you for being so persistent in trying to take care of me. I have thought about how to take care of myself on this adventure, and I think I’m okay. If there’s something specific I missed, let me know.”

A new learning: Knowing when you’ve done enough

She liked how it felt, and said she would do it. We did a few minutes of hypnosis to support the interruption and refinement of this old learning in a way that would allow Bett to more comfortably and adequately plan for her upcoming travel. Suggestions included the following metaphor:

"And when everything that can be done that should be done has been done… then there can be a natural settling. Just like breathing: The diaphragm engages and inhalation comes to you… and when enough has been taken in… then there is a natural settling into the exhalation that happens of its own accord."

At the end of the session I asked if there was more work for us to do with this. Her response both answered my question and broke with the old pattern: “I think that’s enough. I feel ready to go.”

About these examples

In this and the previous two posts, thanking old and obsolete habitual behaviors “…for being so persistent in trying to protect me…” could seem a bit cookie-cutter-ish. There is more to it.

First, there is therapy that precedes and then follows the work portrayed in these vignettes. A lot of the old behavior is already dismantled by the time someone can recognize its functioning clearly enough to be able to talk about it (rather than be blindly in the thrall of it). Also, there may be follow-on work in support of the client accomplishing a sustainable and satisfying outcome.

Second, out of session, 1) doing the work of recognizing when you’re in the middle of enacting the problem behavior, 2) understanding that it is old and obsolete, and thinking to thank it… all contribute to the pattern losing traction.

And third, there are many kinds of old and obsolete behaviors and equally many ways to therapeutically address them. I chose these three vignettes because they share an underlying template: An old behavior, learned at a young age as a protective strategy, continues to function even though it has become outmoded. After reading about it in three different settings, it may be easier for you to become aware of old obsolete habits functioning in your own life—that may mean well but that you no longer need. 

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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