A woman called me the other day. She had some issues and she wanted help solving them. A counselor had told her that her issues were related to some losses she’d experienced earlier in life.
In my experience, you can tell if current problems are related to specific past experiences by checking in with emotions. If current problems contain the same emotions as past experiences, they’re probably related. If they don’t — they aren’t.
Caveat: Make sure you know how to pull someone out of a strong emotional state before you do this.
Simply put, with their permission, you can ask a client to feel a little bit of the emotion from a past event by either looking at it from a dissociated perspective (they imagine it happening from a little distance, and see how they feel). Or, if they are willing and the event isn’t “too much”, you can have them associate in to a memory and feel what they felt.
Are those feelings the same thing they are feeling now?
Have them relate all they can about the emotion and their body. Where do they feel the emotion in their body? Is there any movement to it? Temperature? All that stuff.
Be prepared for a significant level of emotion. Of course, there’s no need to linger there.
Then, distract them for a moment; long enough to get into a neutral emotional state. Then, have them step into a recent time when they experienced the current problem. Are the sensations the same? If so–related. If not–probably not.
The Affect Bridge
Alternately, you can do an affect bridge. That’s where you have the client feel the feelings of having the presenting problem, and then trace those feeling back to their root. While this procedure is not fool proof, it greatly reduces the possibility of creating a false memory or attributing the problem based on the therapist’s bias.
But before you do these things, it’s a good idea to check if a client is willing. So, I asked the woman if she was willing to find the solution to her problem even if it wasn’t related to the losses she’d experienced. She said she was sure she knew what the cause of her problems was.
A Strong Theoretical Framework Can Be A Trap
It reminded me of an incident that happened once when I was teaching. I was talking about a case of Bulimia I’d worked with that resolved after 1 session. In other words, when the client came into my office, she had a problem with purging after certain meals. When she left, she no longer had that problem (I followed up a couple of years later). The main technique I’d used was a quick anchor collapse.
A student in the class argued with me that getting results so quickly was not possible. The reason — all cases of Bulimia were caused by sexual trauma and since I hadn’t uncovered any of that, there was no way I could have helped her in any real way. Now, the student regularly worked with cases of sexual trauma in a large facility with lots of therapists and, according to the student, everyone at the clinic believed the same thing. And that’s a problem.
Seek And Ye Shall Find
If you are convinced that problems are the result of some specific type of cause, you will probably find it. You’ll convince a certain percentage of clients that it’s true, too. Do you think that all problems are the result of past life incidents? Satanic abuse? Childhood sexual abuse? Mistreatment by a dominant mother? Alien abductions? I know of therapists who “specialize” in these areas and believe their particular area is the main reason for most problems people have. And guess what? That’s what they find when they work with clients!
That’s what a strong theoretical framework gone wrong can do for you.
Now, Milton Erickson took a lot of flack because he didn’t have a lot of ideas about causes. There were lots of times when he didn’t even explore causes.
Working With A Minimal Theoretical Framework
Honestly, it’s better to have little theoretical framework about what causes what. I know that’s uncomfortable for many of you, but I promise, you’ll learn to love it. It means less time convincing clients of things that aren’t necessarily true. It allows for the possibility of rapid change. And if there’s some actual stuff back there that needs taking care of, you’ll find it if you do a good job.
But beware. Beware of people (therapists and clients) that have an agenda. And by an agenda, I mean that they’re already convinced about what caused their problem. Or they’re convinced that there’s only one way to solve their problem. I’d stay away from that.
As for the woman who called me…
She was not open to her problem being unrelated to the losses she’d suffered earlier. She had too much invested in that scenario. I elected not to work with her.