Monday, May 30, 2016


How can we help our clients develop some of the personal character patterns and inner feeling states that will improve their lives? How can we help them: have more perseverance, feel more inner peace, become more assertive, feel more inner strength...? How can we help them cultivate these qualities and emotional states?
Because these are primarily emotional states and because emotional states are controlled by lower level brain functioning(which overrides neocortical processes) rational/cognitive techniques are less effective in producing change. What I have found quite effective is to help clients invoke symbolic images because of their capacity to evoke powerful emotional states.
I'll start the discussion with a personal example. My lifework as a psychotherapist requires me to have a sense of grounded inner strength when presented with the myriad strong emotions of my patients. The work also requires me to have a reliable degree of stamina, especially on those days when I feel personally tired, and yet have to be with patients for hours. For me the image of an old tree with its roots above ground reaching deep into the earth symbolizes inner strength and endurance. On my weekly woodland walks I have sat and meditated many times with my back against a particular old deeply rooted tree. On several occasions I have imagined what that old tree has "witnessed" and "endured." By my frequent visits coupled with breathing meditations I am symbolically imbuing the image of that tree with those qualities and also creating brain patterns. In my office I have a poster of a giant redwood - I have meditated inside redwoods several times - and a stained glass image of the "Tree of Life." Before starting my day's work and also during those sessions when I feel tired, I look at those images and take a few deep breaths. Through this practice I can feel myself tapping into those deep inner states. This usually overrides the tiredness of my ordinary self and enables me to be fully present to my patients.
When we are helping clients develop their own images it is important to emphasize that the symbol needs to come from them - something resonant with their life narrative. Walt was anxious most of the time even when his life was going well. From prior experiences with other psychotherapists Walt knew the reasons for his "inner river of anxiety." He was quite close to his mother whose pervasive fearfulness permeated the atmosphere of his childhood home. As a sensitive child he absorbed her fearful energy into his own consciousness and it became strengthened through brain patterning. In an attempt to counteract this engrained pattern I asked Walt "Is there some place either now or earlier in your life where you have felt more peaceful?" Within a few minutes he began to talk about a local pond that reminded him of a lake near his childhood home. He used to go there to escape the tremendous tension at home. I recommended to Walt that he begin to go to this local place regularly by himself, sit near the pond, say out loud the word "peace" and do fifteen minutes of relaxational breathing. He was so determined to change this lifelong pattern that he started to visit the pond several days a week and quickly lengthened the time of his visits. One day Walt reported that he had taken a picture of the pond. Now that is the image he first sees when turns on his computer. He also hung a framed copy of the picture on his living room wall. Each time he opens his computer or stands in front of the picture he pauses, recalls time at the pond and takes a few breaths. Walt was amazed at how he started to feel internally more peaceful. "My wife has commented how more relaxed I am." Pleased by these results he became even more diligent about incorporating "pond time" into his daily life.
Carla had a lot of difficulty standing up for herself, protecting herself from personal verbal attacks or asserting her own ideas and feelings. She grew up with loving parents who had a pollyannish worldview and refused to acknowledge the dark side of people. She never witnessed them get angry, nor did they allow her to express anger. She felt loved, but totally unprepared deal with a lot of life situations. I asked Carla, "What animal comes to your mind when you think of an animal protecting her young?" Within moments she said "A tigress. I remember as a girl loving pictures of them in National Geographic magazine." Carla talked about the confident way the tigress moved, the sounds she made, her overall attitude of "don't mess with me." I encouraged her to watch tigress videos and to read more about them. I recommended to Carla that when she was alone in the house to imagine herself as a tigress walking around. We also did some deep breathing imagining the tiger inside of her. I asked her to imagine the tigress walking alongside her available whenever she needed her. She continued this work at home for several months. One day she demonstrated for me her tigress growl. She particularly loved the image of her tigress walking alongside her always available. Carla started to stand up for herself more and also to advocate more strongly for her children in their school.
I could offer more examples - the Vietnam vet who developed the image of a Native American shaman as a "Warrior" who helped him with his PTSD symptoms or the psychotherapist who grew up in Cape Cod using a lighthouse as a beacon of hope in her own despair. What is common in all these stories is that each of the symbols taps into some personal experience that resonates with the needed personality trait or desired inner emotional state. Imbuing them with symbolic power so that they can be reliably sustained and strengthening them so that new brain patterns can form and become engrained requires conscious effort and a lot of diligent hard work. Once patients begin to feel the difference and envision a better future they are usually able to do the hard work.