“To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
– Mark Twain
Kathleen sat bolt upright, eyes gleaming maniacally. She had been on a series of ‘Awaken’ workshops over the previous year.
She had spent weeks away from home on these retreats, and it seemed to me she’d been roundly indoctrinated.
“I learned that I am everything”, she informed me with zealous glee. “It is by following my happiness, and only my happiness, that I can reach enlightened fulfillment.”
As a result of this “enlightenment” she had left her loving husband and three children under the age of five. Apparently they “weighed” her down. She loved them, she told me, but she loved herself more. As a result of her search for enlightenment, her young children were now effectively motherless.
My therapeutic objectivity was now as distant as Kathleen’s maternal instinct. Because I knew full well that it is not the selfish search for personal ease or happiness that gives us meaning in life. Not in any sustainable way anyway.1
As we know, wellbeing tends to be a by-product of meaningful living, which in turn seems to come from being connected to others in meaningful ways. And fulfilling responsibilities is a big part of that. God, I know how old fashioned that sounds now! How ‘regressive’! As though the post-modern ’60s ethos had never existed.
So why had Kathleen come to see me? As I asked the question, for the first time the fervid light left her eyes.
Don’t you dare judge me!
“People can so judgemental!” She eyed me now with challenge. “I want to rise above it when my sister gets angry with me. I want to feel calm when my own mother criticizes me for doing my own thing!”
Biases and presuppositions streamed through me. Expectations as to the desirability of fulfilling responsibilities as best as possible. Assumptions that a parent should put their children first, at least when the children are young. Bristling at selfishness cast as a “search for enlightenment”, as though human growth can only come about through casting off difficulties.
How the world shapes who we are
We are all little bundles of indoctrinated conditionings encased within drives for personal interest.2 But we can be more than that.
If we are not vigilant, as we age, the rust on our mirrors of perception grows thicker through habit and all the usual drivers of endemic brainwashing. We start to see in limited ways which accord with what we have picked up from our environment.
Anything and everyone we encounter is either acceptable or unacceptable. Everything is either ‘good’ or, if it doesn’t fit our presuppositions, ‘bad’.
This is inevitable when we live in cultures that from cradle to grave can’t help but shape us through education, groupthink, fear, and greed.
We feel we are unique even as we think and behave just like millions of others. But we can transcend this, to an extent at least.
Education vs brainwashing
I think true education helps us to think clearly – to contextualize and see bigger patterns. Indoctrination, on the other hand, whether from educational establishments, cults or culture, does the opposite.
Indoctrination turns us into mere carriers of ideas, which are then felt to be immutable truths. Unlike education, it blocks us from examining our assumptions. It disables us, preventing us from questioning or thinking about our beliefs or those of others. We become quick to focus on where others have gone wrong, which saves us having to examine our own selves.
Indoctrination – which can come from anywhere – traps us into limited and dogmatic patterns of narrow context. Education widens context. Education helps us see how what we have learned fits into the wider pattern of reality. And it also helps us see where it might not apply.Indoctrination traps us into limited and dogmatic patterns of narrow contextClick To Tweet
As the classical Sufi poet Omar Khayyam wrote: “The human being is a lantern of imaginings inside a pretty lamp.”
So what of my client Kathleen? How was I to truly help her?
Nothing really matters. Or does it?
Maybe I hadn’t been sufficiently indoctrinated by the nihilist relativist philosophy that has flooded our times. A philosophy that posits – no, proclaims with utter certainty (which contravenes its own philosophy!) – that nothing is really true; that ‘everything is valid’; that there are no absolute truths or standards. It makes the absolute judgement that we should never judge.
I don’t know. But I really struggled with the idea of trying to help Kathleen “rise above” what seemed to me to be perfectly justified anger from others that she’d abandoned her own young children and a perfectly decent husband.
Don’t get me wrong; I think we should be calm and objective – blended with useful levels of empathy – when working with our clients. But that is not always easy.
I’ve thought long and hard about this. So here are some tips from my own observations as to how we can, as far as possible, work effectively with clients even though they might challenge our assumptions and values.
Step one: See what comes up for you
Although I don’t like to admit it, my first thought when Kathleen told me with glee how she’d seen the light and left her children and husband to pursue her own “joy” was to think, “You selfish…”
I found myself thinking about her children. And then I noticed another feeling within myself. It was a feeling of pity. Into my mind, through a process of pattern matching, popped my grandfather.
Grandad suffered a lifelong stutter. His mother had left him and his brothers when they were very young to run off with another man, leaving my great grandfather to bring up his three sons alone. Grandad’s father had told him, for some reason, that his absent mother had gone to get some milk. For years, every time the milkman brought milk my grandfather childishly believed that his mother might return!
Grandad died from a catastrophic heart attack at the age of 46. I never really knew him. My great grandmother had been a “free and careless spirit” but in a world with consequences for other people. And that’s what this client in front of me’s story brought to my mind. My objectivity was compromised.
That was okay. At least I understood this.
So the first step is to simply watch yourself and your own reactions as though you were someone else and see what kind of pattern matching is going on for you.
Step two: Do you still feel your response is natural and valid?
It was no good. I couldn’t simply discount my visceral reaction to Kathleen. Even had I not been reminded of my great grandmother’s abandonment of, again, by all accounts a perfectly decent man, and her three sons all under ten, I still couldn’t have gotten on board with Kathleen’s actions and goals.
I asked her gently whether she was truly convinced that she was doing the right thing. I attempted to discuss with her whether a philosophy of pure self-interest and the chasing of immediate but transitory pleasures without thought of vulnerable others really was the royal road to personal enrichment.
Could the beliefs inculcated into her by the “self-improvement” cult she, and by proxy, her husband and children had become prey to, possibly – even just slightly – have been wrong?
Absolutely not! She was a thousand times more protective of the cult (as I thought of it) than of her children’s interests.
As for helping her feel immune to the anger of those around her, I couldn’t help, just couldn’t help, but feel their anger was justified.
We sometimes use hypnosis for pain control, but if someone told me they wanted to feel no pain while being burnt, or to feel less pain in their broken leg to save them the bother of having to get it fixed, I would suggest the pain is really there for a vital reason.
There are many valid reasons for leaving a marriage. Of course, individual circumstances alter cases. All this I thought as I sat with Kathleen.
I worked with a man once who beat his wife. I encouraged him to feel worse about beating her, to the point that those sorry feelings would come to the fore whenever he even felt he was losing control. Being sorry after the fact is no match for accessing those sorry feelings as a way of stopping the badness.
That was a time where I needed to be judgemental for my client’s benefit. He stopped beating his wife. (I know this because she later came to see me about something else.)
Step three: Consider your options
Once we have examined our own assumptions and seen, as far as possible, why we might have reacted as we did to a client, we must consider whether our reaction is valid and justified. And if we conclude that it is, then we need to consider our options.
A therapist I had trained contacted me once to tell me she had a quandary she’d like me to advise her on. I said I’d try.
A client of hers, a man, had told her he wanted her to help him overcome his feelings of guilt after viewing child pornography! He had no self-recrimination about the (illegal as well as immoral) activity itself. (And how many times will you ever read the word ‘immoral’ in a therapy blog?)
She told me she knew she shouldn’t judge him. I asked her what had led her to that judgement. I told her sometimes we have to judge and that she had some important decisions to make. We can only be client-led to a certain point.
Imagine you are trying to rescue someone from a burning building and they try to convince you their current need is to lie down and take a nap. Are you led by them or by your own instincts? The ‘everything is valid’ idea pertains much more neatly to theory than it does to practical reality.
Fate intervened anyway. Her client was arrested after viewing this material on a work computer. But she told me she had learned a strong lesson from the whole incident.
For the vast majority of my clients – in fact, Kathleen is the only exception I can think of – I can find something to like, admire, and respect about them. Often many things. The vast majority of clients I like, even if they are not too similar to me. For most clients, I find I can help them in ways they want to be helped.
I tried, I really did, to find a way in with Kathleen.
Eventually I told her I felt I wasn’t the person to work with her. I just couldn’t get on side with trying to make her care even less about focusing purely on her own needs and even less on other people’s. She was shocked by my frankness, and maybe that shock was the best therapy for her.
She told me I didn’t understand. I’m glad I didn’t.
Helping a UPTV client cope with constant pain
This client has congenital hypermobility, meaning that she has suffered excruciating dislocations throughout her life and on top of that she has now been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Her life has been reduced to lying on the sofa and watching TV. She has recently weaned off a large cocktail of drugs, some of which were antidepressants and antipsychotics (for bipolar disorder).
In this short session, Mark gathers information as to the extent to which her pain prevents the completion of her primal basic human needs, finds exception times (when the pain is less prevalent), and uses many hypnotic pain diminishment strategies. You can watch the video inside UPTV, and if you’re not yet a member, sign up here to be notified when it’s next open for booking.
Read more therapy techniques »