TIFT #99: Tips & Tricks

ifs tift Mar 26, 2024


Every therapist has their own repertoire of metaphors, rules of thumb, and tricks that come back over and over. I don’t usually share these because I don’t want to bore you, but today I thought our readers, might appreciate a few of the best ones. Here are three.

A blank book with two sides 

There are many ways to work with inner selves, but the first job is getting past the shame of acknowledging having more than one. Having another self doesn't seem natural, though it is. And it is often hard to acknowledge because early in life we learn to value being in control of ourselves. It is a shock to learn that some alien part has a life of its own! It’s even more shocking to understand how much control that part has. The main goal in starting to work with inner selves is to help the client get past anger at the other part and to begin seeing them as a young self doing his or her best to protect the whole. Just as with actual children, harshness doesn’t work but with compassion, dialog, and warmth, change can begin. 

The next biggest hurdle is to overcome habitual attitudes and behaviors that tend to reinforce the old patterns. Often words are not enough and this requires doing and thinking in new ways that feel unfamiliar and even scary. It takes both mental clarity and resolve to go ahead and engage in what I call “civil disobedience,” acting against one’s old, dysfunctional attitudes and values. Picture the adult client taking the little one by the hand and saying, “This time we are going to do it my way, and you’ll see that it works out even better than before.” Actions send a more real and palpable communication down to the limbic system where the change mechanism of memory reconsolidation operates. Change requires the old pattern to be activated by the promise (from inside it looks like a threat) of change. Then the deep, nonverbal “truths” that shape the old pattern need to be challenged and contradicted by new experience. This is where behavior is far stronger as a messenger than talk or good intentions. Often, the biggest clinical hurdle is helping our client take the leap to try out new behaviors. 

Here is where I suggest a technique that makes the change operation crystal clear while simultaneously helping fulfill both requirements for memory reconsolidation. I suggest buying a nice blank book and, on the left, writing the point of view of the inner self. On the right, the client is instructed to write down the contrasting healthy adult version. It is rare for clients to think this out on their own. Humans mostly work on autopilot and, as a result, repeat the same unhealthy patterns over and over, each time re-confirming the old version. 

We are often all too content to keep repeating good intentions while acting in ways that represent a compromise with the inner self. Halfway measures work against change. The idea is to bring full clarity to the child’s point of view in a way that is understanding but firm. It may help to point out that the inner child’s pattern is likely playing to an audience of one, and the one may no longer even be in the picture. On the other side of the page, the discipline of writing down a healthy point of view highlights the contrast between the two and helps the adult client find hope in imagining how they would really like to live. 

Reviewing the book together during sessions offers an even more powerful way for the client to be held accountable, but please be careful. If we get too pushy, we might end up as owners of the change process instead of our client. 

Shifting gears 

As is clear in the previous section, change is often hard, and clients may not realize that the work has different phases. I like the metaphor of the 10 speed bicycle. Breakthroughs and successes can give a giddy feeling. They can even be scary when change is happening fast. That’s also when clients begin to worry about crashing. It makes me think, and often talk, about going down hill in a bike race. It really is scary, and, due to inexperience with new ways of behaving, mistakes can happen. So we can help our client enjoy the thrill of speed, while being careful not to lose control. It also helps to clarify that this phase won’t last indefinitely. 

In contrast, there are inevitably times when the going gets tough. Perhaps there is a setback, two steps forward and one back, or even more. Then Panksepp’s SEEKING system, the motivational battery pack, gets de-powered and we think about quitting. That is when I bring in the metaphor of the lowest speed on the bike. It feels like grinding uphill. It’s not so gratifying, but necessary. And it helps to know that the top of the hill is reachable. Keep going and you’ll get there. Having a mental picture of all phases helps build a mindful version of the whole process, with a realistic view of its ups and downs. 

When people get “squirrelly” on you... 

This is an approach I sometimes suggest to clients who are trying to deal with a difficult relationship where the other person is not able or willing to work on resolution. Conflicts are repeated with no benefit to either party. This is not something for therapists to do with clients because we need to maintain connection, not distance from our clients. There we are both committed to working things out.

For years now, the principle has come to mind in the same words as the first time, “When people get squirrelly on you, DISENGAGE!” I use the word squirrelly because, besides risking a bit of disrespect for our furry friends, it is relatively nonjudgmental. I use the word to refer to any situation where the other person is not listening, inflexible, or there is little chance of the conflict being resolved. At those times, the best strategy is almost always to resist the temptation to focus on changing the other and to distance or disengage. I’ll leave you to consider those exceptional cases where a fight might be a way to connect, leaving both parties feeling closer and leading to emotional reconciliation. 

There are two ways to disengage, physical separation, and emotional distancing. It may be enough to say, “I don’t hold your view, but I don’t want to argue with you.” Often, the other person will not be happy, but some form of disengagement will be the least likely to encourage a useless argument. Instinctively the other may have a pattern of provoking fights and always winning them. They will not want to let go, and may go to some lengths to continue provoking to the point where our client loses resolve and engages. We will have to work with that maladaptive pattern. 

What may not be apparent is that disengagement is actually a very powerful move. Humans are extremely sensitive to separation. Disengagement can trigger deep, instinctive feelings of abandonment. That’s why it is always important to avoid threatening a complete cut-off. Usually that means indicating explicitly a willingness to return to the issue at some later time. “I’m going out but I’ll be back in a while.” Even a temporary separation or disengagement can have the beneficial effect of moving the other person out of their self-involved stress response and into a more mindful state. Then they are likely to be more thoughtful about what has just happened and possibly ready to work out a solution. 


Those are three of my favorite personal techniques. I hope you have enjoyed this post. Please let me know, and you are welcome to use the comments section to share your own best tricks.


 Jeffery Smith MD


Photo credit: Luca Senica, Unsplash

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