People are often surprised by new insights into the origins of their problems. Things like: "I was much more affected by my parents' divorce than I thought. It is where I Iearned the feelings and beliefs that make my present-day relationships so difficult." "Now I understand how my older brother's belittling was a big contributor to my depression." Or, "Wow! It's clear that I learned to be an enabler thru my misdirected loyalty to my father trying to keep his alcoholism a secret, by covering for him and making excuses for him." Often people believe that such discoveries automatically promote positive psychological change.
Although the discovery of new insights can be an important step, I am often reminded of a story that I heard about the famous therapist, Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt Therapy. (I've no idea if this story is actually true. It does however depict Perls' sometimes coyote ways of doing therapy.) In the story, a therapist asked Perls to sit in on a session with a client who had been very stuck, but now the therapist wasn't sure that it was necessary since the client "had just made a breakthrough". Nevertheless, Perls decided to attend. The client began the session with a rather detailed explanation of how he had just realized that his depression was the result of an inner dialogue of self-criticism that mimicked the way in which his mother had often criticized him as a child. He now understood, that this aspect of what he had considered a normal, healthy childhood strongly contributed to his depression. While hearing this Perls, not always known for a good bedside manner, promptly fell asleep.
Both the client's therapist and the client were shocked. "I can't believe that you fell asleep!" the therapist exclaimed. Perls awoke and said, "Don't worry, I'll be awake when we get to the part about how we can help this man with his depression."
The story depicts how Perls, although he lacked the benefit of the neurobiological insights I've described in previous blogs, was intuitively able to recognize that psychological change isn't going to be accomplished until helpful insights and other interventions are applied while the problematic feelings and assumptions remain vividly engaged. One reason that his therapy was so unusually effective was that Perls would eschew conceptual insight, insisting instead upon experiential engagement.
For better or worse I am a little kinder in my therapy than Perls sometimes appeared to be. I appreciate that uncovering the painful origins of psychological problems often requires an unusual degree of courage and discipline. This makes it easy for me to genuinely compliment clients on what they've discovered about the origins of their problems. However, I also suggest that such revelations, by themselves, don't offer the key to change. The usefulness of an insight in bringing about psychological change only occurs when this new realization is repeatedly applied while a script is active. (A script is a term described in my book and previous blogs referring to a constellation of the particular feelings and assumptions that form the basis for a present problem. They are the result of a an emotion memory.) In future blogs, I will discuss ways in which historical insights can be easily discovered, and more importantly how they can become most effectively applied to produce long-lasting change.