Why Did This Happen?

At this point, I didn't understand patterns in the detail I am presenting them here, but my curiosity led me to investigate. Over time, I learned that the repeating behaviors were patterns, but I did not know the specifics of how they originated.  The problem then became one of development; is there a developmental process - a pattern - for a pattern?  It turns out that, yes, there is a pattern to the development of patterns. Discovering and refining this realization is an interesting, and I hope illuminating story, and for that reason I share it with you now.

            I began to figure out patterns in 1976 when I was a “newbie” in counseling. As people came to the office for help, they sat and told me their story. Each story began with different content, as one would expect.  Some people were overwhelmed with emotions. They wanted to talk about their fears, anger or sorrow.  Other stories were about things that happened to them when they were younger, or things they had done that they regretted. Regardless of where their story began, as they became healthier, their story changed. Strongly emotional stories became less emotionally charged. Irrational beliefs transformed into rational thoughts. It was as if once they understood their problem from its source, they began to relax, became less critical, and felt better.  Sometimes, even a partial resolution of the problem seemed to relieve their concerns. As their struggle continued, each person produced a response to their problem that was within their understanding and their ability to apply in their life. This response allowed them to let go of the emotions that appeared to be blocking their movement.  When this change happened, what I recognized was that I did not understand precisely what had happened. It was clear that they felt better, but unclear what specific action or thought had helped.

            In counseling there were successes, but I was searching for a better way to treat emotional problems. I wanted a systematic way to help them.  I began to look at their problems, not as individual, singular issues, but as problem themes.  Recognizing the theme within their stories was a start.  When I was able to see story themes consistently and began to reflect that theme back to them, changes appeared to happen more quickly. As I watched them move through the problem, I dimly saw there might be a progression to becoming emotionally healthy.  Recognizing themes was a key, this much was clear, but was there any predictability to achieving mental health?  Were there any shortcuts, any “magic solutions,” that would relieve the problem faster?  These questions remained unanswered for several months. 

           Ways Patterns are Presented in Therapy To keep up with the information I was gathering, I started a chart of the presenting stories.  A man came to therapy wracked with guilt about having had an affair.  A grown woman could not overcome the abuse she received from her father. A businessman recognized his drinking was ruining his job, marriage, and friendships.  These stories were the openings people offered. As my chart evolved, I placed similar stories together into categories. Within a few months, the chart filled with presenting story information, and I began to see that organized, generic themes emerged within the stories.

            The first theme I identified was that people came to talk about a specific event that occurred in their life, such as a mother’s death, that was disturbing their sleep. I found that the initial story presented was only the beginning, and soon led to other places in their life. When the death was discussed thoroughly, the client started to relate other deaths or losses similar to the initial story that brought them to therapy, and the general theme in all their stories was one of loss. I learned that the most recent event was not always the first time the person had faced a separation, that, for them, represented a loss. For example, Jeremy, a successful salesman, came to the office to talk about his wife. He had had an affair, but had not told her. He described his wife as a caring, but bland person. He married her because it was expected. He felt no real passion for her and thought he wanted to leave her. After talking about this story, we discussed his history. Jeremy described his father as a cold and distant man who was always away from home on business. After he was grown, he learned that his parents had divorced after an affair by his father. To me the similarities were striking, but Jeremy was not able to see the comparison. And this was another surprising education for me; people often did not see obvious comparisons and similarities in their life events. But as I talked to clients about their stories, I found that the themes of those were typically present somewhere else in their life, they were recurrent. Sometimes appearing as something someone close to them had done or as a generally reoccurring behavior in their life, either way the same theme appeared continually.  As the chart filled with stories, I found repetitive themes forming into a specific recurrent sequence - a pattern. 

            Events Charting people’s stories revealed that there were four general story themes presented. The first theme comprised people who used therapy to talk about EVENTS they experienced and were unresolved in some way.  (I used the bold because this Event was specific and important happening in the person’s life, and was one point in the pattern theme development sequence). For example, Jessica opened therapy saying how “sorry” her siblings were.  She had to take care of their aging mother while the other children did virtually nothing to help.  She talked at length about how each sibling was not supportive of her as she tried to make good decisions for their mother.  She felt all they did was criticize her efforts, and only after she acted.  When I asked if this criticism made her angry, she replied that it didn’t, that she understood they were busy people.  She continued to talk about events where the siblings were non-supportive and critical, but had no desire to change her situation.  Her general discussion continued in the same way each week, and Jessica was pleased to have someone to whom to tell her story, but I was getting bored.

            Over time I learned that precisely how the event was delivered in a client’s story exhibited considerable variation from individual to individual. Many times, the exact event was clearly described.  At other times, the telling of the event had major details missing.  Occasionally the event details were shrouded in dreams or confusing actions.  For example, Richard told me a dream where he was at his high school reunion and everyone was showing off their pistols. When he took his out to show his friends, it was significantly smaller than everyone else’s pistol. Of course the dream reflected his sense of inadequacy compared to his friends. While it seems an obvious symbol and meaning, Richard had no idea what it meant and was highly puzzled by his dream. The events might be hidden in symbolic belief or locked away as if being brought into the light of day would be dangerous.  Frequently, people who spoke of their events, like Jessica, talked only of events and no more. They resisted discussing what the events meant or how the event was relevant to the way they negotiated their current life.  Talking about events became an endless merry-go-round of similarly related topics.

           Feelings But not all people came to therapy wanting to talk about events. Jim came to therapy because his wife made him.  He said he had a “bad temper.”  He became instantly irritated in traffic if someone cut him off.  He was constantly angry with his kids and his wife, and his short fuse was legendary at work. He was at a loss about how to change his behavior.  He talked about his anger and how bad he felt about it, but had no solutions. Jim represents the second grouping, the second way people presented their problems - people who came to therapy tangled in FEELINGS.  The original event was different, they lost a loved one, were abused, or behaved shamefully, but it was the feelings associated with these events, rather than the events themselves, that occupied their attention. In short, they had feelings that they could not resolve. Because feelings could not be adequately resolved, the feelings led to years of emotional unrest, perceived abandonment, abuse, or lack of fulfillment.  These unresolved emotions sometimes peaked around the anniversaries of a particular event or trauma and would lessen at other times.

            Jim and the group he represented wanted, sometimes reluctantly, to talk about their feelings.  They were concerned with their subjective attitude about given events rather than the events themselves. Sometimes the event was completely obscured by emotion to the point that the intensity of the individual’s emotion was the exclusive focus, and the event that caused the feelings was only secondary. Their life was overwhelmed and controlled by emotion. In therapy, they would cry and seem to feel better, only to come back the next week and cry again. When they missed therapy appointments, they got worse because they did not have a safe place to release their feelings that therapy provided. No amount of consolation removed the volatile emotions, and even when positive events happened around the person, their personal upset remained the focus of their life.

            c. Decision Jessica was obsessed with an event but repressed or denied her feelings, and Jim was either uninterested or unable to specify an event as a source for his anger, but also couldn’t relinquish that anger. Others didn’t present with either of these problem, but with a third, and Christian is a good example. Christian hated his job. He wanted to quit but could not risk being without a paycheck. He was wracked with anxiety and agonized about what he should do. He spent so much time worried about the job he was not able to enjoy anything else in life. He continually complained to others and finally came to therapy for help with his anxiety and sleeplessness.  Christian represents the third grouping, those who come to therapy worried about what to do with a general or specific situation. While it is troublesome, their emotion was not the focus, nor was it an event per se that dominated their attention. These individuals would talk with great logic, exploring possible actions, asking for advice, and then often dismissing it. They spoke to others about what to do. They gathered information continually. They would struggle with a problem and then determine what to do in our session, only to return the next week having not begun what they chose to do. These people presented in therapy requiring a DECISION.  They loudly reported the requirement to make a decision, but the closer they got to deciding, the more confused and ambivalent they became. Their most frequent decision was not to decide.

            d. Responsibility Charlene represents the fourth and final grouping revealed by my chart. She had been married for 16 years.  Her spouse had been good to her in the early years of the marriage. After he changed jobs, he started to drink alcohol daily and abuse her. She had had enough but did not know what to do.  She decided to get a divorce but was unsure how to accomplish it. Charlene entered therapy to get help with the optimal response to her situation. In other words, what would be her best way to leave an abusive marriage?  

            This final group differed from the decision group because they knew what they wanted or needed to do, but were concerned about how to do it.  While the former group was troubled by the prospect of making a decision and the possible consequences, this fourth group was troubled rather by the means of carrying out a decision already made. Charlene knew that divorcing an abusive spouse was necessary, she had already decided that leaving her husband was the right action. But after 16 years of marriage, she did not know how to take the action, how to respond to her decision.  This fourth grouping worked on creating a response to their decision. Not only were they looking for the appropriate response, but the response must be one they could carry out.  For example, if Charlene has no money or place to go, it becomes more difficult to leave.  These clients were ready or readying to take on a RESPONSIBILITY.  Of course, responsibility means taking ownership, but in another sense it is also response-ability, or the ‘ability to respond.’  Ownership cannot be taken successfully if a person lacks the developmental ability to carry it out.  For Charlene, she chose to be in the marriage originally, and now, she chooses to leave it.  She was response able as a wife and mother.  But now, she worries that she cannot respond as a single woman.

            B. Therapeutic Progression -EFDRE In one of life’s little “eureka” moments, a progression finally became clear to me.  The event, feeling, decision, and responsibility were not isolated themes, but were part of an overall process, and each step represented a stage in a developmental pattern, a pattern that repeated over and over.  EVENTS inevitably lead to the FEELINGS associated with them.  Feelings led to a desire for a DECISION and the decision called for a response - one the person was able to perform (RESPONSE ABLE).  After recognizing the progression, one final step emerged when people begin to get better - ELIMINATION.  People who could eliminate feelings, made decisions, and had the ability to respond, moved forward with life in a productive manner.

            This exercise taught me that a story starting at any one of the four beginning points soon changed as the client took the next step.  Jessica fixation on events, specific instances of her siblings’ criticism, began to change when she turned her focus to the feelings these events generated.  Jim fixated on his anger, but did not move forward until he realized a decision to eliminate his anger was necessary.  Christian was wracked with indecision, but his anxiety would only abate after making the decision and then responding to it. By rethinking the events and feelings to create different decisions and responses, the person achieved the change they wanted through elimination of the event or problem.  In addition, it became clear that if a person wasn't ready for change, ready to move on to the next step, the change did not happen. So it was a process that the clients controlled themselves. At the end of this process, people began to show realistic life ownership, fulfillment, control, and by letting go, personal change. 

            Teaching people how to go through this process of event, feeling, decision, responsibility, and elimination helped people to take fuller and more effective control of their lives. When they related their theme, it illuminated what was blocking their happiness, and they could move to the next step in the process. I discovered a wonderful insight and could give it away to anyone who wanted it.  Or so I thought. What happened next continues to surprise me after 40 years as a therapist. My first lesson came years ago.