Category Archives: Cool Counseling

Passing Personal Notes to Ohio School Psychologists

Davis Letter to SantaLast week I had the honor and privilege to spend a day with a group of about 340 mostly school psychologists in Columbus, Ohio. Talk about amazing. Were they nicer than last month’s group in Rock Hill, South Carolina? I don’t know. Both groups were awesome. I’ll keep the details secret just so everyone will wonder why gatherings in Rock Hill and Columbus are or will be inevitably fantastic.

I received a few emails in follow-up to the so-called “Tough Kids, Cool Counseling” workshop in Columbus. I’ll be framing one of the emails for my wall, but there was another one that asked for my feedback on a particularly challenging therapeutic conundrum. That email reminded me of a technique that Rita and I first wrote about in 1995, but hasn’t been posted here. So I dug up an excerpt of it from the second edition of our “Tough Kids, Cool Counseling” book and am inserting it below. Here’s a link to that book on Amazon, but you can get it other places too:   https://www.amazon.com/Tough-Kids-Cool-Counseling-User-Friendly/dp/1556202741/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1494088480&sr=1-1&keywords=tough+kids+cool+counseling

The excerpt follows . . . and it’s followed by a link to an “Extra SCASP Handout” with more detailed info about the SCASP and Columbus Workshop techniques.

Passing Personal Notes

            A simple method for re-engaging an angry or “checked out” child/adolescent in counseling is the note-passing technique (J. Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 1995). This technique is used when a young client suddenly appears sullen, angry, or quiet and nonresponsive. In some cases, counselors may have clues as to why the client has become quiet. However, in other cases the young client’s silence may be a complete mystery. Whatever the case, note passing is used to communicate to clients through an alternative format, to reduce pressure on young clients to be verbally productive, to express empathy for an emotional state, and to surprise the client (and thereby modify affect) by being supportive and affectionate rather than critical in response to the client’s silence. When counselors have a positive response to client silence it can be conceptualized as a corrective emotional experience (Alexander & French, 1946).

Children, teenagers, and even some college students are notorious for passing notes in class. Most often the notes are brief and focus on gossip or on whatever is bothering the note writer at the moment. Generally speaking, among teenagers, passing notes is cool.

To utilize this technique all you need is a notebook and pencil or pen. When your client is quiet and perhaps angry or sullen and efforts to interact verbally result in continued withdrawal and silence, simply pick up the notebook and begin writing. This activity may attract the youth’s attention. Your client may assume you’re writing something negative about them. One 12-year-old boy immediately questioned: “Are you writing a note to the group home?” as he expected he would be reprimanded for becoming silent in therapy. I (John) responded: “Nope, I’m just writing a note to you.”

When using this technique, hold the notebook so your client cannot see the content of your note; part of the effect of this technique rests on your client’s surprise at receiving a personal note and on surprise at the content of the note. Of course, the note should be individualized and personal (see Box 4.1 for a sample note).

Box 4.1

Note-Passing Sample

Hey Tonya:

What’s up?  Seems like you might be kind of upset today, but I might be wrong.  I hope I didn’t do something to bug you or make you mad.  If I did, be sure to let me know when you feel like it, okay?  I know that counseling can be kind of dumb or seem like a waste of time or even make people mad sometimes.  I hope we can find ways to make this be a good thing for you.  Thanks for coming—even when you might not feel like it.  So, how are you feeling, anyway?  Do you think it is a little too warm in this office?  That’s a cool sweater you’re wearing.

Your Very Own Counselor,

Rita S-F

P.S. Write back if you want to.

[End of Box 4.1]

            We recommend writing the personal note with a person-centered flavor (Rogers, 1961). Additionally, it’s useful to include a humorous or light closing and an interest in hearing back from your client. Finally, write only what your clients will feel comfortable taking home (e.g., critical comments about teachers or family members, even if such comments are in the service of empathy and emotional validation, may have negative repercussions).

Most of our young clients respond positively to this procedure. Often they act surprised when told: “I wrote you a note.” One client asked to take it into the bathroom to read. Other clients have asked: “Can I keep it?”  Our response to these requests is usually something like, “Of course. I wrote it to you.” Another client refused the note during the session, but accepted it later from her mother (i.e., it was sealed and given to the mother to deliver at home). Sometimes young clients have initiated a note-writing exchange after receiving a note from one of us. On the other hand, we’ve had some young clients rip the note to shreds or toss it in the trash which is perfectly acceptable from our perspective because we view these more aggressive responses as a non-violent and perhaps useful anger expression.

Personal notes can reopen communication, possibly because the activity moves young people out of a negative mood state; it’s hard for clients to maintain a negative mood state when they’re also experiencing surprise or pleasure (Mosak, 1985). Research suggests that it’s common for young people who behave aggressively to anticipate hostility or overt coercion from others during times of stress or threat (Dodge, Lochman, Harnish, Bates, & Pettit, 1997; Dodge & Somberg, 1987). This anticipatory tendency has been labeled the misattribution of hostility.  For youth who anticipate hostility, a nonjudgmental, funny, or caring note can be quite a surprise. Also, many young people we see in therapy have never received a personal handwritten note from an adult (especially from an adult male). Overall, a sincere and nonthreatening effort by a counselor to enhance emotional intimacy and establish a personal connection usually does not go unnoticed.

SCASP Extra Handout

Handouts from South Carolina

This past Thursday I had the honor of offering a full-day workshop on “Tough Kids, Cool Counseling” to the South Carolina Association of School Psychologists. For anyone who has misplaced their handout or who wants additional content, I’m including two handouts in this post.

The first handout includes all the powerpoint slides (except the cartoons and empowered storytelling).

SCASP 2017 for Handout  

The second handout includes additional content corresponding (mostly) to the content in the powerpoint slides.

SCASP Extra Handout

For more information, you can check out our Tough Kids, Cool Counseling book, published by the American Counseling Association, https://www.amazon.com/Tough-Kids-Cool-Counseling-User-Friendly/dp/1556202741/ref=sr_1_10?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1491153299&sr=1-10&keywords=sommers-flanagan:

Tough Kids Image

Or you can check out our book on working effectively with parents: https://www.amazon.com/How-Listen-Parents-Will-Talk/dp/1118012968/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1491153770&sr=1-4&keywords=sommers-flanagan

 

Goodnight, South Carolina

Some days . . . the news is discouraging. Some days . . . evidence piles up suggesting that nearly everyone on the planet is far too greedy and selfish. On those days, I can’t help but wonder how our local, national, and worldwide communities survive. It feels like we’re a hopeless species heading for a cataclysmic end.

Sunset on StillwaterBut then I have a day like yesterday. A day where I had the honor and privilege to spend time hanging out with people who are professional, smart, compassionate, and dedicated to helping children learn, thrive, and get closer to reaching their potentials. I’m sure you know what I mean. If you turn off the media and peek under the surface, you’ll find tons of people “out there” who wake up every day and work tremendously hard to make the world just a little bit better, for everyone.

For me, yesterday’s group was the South Carolina Association of School Psychologists. They were amazing. They were kind. About 110 of them listened to me drone on about doing counseling with students who, due, in part, to the quirky nature of universe, just happen to be living lives in challenging life and school situations. The school psychologists barely blinked. They rarely checked their social media. They asked great questions and made illuminating comments. They were committed to learning, to counseling, to helping the next generation become a better generation.

All day yesterday and into the night I had an interesting question periodically popping up in the back of my mind. Maybe it was because while on my flight to South Carolina, I sat next to a Dean of Students from a small public and rural high school in Wisconsin. Maybe it was because of the SCASP’s members unwavering focus and commitment to education. The question kept nipping at my psyche. It emerged at my lunch with the Chair of the Psychology Department at Winthrop University.  It came up again after my dinner with four exceptionally cool women.

The question: “How did we end up with so many people in government who are anti-education?”

Yesterday, I couldn’t focus in on the answer. I told someone that–even though I’m a psychologist–I don’t understand why people do the things they do. But that was silly. This morning the answer came flowing into my brain like fresh spring Mountain run-off. Of course, of course, of course . . . the answer is the same as it always has been.

The question is about motivation. Lots of people before me figured this out. I even had it figured out before, but, silly me, I forgot. Why do people oppose education when, as John Adams (our second President) said, “Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially for the lower classes of people, are so extremely wise and useful that to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.”

The answer is all about money and power and control and greed and revenge and ignorance. Without these motivations, nearly everyone has a “humane and generous mind” and believes deeply in funding public education.

Thanks to all the members of the South Carolina Association of School Psychologists, for giving me hope that more people can be like you, moving past greed and ignorance and toward a more educated and better world.

Good night, South Carolina. It’s been a good day.

 

Revisiting the 3-Step Emotional Change Trick — Including a Video Example

One of my current students asked where she might find a video example of the 3-Step Emotional Change Trick. Since I made up the Emotional Change Trick in 1997, the answer was easy: No such video exists.

Then I remembered that this past summer, while putting together video content with Wiley for our Clinical Interviewing text, I did a video demo of the 3-Step ETC with a 12-year-old girl. Due to space considerations, the footage didn’t make it into the text, but Wiley sent me a copy of the 6:44 minute clip.

Keep in mind that the girl in this video is exceptional. She’s the daughter of some friends and she agreed to be filmed for educational purposes. My sense is that she could have taught me the 3-Step ECT, but I tried to make it look like I was teaching her anyway.

Here’s the youtube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ITWhMYANC5c

And below you can read a version of the Emotional Change Technique adapted from Tough Kids, Cool Counseling:

*************************

The Three-Step, Push-Button Emotional Change Technique

            An early and prominent Adlerian therapist, Harold Mosak, originally developed and tested the push-button technique as a method for demonstrating to clients that thinking different thoughts can effectively change mood states (Mosak, 1985). The purpose of Mosak’s technique was to help clients experience an increased sense of control over their emotions, thereby facilitating a sense of encouragement or empowerment (Mosak, 2000, personal communication).

            Mosak’s push-button technique can be easily adapted to work with young clients. When we implement this technique with younger clients, we are playful and call it an emotional change trick. When using this technique with teenagers, we describe it as a strategy for gaining more personal control over less desirable emotions. In essence, the three-step, push-button, emotional change technique is an emotional education technique; the primary goal is to teach clients that, rather than being at the mercy of their feelings, they may learn some strategies and techniques that provide them with increased personal control over their feelings.

The following example illustrates Adlerian emotional education principles and Mosak’s push-button technique expanded to three distinct steps.

Case example.  Sam, a 13-year-old European American boy, was referred because of his tendency to become suddenly stubborn, rigid, and disagreeable when interacting with authority figures. Sam arrived for his appointment accompanied by his mother. It quickly became obvious that Sam and his mother were in conflict. Sam was sullen, antagonistic, and difficult to talk with for several minutes at the outset of the session. Consequently, the Three-Step, Push-Button Emotional Change Technique (TSPB) was initiated:

Preparation/Explanation.

JSF:     I see you’re in a bad mood today. I have this . . . well, it’s kind of a magic trick and I             thought maybe you’d be interested. Want to hear about it?

S:         (Shrugs).

JSF:     It’s a trick that helps people get themselves out of a bad mood if they want to. First, I need to tell you what I know about bad moods. Bad moods are weird because even             though they don’t really feel good, lots of times people don’t want to get out of their bad mood and into a better mood. Do you know what I mean? It’s like you kind of want to stay in a bad mood; you don’t want anybody forcing you to change out of a bad mood.

S:         (Nods in agreement.)

JSF:     And you know what, I’ve noticed when I’m in a bad mood, I really hate it when someone comes up to me and says: “Cheer up!” or “Smile!”

S:         Yeah, I hate that too.

JSF:     And so you can be sure I’m not going to say that to you. In fact, sometimes the best thing to do is just really be in that bad mood—be those bad feelings. Sometimes it feels great to get right into the middle of those feelings and be them.

S:       Uh, I’m not sure what you’re talking about.

JSF:     Well, to get in control of your own feelings, it’s important to admit they’re there, to get to   know them better. So, the first step of this emotional change trick is to express your bad feelings. See, by getting them out and expressing them, you’re in control. If you don’t  express your feelings, especially icky ones, you could get stuck in a bad mood even    longer than you want.

As you can see, preparation for the TSPB technique involves emotional validation of how it feels to be in a bad mood, information about bad moods and how people can resist changing their moods or even get stuck in them, hopeful information about how people can learn to change their moods, and more emotional validation about how it feels when people prematurely try to cheer someone up.

Step 1: Feel the feeling. Before moving clients away from their negative feelings, it’s appropriate—out of respect for the presence and meaning of emotions—to help them feel their feelings. This can be challenging because most young people have only very simplistic ideas about how to express negative feelings. Consequently, Step 1 of the TSPB technique involves helping youth identify various emotional expression techniques and then helping them to try these out. We recommend brainstorming with young clients about specific methods for expressing feelings. The client and counselor should work together (perhaps with a chalk/grease board or large drawing pad), generating a list of expressive strategies that might include:

  • scribbling on a note pad with a black marker
  • drawing an angry, ugly picture
  • punching or kicking a large pillow
  • jumping up and down really hard
  • writing a nasty note to someone (but not delivering it)
  • grimacing and making various angry faces into a mirror
  • using words, perhaps even yelling if appropriate, to express specific feelings.

The expressive procedures listed above are easier for young clients to learn and understand when counselors actively model affective expression or assist clients in their affective expression. It’s especially important to model emotional expression when clients are inhibited or unsure about how to express themselves. Again, we recommend engaging in affective expression jointly with clients. We’ve had particular success making facial grimaces into a mirror. (Young clients often become entertained when engaging in this task with their counselor.) The optimal time for shifting to Step 2 in the TSPB technique is when clients have just begun to show a slight change in affect. (Often this occurs as a result of the counselor joining the client in expressing anger or sadness or general nastiness.)

Note: If a young client is unresponsive to Step 1 of the TSPB technique, don’t move to Step 2. Instead, an alternative mood-changing strategy should be considered (e.g., perhaps food and mood or the personal note). Be careful to simply reflect what you see. “Seems like you aren’t feeling like expressing those yucky feelings right now. Hey, that’s okay. I can show you this trick some other day. Want some gum?”

Step 2: Think a new thought (or engage in a new behavior). This step focuses on Mosak’s push-button approach (Mosak, 1985). It’s designed to demonstrate to the client that emotions are linked to thoughts. Step 2 is illustrated in the following dialogue (an extension of the previous case example with John and Sam):

JSF:     Did you know you can change your mood just by thinking different thoughts? When you think certain things it’s like pushing a button in your brain and the     things you think start making you feel certain ways. Let’s try it. Tell me the funniest thing that happened to you this week.

S:         Yesterday in math, my friend Todd farted (client smiles and laughs).

JSF:     (Smiles and laughs back) Really! I bet people really laughed. In fact, I can see it makes you laugh just thinking about it. Way back when I was in school I had a friend who did that all the time.

The content of what young people consider funny may not seem particularly funny to adults. Nonetheless, it’s crucial to be interested and entertained—welcoming the challenge to empathically see the situation from the 13-year-old perspective. It’s also important to stay with and build on the mood shift, asking for additional humorous thoughts, favorite jokes, or recent events. With clients who respond well, counselors can pursue further experimentation with various affective states (e.g., “Tell me about a sad [or scary, or surprising] experience”).

In some cases, young clients may be unable to generate a funny story or a funny memory. This may be an indicator of depression, as depressed clients often report greater difficulty recalling positive or happy events (Weerasekera, Linder, Greenberg, & Watson, 2001). Consequently, it may be necessary for the counselor to generate a funny statement.

S:         I can’t think of anything funny.

JSF:     Really? Well, keep trying . . . I’ll try too (therapist and client sit together in silence for about 20 seconds, trying to come up with a positive thought or memory).

JSF:     Got anything yet?

S:         Nope.

JSF:     Okay, I think I’ve got one. Actually, this is a joke.  What do you call it when 100 rabbits standing in a row all take one step backwards?

S:         Huh?

JSF:     (repeats the question)

S:         I don’t know.  I hate rabbits.

JSF:     Yeah.  Well, you call it a receding hare line.  Get it?

S:         Like rabbits are called hares?

JSF:     Yup.  It’s mostly funny to old guys like me.  (JSF holds up his own “hare line”)

S:         That’s totally stupid, man (smiling despite himself). I’m gonna get a buzz cut pretty             soon.

When you tell a joke or a funny story, it can help clients reciprocate with their own stories.  You can also use teasing riddles, puns, and word games if you’re comfortable with them.

We have two additional comments for counselors who might choose to use a teasing riddle which the client may get wrong. First, you should use teasing riddles only when a strong therapeutic relationship is established; otherwise, your client may interpret teasing negatively. Second, because preteen and teen clients often love to tease, you must be prepared to be teased back (i.e., young clients may generate a teasing riddle in response to a your teasing riddle).

Finally, counselors need to be sensitive to young clients who are unable to generate a positive thought or story, even after having heard an example or two. If a young client is unable to generate a funny thought, it’s important for you to remain positive and encouraging. For example:

JSF:     You know what. There are some days when I can’t think of any funny stories either. I’m sure you’ll be able to tell me something funny next time. Today I was able to think of some funny stuff . . . next time we can both give it a try again if you want.

Occasionally, young clients won’t be able to generate alternative thoughts or they won’t understand how the pushbutton technique works. In such cases, the counselor can focus more explicitly on changing mood through changing behaviors. This involves getting out a sheet of paper and mutually generating a list of actions that the client can take—when he or she feels like it—to improve mood.

Sometimes depressed young clients will need to borrow from your positive thoughts, affect, and ideas because they aren’t able to generate their own positive thoughts and feelings. If so, the TSPB technique should be discontinued for that particular session. The process of TSPB requires completion of each step before continuing on to the next step.

Step 3: Spread the good mood. Step 3 of this procedure involves teaching about the contagion quality of mood states. Teaching clients about contagious moods accomplishes two goals. First, it provides them with further general education about their emotional life. Second, if they complete the assignment associated with this activity, they may be able to have a positive effect on another person’s mood:

JSF:     I want to tell you another interesting thing about moods. They’re contagious. Do you  know what contagious means? It means that you can catch them from being around other  people who are in bad moods or good moods. Like when you got here. I noticed your  mom was in a pretty bad mood too. It made me wonder, did you catch the bad mood from    her or did she catch it from you? Anyway, now you seem to be in a much better mood. And so I was wondering, do you think you can make your mom “catch” your good mood?

S:         Oh yeah. I know my mom pretty well. All I have to do is tell her I love her and she’ll get all mushy and stuff.

JSF:     So, do you love her?

S:         Yeah, I guess so. She really bugs me sometimes though, you know what I mean?

JSF:     I think so. Sometimes it’s especially easy for people who love each other to bug each other. And parents can be especially good at bugging their kids. Not on purpose, but they bug you anyway.

S:         You can say that again. She’s a total bugging expert.

JSF:     But you did say you love her, right?

S:         Yeah.

JSF:     So if you told her “I love you, Mom,” it would be the truth, right?

S:         Yeah.

JSF:     And you think that would put her in a better mood too, right?

S:         No duh, man. She’d love it.

JSF:     So, now that you’re in a better mood, maybe you should just tell her you love her and spread the good mood. You could even tell her something like: “Dude, Mom, you really   bug me sometimes, but I love you.”

S:         Okay. I could do that.

It’s obvious that Sam knows at least one way to have a positive influence on his mother’s mood, but he’s reluctant to use the “I love you” approach. In this situation it would be useful for Sam to explore alternative methods for having a positive effect on his mother’s mood.

Although some observers of this therapy interaction may think the counselor is just teaching Sam emotional manipulation techniques, we believe that viewpoint makes a strong negative assumption about Sam and his family. Our position is that successful families (and successful marriages) include liberal doses of positive interaction (Gottman et al., 1995). Consequently, unless we believe Sam is an exceptionally manipulative boy (i.e., he has a conduct disorder diagnosis), we feel fine about reminding him of ways to share positive (and truthful) feelings with his mother.

To spread a good mood requires a certain amount of empathic perspective taking. Often, youth are more able to generate empathic responses and to initiate positive interactions with their parents (or siblings, teachers, etc.) after they’ve achieved an improved mood state and a concomitant increased sense of self-control. This is consistent with social–psychological literature suggesting that positive moods increase the likelihood of prosocial or altruistic behavior (Isen, 1987). Because of developmental issues associated with being young, it’s sometimes helpful to introduce the idea of changing other people’s moods as a challenge (Church, 1994).  “I wonder if you have the idea down well enough to actually try and change your mom’s mood.”

Once in a while, when using this technique, we’ve had the pleasure of witnessing some very surprised parents. One 12-year-old girl asked to go out in the waiting room to tell her grandmother that she was going to rake the lawn when they got home (something Grandma very much wanted and needed). Grandma looked positively stunned for minute, but then a huge smile spread across her face. The girl skipped around the office saying, “See.  I can do it.  I can change her mood.”

One 14-year-old boy thought a few minutes, then brought his mom into the office and said “Now Mom, I want you to think of how you would feel if I agree to clear the table and wash the dishes without you reminding me for a week.” Mom looked a bit surprised, but admitted she felt good at the thought, whereupon I (John) gave the boy a thumbs up signal and said, “Well done.”

Step 4.

At this point, readers should beware that although we’re describing a Three-Step technique, we’ve now moved to Step 4. We do this intentionally with young clients to make the point that whenever we’re working with or talking about emotions, surprising things can happen.

In keeping with the learn-do-teach model, we ask our young clients to teach the TSPB procedure to another person after they learn it in therapy. One girl successfully taught her younger brother the method when he was in a negative mood during a family hike. By teaching the technique to her brother, she achieved an especially empowering experience; she began to view herself as having increased control over her and her family’s emotional states.

The Sweet Spot of Self-Control

The Sweet Spot of Self Control (and Anger Management)

The speedometer reads 82 miles per hour. The numbers 8 and 2, represent, to me, a reasonable speed on I-90 in the middle of Montana. Our new (and unnecessary) speed limit signs read eight-zero. So technically, I’m breaking the law by two miles per hour. But the nearest car is a quarter mile away. The road is straight. Having ingested an optimal dose of caffeine, my attention is focused.

Slowly, a car creeps up from behind. He has his cruise control set at 83 mph. He lingers beside me and edges ahead. Then, with only three car lengths between us, he puts on his blinker and pulls in front of me. Now, with no other cars in sight, there’s just me and Mr. 83 mph on I-90, three car lengths apart.

An emotion rises into awareness. It’s almost anger. But nope, it not anger, it’s anger’s close cousin, annoyance. I feel it in my psyche and immediately know it can go in one of three directions: It could sit there and remain itself, until I tire of it; if I feed it, it could rise up and blossom into full-blown anger; or, I can send it away, leaving room for other thoughts and actions.

This is fabulous. This is the Sweet Spot of Self-Control.

Anger is lurking there, I know. I see it peeking over the shoulder of its cousin. “Hello anger,” I say.

In this sweet spot, I experience expanding awareness, a pinch of energy, along with an unfolding of possibilities. I love this place. I love the feelings of strength and power. I also recognize anger’s best buddy, the behavioral impulse. This particular impulse (they vary of course), is itching for me to reset my cruise control to 84 mph.  It’s coming to me in the shape of a desire—a desire to send the driver in front of me a clear message.

“You should cut him off,” the impulse says, “and let him know he should get a clue and give you some space.”

The sweet spot is sweet because it includes the empowered choice to say “No thanks” to the impulse and “See you later” to anger.

Now I’m listening to a different voice in my head. It’s smaller, softer, steadier. “It doesn’t matter” the voice whispers. “Let him creep ahead. Revenge only satisfies briefly.”

I feel a smile on my face as I remember an anger management workshop. With confidence, I had said to the young men in attendance, “No other emotion shifts as quickly as anger. You can go from feeling completely justified and vindicated, but as soon as you act, you can feel overwhelmed with shame and regret.”

A man raised his hand, “Lust” he said. “Lust is just like anger. One second you want it more than anything, but the next second you wish you hadn’t.”

“Maybe so,” I said. “Maybe so.”

There are many rational reasons why acting on aggressive behavioral impulses is ill-advised. Maybe the biggest is that the man in the car wouldn’t understand my effort to communicate with him. This gap of understanding is common across many efforts to communicate. But it’s especially linked to retaliatory or revenge-filled impulses. When angry, I can’t provide nuance in my communication and make it constructive.

The quiet voice in my brain murmurs: “You’re no victim to your impulses. You drive the car; the car doesn’t drive you.” That doesn’t make much sense. Sometimes the voice in my head speaks in analogy and metaphor. It’s a common problem. I want straight talk, but instead I get some silly metaphor from my elitist and intellectual conscience.

But I do get it and here’s what I get. I get that my conscience is telling me that this sweet spot is sweet because I get to see and feel my self-control. Not only do I get to see my behavioral options, I get to see into the future and evaluate their likely outcomes. I get to reject poor choices and avoid negative outcomes linked to aggressive actions. I’m not a victim of annoyance, anger, or aggressive impulses. I get to make the plan. I get to drive the car.

Now that other driver is far ahead.

Being on a Montana freeway, it’s hard to not think of deer. It’s clear now, but at dusk, deer will be everywhere. They have an odd instinct. Freud and my elitist conscience are inclined to call it a death instinct. Here’s how it works:

When I drive up alongside a deer on the side of the road, it dashes ahead, running alongside me; then it tries to cut across in front of me. This is the coup de gras of bad judgment. I’m in a big metal machine. The deer isn’t. So the deer dies. Not a good choice for the deer.

Yesterday, my phone alerted me to a Youtube speech by an unnamed alt right big-man. I watched and listened. So much smugness I was sick. In the end he shouted out “Hail Trump” and a few others jumped up and gave the “Heil Hitler!” salute.

Like a crazed deer, I felt an instinct. I wanted to drive to D.C. or Whitefish, Montana and find unnamed alt-right man and cut him off with some uncivil discourse. Instead, because I have a frontal lobe, I walked to the gym. Upon arriving, I discovered I’d stepped in dog poop. I’m sure this was an annoying but meaningful metaphor for something. At least that’s what my metaphor-loving conscience suggested. I didn’t buy it. Instead, I muttered “WTF” to myself. Okay, so maybe I muttered “WTF” several times. Then I walked outside in my socks and started cleaning the poop off my shoe. Not an easy task, especially if you’re wearing brand new trail-runners. I had to find a restroom near my office, an old toothbrush, lots of foamy soap, and mindfully scrub away the poop.

I was reminded of something my daughter Rylee once said at age three. She was being carried down a hill and there were many small piles of deer scat. She noticed, commenting: “I didn’t know the poop was so deep.”

Neither did I.

But the good news is that I (like you) own a functional frontal lobe that gifts me with the Sweet Spot of Self-Control. Many of us will be mindfully removing the metaphorical shit from our shoes for some time into the future. So let’s make some plans. Not revenge-laced plans; they don’t last. Yes. Let’s pause in the special sweet spot, evaluate our alternatives, and make some excellent plans.

rita-and-john-tippet

Emotional Dysregulation: Finding the Way Out

Sometimes we call it affect dysregulation. It creeps around like a metaphorical tarantula, sometimes popping up—big and frightening—and always best viewed from a distance. Just like shit, emotional dysregulation happens.

In counseling and psychotherapy, we throw around jargon. It can be more or less helpful. When it’s helpful, it facilitates important communication; when it’s not, it distances us from the experiences of our clients, students, and other mental health consumers.

So what is emotional dysregulation? Here’s what Wikipedia says:

Emotional dysregulation (ED) is a term used in the mental health community to refer to an emotional response that is poorly modulated, and does not fall within the conventionally accepted range of emotive response. ED may be referred to as labile mood (marked fluctuation of mood) or mood swings.

I hereby declare that definition not very helpful.

I have a better definition. Emotional dysregulation (ED) is the term of the month. Why? Because I’ve been intermittently emotionally dysregulated since November 9 and I see emotional dysregulation nearly everywhere I look.

I’ve seen many clients for whom the term emotionally dysregulated is an apt description. These clients report being frequently triggered or activated (more jargon) by specific incidents or experiences. Many of these incidents are interpersonal, but as many of us know from the recent election, they can also be political and, for many, reading about or directly experiencing social injustice is a big trigger. After being emotionally triggered, the person (you, me, or a client) is left feeling emotionally uneasy, uncomfortable, and it can be hard to regain emotional equilibrium, calm, or inner peacefulness.

What are common emotional dysregulators? These include, but are certainly not limited to: Being misunderstood, experiencing social rejection or social injustice, harassment, or bullying, or being emotionally invalidated. Consider these (sometimes well-meaning) comments: “Smile.” “What’s wrong with you?” “You’re overreacting.” “Chill.” “Cheer up.”). One time I overheard a father tell his son, “Do you think I give a shit about what you’re feeling?” Yep. If someone says that to you or you overhear someone saying it to a 10-year-old, that might trigger emotional dysregulation.

Emotional dysregulation passes. That’s the good news. But sometimes it doesn’t pass soon enough. And other times, like when I see he-who-will-not-be-named on the television screen or hear his voice on the radio, repeated re-activation or re-triggering can occur. It becomes the Ground Hog’s Day version of emotional dysregulation.

In the clinical world, emotional dysregulation is linked to post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, clinical depression, and a range of other anxiety disorders. Suicidal crises often have emotional triggers. The point: emotional dysregulation is a human universal; it occurs along a continuum.

The Fantastic Four

Emotional dysregulation usually involves one of the fantastic four “negative” emotions. These include:

  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Fear
  • Guilt

To be fair, these emotions aren’t really negative. They have both negative and positive characteristics. In every case, they can be useful, sooner or later, to the person experiencing them. For example, anger is both light and energy. It can clarify values and provide motivation or inspiration. Unfortunately, the light and energy of anger is also confusing and destabilizing. It’s easy for anger to cloud cognition; it’s easy for anger to send people out on misguided behavioral missions. Funny thing, these misguided, anger-fueled missions often feel extremely self-righteous, right up until the point they don’t. Less funny thing, immediately after the punch, the flip-off, the profanity, the broken window or door or relationship or whatever—regret often follows. Ironically then, the emotional dysregulation (anger) leads to behavioral dysregulation (aggression), which leads right back to emotional dysregulation (guilt and remorse).

Dysregulation can be experienced via any of a number of dimensions. You can experience behavioral, mental, social, and spiritual dysregulation. What fun! Who designed this system where we can get so dysregulated in so many different ways? Never mind. It was probably he-who-will-not-be-named.

One of the most perplexing things about emotional dysregulation is that so very often, we do it to ourselves. We do it repeatedly. And more or less, we usually know we’re doing it. We seem to want to embrace our anger, sadness, fear, and guilt. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, that is, until we want out.

For most people, the fantastic four feel bad. They stay too long. They adversely affect relationships. They’re bad company.

There’s one best way out of emotional dysregulation. I’ll say it in a word that I’m borrowing from Alfred Adler. Gemeinschaftsgefühl. I’ll say it in another word: Empathy. Empathy for yourself and others. The kind of empathy that moves you to being interested in other people and motivated to help make our communities and the world better, safer, and more filled with justice.

Okay then. Let’s get out there and start Gemeinschaftsgefühling around. We’ve got at least four years of work ahead.

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For another, less profound way out of the Fantastic Four negative emotions, check out the Three-Step Emotional Change Trick: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2012/09/23/the-three-step-emotional-change-trick/

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Using an Invitation for Collaboration in Counseling and Psychotherapy

As I’m sure you know, I believe (rather strongly) that counselors and psychotherapists should work hard to collaborate with clients. Being an authoritarian therapist is passe.

Sometimes collaboration sounds easy in theory, but it can be difficult in practice. It’s especially difficult if clients come into your office not “believing in therapy” and not trusting you. In the following excerpt from the forthcoming 6th edition of Clinical Interviewing, you can see how a skilled therapist deals with some initial client hostility.

Case Example 3.1: An Early Invitation for Collaboration

Sophia, a 26-year-old mother of two was referred for counseling by her children’s pediatrician. When she sat down with her counselor, she stated:

I don’t believe in this counseling thing. I’m stressed, that’s true, but I’m a private person and I believe very strongly that I should take care of myself and not have anyone take care of my problems for me. Besides, you look like you might be 18 years old and I doubt that you’re married or have children. So I don’t see how this is supposed to help.

It’s easy to be shaken when clients like Sophia pour out their doubts about therapy and about you at the beginning of the first session. Our best advice: (a) be ready for it; (b) don’t take it personally, Sophia is speaking of her doubts, don’t let them become yours; (c) be ready to respond directly to the client’s core message; and (d) end your response with an invitation for collaboration. An invitation for collaboration is a clinician statement that explicitly offers your client an opportunity to work together. In some cases, an invitation for collaboration is a time-limited “let’s try this out” offer.

Here’s a sample counselor response to Sophia:

Counselor: I hear you loud and clear. You don’t believe in counseling, you’re a private person, and you’re concerned that I don’t have the experiences needed to understand or help you.

Sophia: That’s right. [Sometimes when the counselor explicitly reflects the client’s core message (i.e., “. . . you’re concerned I don’t have the experience needed to understand or help you”) the client will retreat from this concern and say something like, “Well, it’s not that big of a deal.” But that’s not what Sophia does.]

Counselor: Well then, I can see why you wouldn’t want to be here. And you’re right, I don’t have a lot of the life experiences you’ve had. . But I do have knowledge and experience working with people who are stressed and concerned about parenting and I’d very much like to have a chance to be of help to you. How about since you’re here, we try out working together today and then toward the end of our time together I’ll check back in with you and you can be the judge of whether this might be helpful or not?

Sophia: Okay. That sounds reasonable.

In this case the counselor responded directly and with empathy to Sophia and then offered an invitation for collaboration. As the session ends, Sophia may or may not accept the counselor’s invitation. But either way, the counselor’s skillful response provides an opportunity for a collaborative relationship to develop.

Round Bales