Yesterday I had a marvelous day with a group of about 35 wonderful mental health professionals and students in Ypsilante, Michigan. I was hosted by generous and kind faculty of Eastern Michigan University. I learned about the historical significance of “Ipsy,” along with anecdotes pertaining to the Ipsy water tower on post-cards, details of which—obviously because I’m so classy and sophisticated—I will not mention here.
The weather was marginally dreadful. We worried the in-person workshop would be cancelled and replaced with Zoom. Despite the weather, some people drove 90 minutes or more to arrive, which was just one small measure of their commitment to learning and their commitment to serving youth and families in counseling and psychotherapy. Whenever I’m in a room with professionals like the group yesterday, I have renewed hope in the world and in the future. The participants were: Just. Good. People.
As is my practice, I’m posting the ppts from the workshop here:
And here’s a PG-rated image of the Ypsilante water tower.
Toward the end of the workshop I engaged two participants in an activity that involved shaking imaginary soda pop bottles and opening them. One participant had brought her five-year-old daughter for the day (because of a school closure). As her mother and the woman next to her pretended to shake their imaginary bottles, and I was saying, “Shake, shake, shake,” the five-year-old, who had been incredibly well-behaved for the preceding 8 hours, began giggling in a way that couldn’t be described as representing anything other than pure joy.
In honor of my new five-year-old friend, I encourage you all to find time to giggle this weekend. Even better, find a child to giggle with; it will be time well-spent.
And here’s a photo of me having a giggle with a young person.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I have a friend who repeatedly espouses the glories of redundancy. Maybe that’s why some politicians stay on-message, regardless of the veracity of their statements. Of course, George Orwell and Hannah Arendt also commented on redundancy as persuasion, and not in a good way. I should emphasize that my goal for using redundancy and writing about the three-step emotional technique again has nothing to do with shaping your reality through political messaging.
When I presented on positive psychology to a bunch of UM STEM graduate students back in August, 2022, I made it very clear that I was not advocating toxic positivity. Nevertheless, in one of the student evaluations, someone complained that all I was doing was telling graduate students to “Cheer up.” Oh my. Sometimes people just hear what they want to hear. That’s a problem with over-valuing “lived experience.” When we over-value lived experience, then everything is viewed through our own, usually narrow and biased, personal lenses. Adler called this private logic. Too much private logic is too much private logic. Although we should strive to value, learn from, and share lived experiences, we should also have a shared value of this thing called . . . wait for it . . . science!
The next time I presented to the UM STEM grad students (in January, 2023), I made an explicit point of emphasizing my “non-toxic positivity street cred” by beginning the lecture with a short lesson on the three-step emotional change trick (which, BTW, with inspiration from Alfred Adler and Harold Mosak, we created as a youth psychotherapy technique in the mid-1990s). You can even find our (with Rita) original three-step article here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1300/J019v17n04_02 and a later book chapter here: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2002-01308-098 and, of course, I’ve written about it on this blog, and have a youtube video demonstration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ITWhMYANC5c, yada, yada, yada.
While presenting the 3SECT (which is what cool people call it) to the STEM students, there was a woman sitting toward the back. She had stationed her 8-year-old son still farther back, where he was sitting, head down, playing on her phone. I did the 3SECT thing, including the famous “And so I put my cat on my head” scene, emphasizing throughout, that the WHOLE reason for the 3SECT existing was because we should NEVER SAY CHEER UP to anyone, anytime!
The next day, I received the following email from the anonymous woman in the back (who generously gave me permission to share it here):
I was at your happiness seminar yesterday and was very disappointed I had to leave early. You may have noticed my son (who is 8) was sitting in the back playing a game on my phone during the seminar. I was delighted to find out this morning, while my 6-year-old daughter was having a meltdown trying to do her hair for school, that my son had been listening and absorbed your 3-step emotional change trick. He remembered the whole thing, and he asked his sister this morning if she wanted to learn it, but only if she wanted to change her own mood. He was clear that it wasn’t because he was trying to tell her to cheer up. He heard it all yesterday! Thought you might enjoy that little anecdote.
A few days later, she wrote:
We have gotten a lot of mileage out of your emotional change trick in the last few days.
I have to admit, I absolutely love it when people listen and get the message, but I truly and deeply love it EVEN MORE when 8-year-olds absorb messages while allegedly playing on a cell phone. I believe this may just be the scientific evidence (or is it my lived experience) I needed to validate that I am not and never have been a proponent of toxic positivity.
One other notable note. When searching (via Google) for my very own 3SECT video, I found that a counselor in Tennessee has copied one of my three-step blog posts and posted it as his own blog post. I was gobsmacked—with annoyance and flattery in equal proportions. If you want to read the blog post worthy of plagiarism (not the plagiarist’s version, which is the same, but my version that was so darn tempting that it literally caused plagiarism, here you go: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2020/04/15/the-three-step-emotional-change-technique/
I’m ending now with a few core messages:
Don’t say “cheer up” to anyone.
Don’t get too over-focused on your own lived experiences, because, after all, everyone has their own lived experiences, and we should complement them all with scientific knowledge.
If the person you plagiarized emails you, asking you to stop plagiarizing or provide a citation, don’t ignore that person.
And, whenever appropriate, follow in the anonymous 8-year-old’s footsteps and spread the good mood – without saying cheer-up!
In 1990, when I moved back to Missoula, Montana to join Philip and Marcy Bornstein in their private practice, my goal was to establish a practice focusing on health psychology. I believed deeply in the body-mind connection and wanted to work with clients/patients with hypertension, asthma, and other health-related conditions with significant behavioral and psychosocial components.
Turns out, maybe because I was the youngest psychologist in town, all I got were referrals from Youth Probation Services, Child Protective Services, local schools, and parents who asked if I could “fix” their children’s challenging behaviors.
I’d say that I made lemonade from lemons, but it turns out I LOVED working with the so-called “challenging youth.” There were no lemons! The work led to our Tough Kids, Cool Counseling book (1997 and 2007), along with many articles, book chapters, and demonstration counseling videos. Over the years I’ve had the honor of working extensively with parents, families, youth, and young adults.
In about 10 days, I’ll be in Ypsilanti, Michigan doing a full-day professional workshop on “Tough Kids, Cool Counseling.” If you’re concerned about the title, don’t worry, so am I. In the first few minutes of the day, I’ll explain why using the terminology “Tough Kids” is a bad idea for counselors, psychotherapists, and other humans.
Just in case you’re in the Eastern Michigan area, the details and links for the conference are below. I hope to see you there . . . and hope if you make the trip, you’ll be sure to say hello to me at a break or after the workshop.
When: Friday, March 10, 2023, 8:30 AM – 5:00 PM EST
Where: Eastern Michigan University Student Center, Second Floor – Ballroom B Ypsilanti, MI 48197
Counseling so-called “tough kids” can be immensely frustrating or splendidly gratifying. The truth of this statement is so obvious that the supportive reference, at least according to many teenagers is, “Duh!” In this workshop, participants will sharpen their counseling skills by viewing and discussing video clips from actual counseling sessions, discussing key issues, and participating in live demonstrations. Attending this workshop will add tools to your counseling youth tool-box, and deepen your understanding of specific interventions. Over 20 cognitive, emotional, and constructive counseling techniques will be illustrated and demonstrated. Examples include acknowledging reality, informal assessment, the affect bridge, the three-step emotional change trick, asset flooding, empowered storytelling, and more. Four essential counseling principles, counselor counter-transference, and multicultural issues will be highlighted.
One more freebie in honor of suicide prevention month.
Building hope from the bottom up is one of the strengths-based suicide assessment and treatment techniques clinicians like best. I may be forgetting that I’ve already posted this here, but the approach is so popular that I’ll take that risk. Here’s the section for our Strengths-Based Suicide book . . .
Working from the Bottom Up to Build a Continuum ofHope
When clients are depressed and suicidal, they often think and talk about depressing thoughts and feelings. We shouldn’t expect otherwise. Even so, when clients ruminate on the negative, it fogs the window through which positive feelings and experiences are viewed. Within counseling, a potential conflict emerges: although clinicians want clients to problem-solve, focus on their strengths, and have hope for the future, clients are unable to generate solutions, can’t focus on their strengths or positive attributes, and seem unable to shake their hopelessness.
As discussed earlier in the case of Sophia, after an initial discussion of suicidality, there may come a natural time to pivot to the positive. One common strength-based tool for exploring what helps clients overcome their suicidality is a solution-focused question (Sommers-Flanagan, 2018a). If you’re working with a client who has made a previous attempt, you might ask something like “You’ve tried suicide before, but you’re here with me now, so there’s still a chance for a better life. What helped in the past?”
Although this is a perfectly reasonable question, the question may fall flat, and your client might respond with a hopelessness statement, “Nothing really ever helps.” This puts you in a predicament. Should you use Socratic questioning to identify a cognitive distortion? Should you interpret the distorted thinking in the here-and-now? Or should you retreat to empathy?
No matter what theoretical model you’re using, the predicament of how to deal with client non-responsiveness, negativity, or cognitive distortions remains. Let’s say you’re operating from a solution-focused or strength-based model and you ask the miracle question:
I’m going to ask you a strange question. What if, after we get done talking, you go back to doing your usual things at home, go to bed, and get some sleep. But in the middle of the night, a miracle happens, and your feelings of depression and suicide go away. You were asleep, and so you don’t know about the miracle. When you wake up, what will be the first thing you notice that will make you say to yourself, “Wow. Something amazing happened. I’m no longer depressed and suicidal.” (adapted from Berg & Dolan, 2001, p. 7).
Although the miracle question might do its magic and your client will respond with something positive, it’s equally possible that your client will say something like, “Not possible” or “The only way that would happen would be if I died in the night.” When clients are pervasively negative and hopeless, one error clinicians often make is to get into a yes-no questioning process that looks something like this:
Counselor: I’m sure there must be something that helps you feel more positive.
Client: I can’t think of anything.
Counselor: How about time with friends, does that help?
Client: No. I don’t have any real friends left.
Counselor: How about exercise?
Client: I can’t even get myself to exercise.
Counselor: Being in the outdoors helps with depression. Does that help?
Counselor: Have you tried medications?
Client: I hate medications. They made me feel like a zombie.
Entering into this exchange is unhelpful. In the end, both you and your client will be more depressed. Rather than continuing to ask what helps, try changing the focus to what doesn’t help. This shift is useful because when clients are experiencing suicidal depression, they’re more likely to resonate with negativity, and connecting with your client at the negative bottom is better than not connecting at all. The goal is to collaboratively build a continuum from the bottom up. By starting at the bottom, you’re simultaneously assessing hopelessness and intervening on the “Black-black” (as opposed to black-white) distorted thinking that you’re witnessing in session. Here’s an example:
Counselor: You’ve tried lots of different strategies to deal with your suicidal thoughts, without success. You’ve tried medications, exercise, and you’ve talked to your rabbi. Let’s list these and other things you’ve tried, and see which strategies were the worst. Of all the things you’ve tried, what was worst?
Client: I really hated exercising. It felt like I was being coerced to do something I’ve always hated. And it made me sore.
Counselor: Okay then. Exercise was the worst. You hated that. Of the other things you’ve tried, what was a little less bad than exercising?
Client: The medications. I just didn’t feel like myself.
Counselor: So that didn’t work either. So, of those three things, talking with your rabbi was the least bad?
Client: Yeah. It didn’t help much. But she was nice and supportive. I felt a little better, but I didn’t want to keep talking because she’s busy and I was a burden.
Focusing on the worst option resonates with a negative emotional state. For clients who are unhappy with the results of previous therapeutic efforts, beginning with the most worthless strategy of all is an easier therapeutic and assessment task, provides useful information, and is usually answered quickly. Subsequently, clinicians can move upward toward strategies that are “just a little less bad.” Building a unique continuum of what’s more and less helpful is the goal. Later, you can add new ideas that you or your client identify, and put them in their place on the continuum. If this approach works well, together with your client you will have generated several ideas (some new and some old) that are worth experimenting with in the future.
Beginning from the bottom puts a different spin on the problem-solving process. Even extremely depressed clients can acknowledge that every attempt to address their symptoms isn’t equally bad. Using a continuum is a useful tool for working with hopelessness and is consistent with the CBT technique, “Thinking in shades of grey.”
Here’s a visual/cartoon with a nice message, despite the outdated language.
And here’s some late-breaking news related to Montana Schools.
Next Monday and Tuesday (June 6 and 7), in Billings, I’m partnering with the amazing Dr. Emily Sallee to offer a two-day workshop for the Montana Association of School Psychologists. This is an in-person workshop—which is pretty darn exciting, especially because COVID cases in Billings right now are low.
The workshop is titled,Weaving Evidence-Based Happiness Interventions into Suicide Assessment & Treatment Planning .
Here’s the description:
In this 2-day workshop you will build your skills for providing evidence-based suicide assessment and treatment. Using a strengths-based foundation, this workshop includes a critique of traditional suicide assessment, a review of an alternative assessment approach for determining “happiness potential,” and skill-building activities on how to use more nuanced and therapeutic approaches to assessment. We will view video clips and engage in active practice of strategies for building hope from the bottom up, safety-planning and other essential interventions. Throughout the workshop, we will explore how to integrate evidence-based happiness and wellness strategies into suicide assessment, treatment, and professional self-care.
Yesterday I submitted a manuscript for publication in a professional journal. The journal portal insisted that the telephone number linked to the University of Montana began with a 770 prefix. For us Montanans, that’s blasphemy. We are 406.
The automated message from the journal portal arrived instantaneously. That was amazing. The fact that the automated message was also copied to a former doc student from Pakistan who wasn’t listed as an author was less amazing. That’s the point now, I suppose. We live in a world where we’re pummeled by glitches and errors into desensitized or over-sensitized submission. Every time I start up my Outlook program it drones on about “Profile error. Something went wrong.” At this point, even Microsoft has given up on figuring out what went wrong with its own programming.
My high school friend who has an answer to everything tells me this is a universal experience wherein our expectations that things will work are repeatedly and systematically crushed. That could be a Buddhist outcome, because we’re forced to let go of our expectations. Unless, of course, we have the anti-Buddhist experience of outrage over our overattachment to things working.
This morning I’m checking in for my flight to Atlanta for the American Counseling Association conference. I’m worried by a message in the fine print from ACA implying that I may need a special adaptor to connect my computer to the conference center sound system. I’m also worried about why Delta has decided to charge me to check a bag, even though I have their coveted American Express Skymiles card.
Good news. My worries are mostly small. If there’s no sound system at the conference center, I can yell and mime the video clips I’m planning to show. I can easily (albeit resentfully) pay to check a bag, or I can reduce my packing into a carry-on. If my doc student from 10-years past gets the email, she’ll be glad to hear from me.
Delta is now telling me that the card I downgraded to a couple years ago—because of minimal travel during pandemic lockdowns—doesn’t include a free checked bag. In response, I have to check my emotional response to my overattachment to not paying a baggage fee. Easy-peasy (maybe).
On a brighter note, if you’re planning to be at ACA, I hope to see you from behind our masks. I’m presenting three times. Here they are:
Friday, April 8 at 11am to noon: The Way of the Humanist: Illuminating the Path from Suicide to Wellness in the Georgia World Congress Center, Room B302-B303.
Friday, April 8 at 3:30pm to 4:30pm: Using a Strengths-Based Approach to Suicide Assessment and Treatment in Your Counseling Practice in the Georgia World Congress Center, Room B207-B208
Saturday, April 9 at 10am to 11:30am: Being Seen, Being Heard: Strategies for Working with Adolescents in the Age of TikTok (with Chinwe Uwah Williams) in the Georgia World Congress Center, Room B406.
There’s a button on the Delta page saying “Talk with us?” I click on it and am directed to pre-prepared answers to common questions. Sadly, none of the common questions are my uncommon question. Like Moodle and Quicken and Microsoft and Qualtrics and Apple and Verizon and Grubhub and Tevera and Garmin and Xfinity and Chase and the many other corporate entities in my life, Delta doesn’t really want to talk with me. I suppose I could get into the weeds here and complain that pre-prepped answers aren’t exactly the same as talking, but we all know how this ends. My high school friend’s hypothesis would be affirmed. My expectations would be crushed, only to rise again, in the form of a rising blood pressure event not worthy of my time.
Speaking of time, as I get older, the decisions over how to spend time get pluckier. Do I write something silly like this, or do I go out to the garden, or do I set up another speaking event, or do I work on our Montana Happiness Project website, or do I volunteer somewhere, or do I wash it all away with family time?
This afternoon, I’ll fly to Georgia, where, on Thursday, I’ll teach my happiness class and engage in various consultations from a hotel, before giving three presentations at the American Counseling Association World Conference on Friday and Saturday, before I fly to Portland to see my ailing father in Vancouver, WA, before I fly back to Billings to get back to gardening. I’ll miss my 8-year-old granddaughter’s play in Missoula . . . and many (I was tempted to say “countless” but as a scientist, I’m philosophically opposed to the words countless and tireless) other possible events.
Irvin Yalom likes to point out that one choice represents the death of all others. Truth. There is no multitasking, there’s only the rush to sequentially tasking as much or as many life permutations as possible to fight Yalom’s existential dilemma of choosing and freedom and the angst and weight of our decisions.
My internal editor is complaining about how many “ands” I’ve used in this speedy essay. Even more sadly, the last editor-friend who told me about my penchant for too many “ands” and too many “quotes” has passed away. I miss him.
As a consistent voice and source of support, Rita is recommending I let go of my rigid hopes and expectations and pay the extra $120 to check my bag. At the same time, I’m resisting the death of multitasking, which is why I’m downsizing my packing for seven days into a carry-on bag.
I suppose that’s what the 1970’s band Kansas might say.
Carry on my wayward son
There’ll be peace when you are done
Lay your weary head to rest
Don’t you cry no more
At the risk of worrying you all more than I’m worrying myself (I’m doing fine; this is just creative expression or long form slam poetry), I’m in disagreement with that last line from the Kansas band. Don’t you cry no more is terrible advice.
Maybe the lyrics from that old Leslie Gore song fit better.
It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to . . .
That’s not quite right either. It’s more like,
I’ll cry when I’m moved to . . . for Ukraine, for the forgotten children, for the marginalized and oppressed, for my father, for the hungry.
We all have many good reasons we to cry. Grief, whether from the death of friends or ideas or choices, is a process; it comes and goes and comes and goes.
It’s easy to forget that grief is what’s happening in between our times of being happy. Happiness begets grief. And . . . that sounds like something my friend who has an answer for everything might just agree with.
Last week I got a press query to answer a few questions for an upcoming article in Parents magazine. The questions were sent to a broad spectrum of media reps and professionals. There was understandably no guarantee I would be quoted in the magazine.
No surprise, I wasn’t quoted. But my media connection was thoughtful enough to send me the article (it came out a couple days ago). IMHO commentary in the article was really good, and so I’m including a link to the article below.
Although I like the article, I have one objection. The authors immediately pathologize children’s anxiety. In the second sentence of the article, they write, “Both conditions (separation anxiety and social anxiety) are treatable with the proper diagnosis.” Using words like “conditions” and “treatable” and “diagnosis” deeply medicalizes children’s anxiety and is a bad idea. Separation anxiety and social anxiety are NOT necessarily mental disorders. It would have been better to start the article by noting that given our current global situation of uncertainty–with COVID, and other sources of angst all around us–it’s normal and natural for children to feel anxiety.
This blog post has three parts. First, I’m including a link to the article. Second, I’m including my responses to the media query. Third—and I think the best part—is a old handout I wrote for helping parents deal with children’s anxiety and fear.
Here are my responses to the magazine’s questions:
What is anxiety, in a nutshell?
Anxiety is a natural human emotional response to stress, danger, or threat. One thing that makes anxiety especially distinctive and problematic is that it comes with strong physiological components. Other words used to describe anxiety states include, nervous, worried, jittery, jumpy, scared, and afraid.
Anxiety usually has a trigger or is linked to an activating situation, thought, or physical sensation. Hearing about COVID in the news or seeing someone fall ill can activate anxiety in children (and adults too!).
Anxiety is often, but not always, about the future because people tend to worry about what will happen or what is unfolding in the present. Even when children feel anxious about the past, they tend to worry about how the past will play out in the future.
How has COVID-19 affected children mentally? Has there been an uptick in anxiety-related conditions?
COVID-19 is a stressor or threat because of its implications (it can kill you and your loved ones) and because of how it affects children situationally. During my 30+ years as a professional psychologist, anxiety in children, teens, and adults has done nothing but increase. COVID-19 is another factor in contemporary life that has increased anxiety.
In some ways, the fact that more children are feeling anxious can be a positive thing. I know that sounds weird, but anxiety is mostly normal. A professor of mine used to say that the old saying “Misery loves company” isn’t quite true. What is true (and supported by data) is that misery loves miserable company. In other word, people feel a little better when their problems are more universal. When it comes to COVID-related anxiety, we should all recognize we’re in good company.
What are the symptoms of social anxiety in kids?
Social anxiety is defined as fear of being scrutinized or negatively evaluated by others. Symptoms can be physical (headaches, stomach aches, shaking, etc.), emotional (feeling scared), mental (thinking something terrible will happen), and behavioral (running away). Social anxiety is usually most intense in anticipation and during exposure to potential social evaluation. Of course, almost always, anxiety will make us imagine that everyone is staring at us—even though many other kids are also feeling anxious and as if everyone is staring at them.
What are the symptoms of separation anxiety in kids?
Separation anxiety occurs when children leave or part from a safe person or a safe place. Leaving the home or leaving mom or dad or grandma or grandpa will often trigger anxiety. The symptoms—because it’s anxiety—are the same as above (physical, emotional, mental, behavioral); they’re just triggered by a different situation.
How can you help children cope with anxiety–both in general and specific to each condition?
Children should be assured that anxiety is a message from your brain and your body. When anxiety spikes, there may be a good reason for it, just like when a fire alarm goes off and there’s really a fire and there’s physical danger and getting to a safe place is important. Children should be encouraged to identify their safe places and their safe people.
However, sometimes anxiety spikes and instead of a real fire alarm, the body and the brain are experiencing a false alarm. When there’s no immediate danger and the anxiety builds up anyway, it’s crucial for children to have a plan for how they’ll handle the anxiety. Having a plan to approach and deal with anxiety is nearly always preferable to letting the anxiety be the boss. Leaning into, facing, and embracing anxiety as a normal part of life is very important. We should all avoid taking actions designed to run away from or avoid anxiety. Developing a personal plan (along with parents, teachers, and counselors) for dealing with anxiety is the best strategy.
And, finally, here’s my tip sheet for helping with children’s anxiety
How to Help Children Deal with Fears and Anxiety
Manage Your Own Anxiety and Negative Expectations: If you don’t have and display confidence in your own preparation and skills, YOUR WORRIES and negative expectations will leak into the child. Additionally, if you don’t show confidence in your child’s coping abilities, that lack of confidence will leak into them too!
Use Storytelling for Preparation and to Teach Coping Strategies: “Let’s read, Where the Wild Things Are.” Afterwards, launch into a discussion of how people deal with fears.
Focus on Problem-Solving and Coping (especially as preparation): “How do you suppose people manage or get over their fears?”
Instead of Dismissing Feelings, Use Soothing Empathy: “It’s no fun to be feeling so scared.”
Show Gentle Curiosity: “You seem scared. Want to talk about it?”
Provide Comforting Reassurance or Universality (after using empathy and listening with interest): “Lots of people get afraid of things. I remember being really afraid of dogs.”
Offer Positive (Optimistic) Encouragement: “I know it’s hard to be brave, but I know you can do it.”
Have and Show Enormous Patience (connection—and holding hands—reduces anxiety): “Yes, I’ll help you walk by Mr. Johnson’s dog again. I think we’re both getting better at it, though.”
Set Reasonable Limits: “Even though you’re scared of monsters sometimes, you still have to be brave and go to bed.”
Model how to Sit with and through Fear (No negative reinforcement!): One thing that’s always true is when fear is big, it always gets smaller, eventually. “Hey. Let’s sit here together and watch our fear go away. Let’s pay attention to what makes it get smaller.” (This might include direct coping skill work . . . or simple distraction and funny stories).
Plan and Model Anxiety Management Skills: Specific skills, like deep breathing, aid with coping. Once you find some techniques or skills that are better than nothing, start to practice and rehearse using them. This can be for preparation, coping during the anxiety, or afterwards. “Let’s sit together and count our breaths. Just count one and then another. And we’ll try to find our sweet spot.”
As I type, Steven Hayes, the creator of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), is talking in a variety of voices about mindful acceptance. Earlier, he mentioned something about the whole human genome. In case you don’t already know, Steve is an older white guy. His writing about psychotherapy is fantastic. I really like his Ted talk. I’ve found his question, “What shall we do with our difficult thoughts?” an excellent prompt to reflect on.
Steve and I have a history. I’m glad to say that I’ve mindfully accepted that he missed his supervision appointment with me at AABT (now ABCT) back in 1987 in Los Angeles. Really. I’ve let go Steve standing me up, not because I’m all that good at forgiveness, but because him skipping out on our chance to meet makes for a better story. In fact, in this mindful moment, I’ve accepted him missing our meeting so completely that I have no urge to try to meet him today.
This is my first Networker “Symposium.” I hadn’t realized it was quite the distinctive thing. They’ve got numbers you can put on your badges to represent how many times you’ve attended the Symposium. Although it’s just a conference, it does have a particular flair and feel. From the beginning, there was movement, talk about love and sex-tech, dancing, singing, and learning. The breadth of content and diversity of attendees has been marvelous.
I started the first day with a workshop on Love and the Therapeutic relationship with Sabrina N’Diaye. Later, I took in a workshop on Tech-Sex with Tammy Nelson, author of Getting the Sex you Want. Nelson basically blew my mind. Did you know there are “devices” you can use to remotely vibrate your romantic partner’s genitalia? I didn’t . . . and maybe I didn’t want to. Did you know someone commented in the session that “Dominants” use that vibrating device to issue “commands?” I was sitting next to a professional cuddler and sexual surrogate. She was delightful. Steve Hayes (and Ram Dass) would be proud of the fact that I managed my difficult thoughts by staying in the here and now instead of trying to imagine her work or think about what the dominatrix had shared. Just saying. My mind remained as pure as the water of the Stillwater River.
There’s been lots of talk about racism at the Symposium. That’s a good thing. I’m better for it. The more we can all be less racist or anti-racist and aware of our biases, the better. Of course, while I’m typing this, my almost erstwhile buddy Steve continues to talk (and sometimes mumble). I’m aware (somewhat painfully) that I’m more “like” him in age and gender and ethnicity and can’t help but lament that (sorry Steve). Being an old white guy brings privilege (or advantage, as our first keynote speaker preferred). At the same time, looking in the mirror and seeing myself as just another old white guy also brings along gut-level unpleasantness.
Yesterday’s highlights were listening to Ester Perel (very smart, very articulate, very impressive) and learning more about Susan Johnson and her personal history of growing up in a Pub. We also listened to three young women talk about the couple therapy experiences that changed them. Fabulous.
One of my (many) take-aways from the past two days is for me to NOT be THAT old WHITE guy. I want to be a different white guy. How does that work? Among other things, I will try not to think too much of myself . . . or mumble.
Steve is now trying to get us all to love ourselves. That’s a nice idea. Someday, Steve, I hope to get there. But, to channel our Saturday morning Symposium keynote speaker, Emily Nagoski, most of the time, things just don’t fucking work.
Wait. I know that sounds negative. Among many of her excellent points about coping with burnout, Emily played a cool song (of her twin sister’s), a song liberally infused with the F-word. If you’ve ever experienced technology frustration (which I suppose even happens with sex-tech), you should listen. Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eottd9Lw8l4 If you listen, don’t think about sex-tech at the same time. There’s no need to thank me for this great advice.
I’ve now abandoned Steve, in favor of one of the darling presenters of the Symposium and PESI. Sorry Steve . . . but I know you’ll mindfully accept your experience of me abandoning you. . . partly because you’ve never acknowledged my existence anyway (see, I’m totally over that 1987 incident).
There’s a woman talking . . . softly . . . without the changing voice routines of Steve Hayes. As she drones on, she mentions that therapy and therapists can be triggering. . . which is interesting given that I can’t find any affect in her voice. I’ve taken a seat on the floor in the back corner of the room and quickly recognized she’s right. She’s right because she instantly triggered me as I walked in the door with her monotone statement that talk therapy doesn’t work for trauma (what about CPT . . . or?). She continued to trigger me with her statement that PTSD was only identified in the 1970s (what about the diagnosis of war neurosis or battle fatigue or the many other earlier versions of PTSD?). And she finished triggering me with her laudatory comments on narrative therapy (does she NOT think of narrative therapy as “talk therapy?”).
I know my job here. Mindful acceptance. Learn what I can. Maybe the learning is about my own triggers or my own internal lament over being an increasingly irrelevant old white guy. Maybe the learning is about how to stay calm and embrace both ends of the constant dialectics and polarities of life.
On the whole, I’m so glad to be here at the Symposium, with Rita, and so grateful to continue learning. The fact that the conference has stimulated some of what Steve would call “difficult thoughts” is a blessing to be mindfully accepted. How else do we learn? How else do we grow? Should we expect to be constantly confronted with easy, comfortable, and affirming thoughts?
I think not. And I accept that . . . in my whole human genome.
Back in the days when video recording involved film rather than digits, editors would talk about leaving excellent footage “on the floor.” How do I know this? I was alive back in the day.
Today I’ve been working on revising a continuing education “course” for ContinuingEdCourses.net. The course has been popular and so the ContinuingEdCourses.net owners asked for a revision. I stalled until they recognized my stalling for what it was essentially told me I was overdue and late, which made me decide it would feel better to finish the revision than it would to keep procrastinating. I’m guessing maybe others of you out there can relate to that particular moment in time.
While editing and revising I discovered (actually I rediscovered) my penchant for redundancy. Sometimes that penchant is intentional and other times the penchant is an annoying rediscovery. This paragraph that you’re reading in the here-and-now includes an intentional penchant. The CE course included an unintentional penchant. Are you familiar with the research on the overuse of words? If you repeat a word over and over, after only a few seconds you can become desensitized to the meaning of the word and the word will just sound like a sound. I’m feeling a penchant for that too.
Bottom line: I had to cut some nice content. It ended up on the metaphorical floor, until I picked it up, dusted it off, and put it in this blog. Here you go. . .
Editor’s note [BTW, I’m the editor here, because it’s my blog, so I own all the mistakes, misspellings, and misplaced commas]: Turns out I edited out the other redundant content, but I’m posting this anyway, because it’s still 2/22/22, which happens to be most redundant date of the year. Now, here you go. . .
Four Suicide Myths
The word “myth” has two primary meanings.:
A myth is a traditional or popular story or legend used to explain current cultural beliefs and practices. This definition emphasizes the positive guidance that myths sometimes provide. For example, the Greek myth of Narcissus warns that excessive preoccupation with one’s own beauty can become dangerous. Whether or not someone named Narcissus ever existed is irrelevant; the story tells us that too much self-love may lead to our own downfall.
The word myth is also used to describe an unfounded idea, or false notion. Typically, the false notion gets spread around and, over time, becomes a generally accepted, but inaccurate, popular belief. One contemporary example is the statement, “Lightning never strikes the same place twice.” In fact, lightning can and does strike the same place twice (or more). During an electrical storm, standing on a spot where lightning has already struck, doesn’t make for a good safety strategy.
The statement “We only use 10% of our brains” is another common myth. Although it’s likely that most of us can and should more fully engage our brains, scientific researchers (along with the Mythbusters television show) have shown that much more than 10% of our brains are active most of the time – and probably even when we’re sleeping.
False myths can stick around for much longer than they should; sometimes they stick around despite truckloads of contradictory evidence. As humans, we tend to like easy explanations, especially if we find them personally meaningful or affirming. Never mind if they’re accurate or true.
Historically, myths were passed from individuals to groups and other individuals via word of mouth. Later, print media was used to more efficiently communicate ideas, both factual and mythical. Today we have the internet and instant mythical messaging.
Suicide myths weren’t and aren’t designed to intentionally mislead; mostly (although there are some exceptions) they’re not about pushing a political agenda or selling specific products. Instead, suicide myths are the product of dedicated, well-intended people whose passion for suicide prevention sometimes outpaces their knowledge of suicide-related facts (Bryan, 2022).
Depending on your perspective, your experiences, and your knowledge base, it’s possible that my upcoming list of suicide myths will push your emotional buttons. Maybe you were taught that “suicide is 100% preventable.” Or, maybe you believe that suicidal thoughts or impulses are inherently signs of deviance or a mental disturbance. If so, as I argue against these myths, you might find yourself resisting my perspective. That’s perfectly fine. The ideas that I’m labeling as unhelpful myths have been floating around in the suicide prevention world for a long time; there’s likely emotional and motivational reasons for that. Also, I don’t expect you to immediately agree with everything in this document. However, I hope you’ll give me a chance to make the case against these myths, mostly because I believe that hanging onto them is unhelpful to suicide assessment and prevention efforts.
Myth #1: Suicidal thoughts are about death and dying.
Most people assume that suicidal thoughts are about death and dying. Someone has thoughts about death, therefore, the thoughts must literally be about death. But the truth isn’t always how it appears from the surface. The human brain is complex. Thoughts about death may not be about death itself.
Let’s look at a parallel example. Couples who come to counseling often have conflicts about money. One partner likes to spend, while the other is serious about saving. From the surface, you might mistakenly assume that when couples have conflicts about money, the conflicts are about money – dollars, cents, spending, and saving. However, romantic relationships are complex, which is why money conflicts are usually about other issues, like love, power, and control. Nearly always there are underlying dynamics bubbling around that fuel couples’ conflicts over money.
Truth #1: Among suicidologists and psychotherapists, the consensus is clear: suicidal thoughts and impulses are less about death and more about a natural human response to intense emotional and psychological distress (aka psychache or excruciating distress). I use the term “excruciating distress” to describe the intense emotional misery that nearly always accompanies the suicidal state of mind. The take-home message from busting this myth should help you feel relief when clients mention suicide. You can feel relief because when clients trust you enough to share their suicidal thoughts and excruciating distress with you, it gives you a chance to help and support them. In contrast, when clients don’t tell you about their suicidal thoughts, then you’re not able to provide them with the services they deserve. Your holding an attitude that welcomes client openness and their sharing of distress and suicidal thoughts is foundational to effective treatment.
Myth #2: Suicide and suicidal thinking are signs of mental illness.
Philosophers and research scientists agree: nearly everyone on the planet thinks about suicide at one time or another – even if briefly. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche referred to suicidal thoughts as a coping strategy, writing, “The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.” Additionally, the rates of suicidal thinking among high school and college students is so high (estimates of 20%-40% annual incidence) that it’s more appropriate to label suicidal thoughts as common, rather than a sign of deviance or illness.
Edwin Shneidman – the American “Father” of suicidology – denied a relationship between suicide and so-called mental illness in the 1973 Encyclopedia Britannica, stating succinctly:
Suicide is not a disease (although there are those who think so); it is not, in the view of the most detached observers, an immorality (although … it has often been so treated in Western and other cultures).
A recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) supports Shneidman’s perspective. The CDC noted that 54% of individuals who died by suicide did not have a documented mental disorder (Stone et al., 2018). Keep in mind that the CDC wasn’t focusing on people who only think about or attempt suicide; their study focused only on individuals who completed suicide. If most individuals who die by suicide don’t have a mental disorder, it’s even more unlikely that people who think about suicide (but don’t act on their thoughts), suffer from a mental disorder. As Wollersheim (1974) used to say, “Having the thought of suicide is not dangerous and is not the problem (p. 223).”
Truth #2: Suicidal thoughts are not – in and of themselves – a sign of illness. Instead, suicidal thoughts arise naturally, especially during times of excruciating distress. The take-home message here is that clinicians should avoid judgment. I know that’s a tough message, because most of us are trained in diagnosing mental disorders and as we begin hearing of signs of depression, emotional lability, or other symptoms, it’s difficult not to begin thinking in terms of psychopathology. However, especially during initial encounters with clients who have suicidal ideation, it’s deeply important for us to avoid labeling – because if clients sense clinicians judging them, it can increase client shame and decrease the chances of them sharing openly.
Myth #3: Scientific knowledge about suicide risk factors and warning signs support accurate allows for the prediction and prevention of suicide.
As discussed previously, mMost suicidologists agree: that Ssuicide is extremelyvery difficult to predict (Franklin et al., 2017).
To get perspective on the magnitude of the problem, imagine you’re at the Neyland football stadium at the University of Tennessee. The stadium is filled with 100,000 fans. Your job is to figure out which 13.54 of the 100,000 fans will die by suicide over the next 365 days.
A good first step would be to ask everyone in the stadium the question that many suicide prevention specialists ask, “Have you been thinking about suicide?” Assuming the usual base rates and assuming that every one of theall 100,000 fans answer you honestly, you might rule out 85,000 people (because they say they haven’t been thinking about suicide). Then you ask them to leave the stadium. Now you’re down to identifying which 13.54 of 15,000 will die by suicide.
For your next step you decide to do a quick screen for the diagnosis of clinical depression. Let’s say you’re highly efficient, taking only 20 minutes to screen and diagnose each of the 15,000 remaining fans. Never mind that it would take 5,000 hours. The result: Only 50% of the 15,000 fans meet the diagnostic criteria for clinical depression.
At this point, you’ve reduced your population to 7,500 University of Tennessee fans, all of whom are depressed and thinking about suicide. How will you accurately identify the 13 or 14 fans who will die by suicide? Mostly, based on mathematics and statistics, you won’t. Every effort to do this in the past has failed. Your best bet might be to provide aggressive pharmacological or psychological treatment for the remaining 7,500 people. If you choose antidepressant medications, you might inadvertently make about 200-250 of your “patients” even more suicidal. If you use psychotherapy, the time you need for effective treatment will be substantial. Either way, many of the fans will refuse treatment, including some of those who will later die by suicide. Further, as the year goes by, you’ll discover that several of the 85,000 fans who denied having suicidal thoughts, and whom you immediately ruled out as low risk, will confound your efforts at prediction and die by suicide.
To gain a broader perspective, imagine there are 3,270 stadiums across the U.S., each with 100,000 people, and each with 13 or 14 individuals who will die by suicide over the next year. All this points to the enormity of the problem. Most professionals who try to predict and prevent suicide realize that, at best, they will help some of the people some of the time.
Truth #3: Although there’s always the chance that future research will enable us to predict suicide, decades of scientific research don’t support suicide as a predictable event. Even if you know all the salient suicide predictors and warning signs, in the vast majority of cases you won’t be able to efficiently predict or prevent suicide attempts or suicide deaths. The take-home message from busting this myth is this: Lower your expectations about accurately categorizing client risk. Most of the research suggests you’ll be wrong (Bryan, 2022; Large & Ryan, 2014). Instead, as you explore risk factors with clients, use your understanding of risk factors as a method for deepening your understanding of the individual client with whom you’re working.
Myth #4: Suicide prevention and intervention should focus on eliminating suicidal thoughts.
Logical analysis implies that if psychotherapists or prevention specialists can get people to stop thinking about suicide, then suicide should be prevented. Why then, do the most knowledgeable psychotherapists in the U.S. advise against directly targeting suicidal thoughts in psychotherapy (Linehan, 1993; Sommers-Flanagan & Shaw, 2017)? The first reason is because most people who think about suicide never make a suicide attempt; that means you’re treating a symptom that isn’t necessarily predictive of the problem. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
After his son died by suicide, Rick Warren, a famous pastor and author, created a YouTube video titled, “Rick Warren’s Message for Those Considering Suicide.” The video summary reads,
If you have ever struggled with depression or suicide, Pastor Rick has a message for you. The pain you are experiencing will not last forever. There is hope!
Although over 1,000 viewers clicked on the “thumbs up” sign for the video, there were 535 comments; nearly all of these comments pushed back on Pastor Warren’s well-intended video message. Examples included:
Are you kidding me??? You’ve clearly never been suicidal or really depressed.
To say “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” is like saying: “You couldn’t possibly have suffered long enough, even if you’ve suffered your entire life from many, many issues.”
This is extremely disheartening. With all due respect. Pastor, you just don’t get it.
Pastor Rick isn’t alone in not getting it. Most of us don’t really get the excruciating distress, deep self-hatred, and chronic shame linked to suicidal thoughts and impulses. And because we don’t get it, sometimes we slip into try toing rationally persuadesion to encourage individuals with suicidal thoughts to regain hope and embrace life. Unfortunately, a nearly universal phenomenon called “psychological reactance” helps explain why rational persuasion – even when well-intended – rarely makes for an effective intervention (Brehm & Brehm, 1981).
While working with chronically suicidal patients for over two decades, Marsha Linehan of the University of Washington made an important discovery: when psychotherapists try to get their patients to stop thinking about suicide, the opposite usually happens – the patients become more suicidal.
Linehan’s discovery has played out in my clinical practice. Nearly every time I’ve actively pushed clients to stop thinking about suicide – using various psychological ploys and techniques – my efforts have backfired.
Truth #4: Most individuals who struggle with thoughts of suicide resist outside efforts to make them stop thinking about suicide. Using direct persuasion to convince people they should cheer up, have hope, and embrace life is rarely effective. The take-home message associated with busting this myth is that the best approaches to working with clients who are suicidal are collaborative. Instead of taking the role of an esteemed authority who knows what’s best for clients, effective counselors and psychotherapists take a step back and seek to activate their client’s expertise as collaborators onagainst the suicidal problem.
Jon Sperry asked if I could write the foreword for a book he and his dad wrote with Oxford University Press.
Because the truth will set me free, I should admit, I’d never written a foreword before. More truth . . . I went ahead and said “Yes” to Jon because (a) I was honored and didn’t want the opportunity to write my first foreword slip away, (b) the book was (is) cool (it’s “The 15-Minute Case Conceptualization”), and (c) Jon Sperry is one of the nicest guys on the planet.
And for even more information about this excellent book, my first-ever foreword is below.
I’ve needed this book for 30 years.
Just last month (before reading this book), I was standing in front of a Zoom camera, trying to teach the basics of case conceptualization to a group of 23 master’s and doctoral students. All of my fine-grained case conceptualization wisdom was being channeled into a single visual and verbal performance.
“My left hand,” I said, “is the client’s problem.” Pausing briefly for dramatic effect, I then continued, “and my right hand is the client’s goal.”
My new-found nonverbal gestures are mostly a function of seeing myself onscreen, and therefore wanting to avoid seeing myself (and being seen by the class) as boring. To add spice to my case conceptualization gesturing. “Case conceptualization is simple,” I said. “All it is, is the path we take to help clients move from their problem state . . . toward their goal state (I finished with a flourish, by wiggling the fingers on my raised right hand).”
But boiled down truths are always partly lies. Despite my fabulous mix of the verbal and nonverbal, I was lying to my students. At the time, I had thought of it as a little white lie, all for the higher purpose of simplification. And although I still like what I said and still believe in the rough truth of my visual case conceptualization description, after reading Len and Jon Sperry’s illuminating work on case conceptualization, I better understand what I should have said.
Case conceptualization is not simple. As the Sperry’s describe in this book, case conceptualization—even when summarized well—includes multiple dimensions of human behavior along with clinician perception, judgment, and decision-making. I needed much more than a few wiggly fingers to communicate the detailed nuances of case conceptualization.
What these authors have done in this book is the gracious service that great writers do so well: They have done our homework for us. They’ve read extensively, taken notes, and gifted us with elegant summaries of dense and complex concepts. They’ve made it easy for us to understand and apply the principles and practices of case conceptualization.
What I might like best is how they transformed a bulky and inconsistent literature into simple, therapist-friendly principles. They emphasize the explanatory, tailoring, and predictive powers of case conceptualization. I’ve never organized case conceptualizations using those “powers” but doing so was like switching on a light-bulb. Of course, case conceptualizations should explain the relationships between client problems and client goals and shine a bright light along the path, but rarely do theorists or writers make this linkage so efficiently. Their second principle, “tailoring” case conceptualizations to individual and diverse clients, is an essential, idiographic, Adlerian idea. The whole idea of tailoring counters the all-too-frequent cook-book approach to case conceptualization. Tailoring breathes life into creating client-specific case conceptualizations. And of course, case conceptualizations need predictive power; Len and Jon equip us with enough foundational predictive language to improve how we evaluate our own work.
Many other examples of how elegantly the authors have done our homework are sprinkled throughout this book. Here’s another of my favorite examples.
In chapter 2, they take us (in a few succinct paragraphs) from what Theodore Millon described as eight evolutionarily-driven personality disorders to eight crisply described behavioral patterns. What I love about this is that Len and Jon’s wisdom transforms what might otherwise be viewed as a pathologizing personality disorder system into language that can be used collaboratively with clients to identify contextually maladaptive interpersonal patterns. This is a beautiful transformation because it spins psychopathology into something clients not only understand but will feel compelled to embrace. The process goes something like this:
Therapist and client engage in an assessment process that touches on the client’s repeating maladaptive behavior patterns. These behavior patterns are palpably troubling and far less than optimal for the client.
As all clinicians inherently know, touching upon clients’ repetitive maladaptive behavior patterns can activate client vulnerability. This is a primary challenge of all counseling and psychotherapy: How can we nudge clients toward awareness without simultaneously activating resistance? For decades, psychoanalysts managed this through cautious trial interpretations. Solution-focused therapists dealt with this by never speaking of problems. Gently coaxing ambivalent clients toward awareness and change is the whole point of motivational interviewing.
When addressed in a sensitive and non-pathologizing way, deep maladaptive behavior patterns can be discussed without activating resistance or excessive emotionality. This is a critical and not often discussed part of case conceptualization. Len and Jon illuminate a path for gentle, sensitive, and collaborative case conceptualization.
When clients can feel, recognize, and embrace their maladaptive behavioral patterns in the context of an accepting therapeutic relationship, insight is possible. In the tradition of Adlerian therapy, when insight happens, client interest is piqued and motivation to change spikes. Good case conceptualizations articulate problem patterns in ways that compel clients to invest in change.
I’m not surprised that Len and Jon Sperry have produced such a magnificently helpful book. If you dig into their backgrounds and conduct a case conceptualization of their personality patterns, you’ll discover they wholeheartedly embrace Alfred Adler’s work and consequently, much of what they do is all about social interest or Gemeinschaftsgefühl. Len and Jon Sperry are in the business of helping others. Reading their book has already helped me become better at teaching case conceptualization. I appreciate their work, and, no doubt, the next time I begin waving my hands in front of my Zoom camera, my students will appreciate their work too.
John Sommers-Flanagan – Missoula, MT
The place to click if you want to learn about psychotherapy, counseling, or whatever John SF is thinking about.