Tag Archives: Alfred Adler

Congressional Baseball: The Psychology of Doing Good, Part II

20150314_125955

**My apologies for the re-post. I’m either having some user incompetence or technical gremlins on this end.

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The evening after the shooting at the republican congressional baseball team’s practice, Mike Doyle, D-PA was standing beside Joe Barton, R-TX. In a PBS News Hour interview, Barton was describing the support he and his fellow republicans had received from Doyle and the democrats.

Barton said, “We have an R or a D by our name, but our title—our title is United States representative.”

Silence.

Barton had choked up with emotion.

Doyle’s response was, in a word, Gemeinschaftsgefühl. Another word to describe Doyle’s response might be, “Fantastic.”

Doyle noticed the silence. He looked over and up to Barton. He saw Barton’s tears. Then he reached out in compassion, squeezing and patting his friend’s arm.

I know there are cynics who’ll frame this as a corny or staged bipartisan exhibition. I don’t blame you. We’ve been fed so much polarizing rhetoric from the media and the internet that it’s hard to believe genuine human connection is possible.

So I’ll speak for myself. I’ve been hating the news media. But not this. The Doyle-Barton interaction is my favorite media moment of the year. It was a demonstration of how politicians can put aside differences and engage each other as compassionate humans.

We need to see more of this Gemeinschaftsgefühl.

You may not recognize (or be able to pronounce) the word Gemeinschaftsgefühl. But in your gut, you know what it means. You’ve experienced it many times.

Gemeinschaftsgefühl is a multidimensional German word. It includes social interest, community feeling, caring for others as equals, empathy, and the pull toward kindness, compassion, and companionship.

You also may not know about Alfred Adler. Adler was a popular psychiatrist in the early 1900s. He was Freud’s contemporary. He wrote about Gemeinschaftsgefühl. But like lots of Adlerian things, Gemeinschaftsgefühl has been overlooked. Adler believed humans were naturally predisposed to work together, cooperatively, in community, with empathy, and positive social feelings. Lydia Sicher, an Adlerian follower, captured his ideas with one of the best professional journal article titles of all time: A Declaration of Interdependence.

Interdependence and Gemeinschaftsgefühl are so natural that, unless we’re broken in some way, we cannot stop ourselves from experiencing empathy; we cannot stop ourselves from helping others in need.

We see this every day in our personal lives, but not so much in politics. If your neighbor (or a stranger) has fallen on the sidewalk, do you refuse to stop and help, based on political affiliation? Not likely. You help . . . because you’re wired to help.

You may have noticed that, now more than ever in the history of the planet, it’s easy to rise to the bait and insult other people. Aggression is natural too, but the media inflates it; the internet contributes to it; we’re fed a visual and auditory diet of political extremism. To be blunt: We need to turn that shit off.

What are other solutions? Gemeinschaftsgefühl is like a muscle. Without regular exercise, it can weaken. Without getting connected to real people in real time, we can become judgmental, insensitive, and mean.

About 10 years ago I had the good luck to watch a congressional baseball game on the West Point campus. The democrats were playing the West Point faculty. I longed to join in. This is another Adlerian principle. I longed to belong.

Almost always, the Adlerian solution is to increase belongingness and usefulness. The more you feel “in” the group and the more you feel useful to that group, the more you naturally experience Gemeinschaftsgefühl.

The opposite is also true. The less you feel part of a group and the less useful you feel, the more likely you are to seek power, control, attention, revenge, and despair. Who hasn’t felt that? No doubt, most shooters feel desperate, disconnected, and useless. That’s no excuse. It’s just one way to understand senseless, violent, and tragic actions.

Adler would say that we have a national problem of disconnection and uselessness. To address this, we need policies to promote inclusion and connection. A good place to start: integrated congressional baseball teams. We need Rs and Ds playing baseball with each other, not against each other. Cooperation, like most things, is contagious.

To further address national disconnection, members of both political parties should become Adlerians and help their constituents to feel included and useful. How to do that? Instead of meeting (or avoiding) town halls where disenfranchised constituents yell at their political representatives, we need new and improved town halls that focus less on venting and more on problem-solving. Problem-solving can help constituents feel useful and connected. But here’s an even more radical idea. The town halls shouldn’t be segregated. They should be held jointly, republicans and democrats, together.

Alfred Adler lived through World War I. The Nazis forced him to leave Austria and then quickly closed down his child guidance clinics. Despite all that, Adler still believed in Gemeinschaftsgefühl. If he could, we can too.

Various writers, and Adler himself, have noted that Gemeinschaftsgefühl essentially boils down to the edict “love thy neighbor.” Jon Carlson and Matt Englar-Carlson described Gemeinschaftsgefühl as being the “same as the goal of all true religions.” It’s not a bad goal for atheists and agnostics either.

Eighty years after his death, we still have much to learn from Alfred Adler. We need to do what he did every day. Get up. Put on our Gemeinschaftsgefühl pants, our love thy neighbor t-shirts, engage in community problem-solving, and, in honor of Joe Barton and Mike Doyle, reach across the aisle and start caring for each other.

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If you need a dose of Gemeinschaftsgefühl, check out Judy Woodruff’s interview of Barton and Doyle on the PBS News Hour (June 14, 2017): http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/rivals-baseball-field-congressmen-share-solidarity-shooting/

 

 

Congressional Baseball . . . and the Psychology of Doing Good, Part II

20150314_125955

The evening after the shooting at the republican congressional baseball team’s practice, Mike Doyle, D-PA was standing beside Joe Barton, R-TX. In a PBS News Hour interview, Barton was describing the support he and his fellow republicans had received from Doyle and the democrats.

Barton said, “We have an R or a D by our name, but our title—our title is United States representative.”

Silence.

Barton had choked up with emotion.

Doyle’s response was, in a word, Gemeinschaftsgefühl. Another word to describe Doyle’s response might be, “Fantastic.”

Doyle noticed the silence. He looked over and up to Barton. He saw Barton’s tears. Then he reached out in compassion, squeezing and patting his friend’s arm.

I know there are cynics who’ll frame this as a corny or staged bipartisan exhibition. I don’t blame you. We’ve been fed so much polarizing rhetoric from the media and the internet that it’s hard to believe genuine human connection is possible.

So I’ll speak for myself. I’ve been hating the news media. But not this. The Doyle-Barton interaction is my favorite media moment of the year. It was a demonstration of how politicians can put aside differences and engage each other as compassionate humans.

We need to see more of this Gemeinschaftsgefühl.

You may not recognize (or be able to pronounce) the word Gemeinschaftsgefühl. But in your gut, you know what it means. You’ve experienced it many times.

Gemeinschaftsgefühl is a multidimensional German word. It includes social interest, community feeling, caring for others as equals, empathy, and the pull toward kindness, compassion, and companionship.

You also may not know about Alfred Adler. Adler was a popular psychiatrist in the early 1900s. He was Freud’s contemporary. He wrote about Gemeinschaftsgefühl. But like lots of Adlerian things, Gemeinschaftsgefühl has been overlooked. Adler believed humans were naturally predisposed to work together, cooperatively, in community, with empathy, and positive social feelings. Lydia Sicher, an Adlerian follower, captured his ideas with one of the best professional journal article titles of all time: A Declaration of Interdependence.

Interdependence and Gemeinschaftsgefühl are so natural that, unless we’re broken in some way, we cannot stop ourselves from experiencing empathy; we cannot stop ourselves from helping others in need.

We see this every day in our personal lives, but not so much in politics. If your neighbor (or a stranger) has fallen on the sidewalk, do you refuse to stop and help, based on political affiliation? Not likely. You help . . . because you’re wired to help.

You may have noticed that, now more than ever in the history of the planet, it’s easy to rise to the bait and insult other people. Aggression is natural too, but the media inflates it; the internet contributes to it; we’re fed a visual and auditory diet of political extremism. To be blunt: We need to turn that shit off.

What are other solutions? Gemeinschaftsgefühl is like a muscle. Without regular exercise, it can weaken. Without getting connected to real people in real time, we can become judgmental, insensitive, and mean.

About 10 years ago I had the good luck to watch a congressional baseball game on the West Point campus. The democrats were playing the West Point faculty. I longed to join in. This is another Adlerian principle. I longed to belong.

Almost always, the Adlerian solution is to increase belongingness and usefulness. The more you feel “in” the group and the more you feel useful to that group, the more you naturally experience Gemeinschaftsgefühl.

The opposite is also true. The less you feel part of a group and the less useful you feel, the more likely you are to seek power, control, attention, revenge, and despair. Who hasn’t felt that? No doubt, most shooters feel desperate, disconnected, and useless. That’s no excuse. It’s just one way to understand senseless, violent, and tragic actions.

Adler would say that we have a national problem of disconnection and uselessness. To address this, we need policies to promote inclusion and connection. A good place to start: integrated congressional baseball teams. We need Rs and Ds playing baseball with each other, not against each other. Cooperation, like most things, is contagious.

To further address national disconnection, members of both political parties should become Adlerians and help their constituents to feel included and useful. How to do that? Instead of meeting (or avoiding) town halls where disenfranchised constituents yell at their political representatives, we need new and improved town halls that focus less on venting and more on problem-solving. Problem-solving can help constituents feel useful and connected. But here’s an even more radical idea. The town halls shouldn’t be segregated. They should be held jointly, republicans and democrats, together.

Alfred Adler lived through World War I. The Nazis forced him to leave Austria and then quickly closed down his child guidance clinics. Despite all that, Adler still believed in Gemeinschaftsgefühl. If he could, we can too.

Various writers, and Adler himself, have noted that Gemeinschaftsgefühl essentially boils down to the edict “love thy neighbor.” Jon Carlson and Matt Englar-Carlson described Gemeinschaftsgefühl as being the “same as the goal of all true religions.” It’s not a bad goal for atheists and agnostics either.

Eighty years after his death, we still have much to learn from Alfred Adler. We need to do what he did every day. Get up. Put on our Gemeinschaftsgefühl pants, our love thy neighbor t-shirts, engage in community problem-solving, and, in honor of Joe Barton and Mike Doyle, reach across the aisle and start caring for each other.

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

If you need a dose of Gemeinschaftsgefühl, check out Judy Woodruff’s interview of Barton and Doyle on the PBS News Hour (June 14, 2017): http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/rivals-baseball-field-congressmen-share-solidarity-shooting/

 

 

The Psychology of Doing Good

R and J in Field

At this point in history, it seems especially important to contemplate the psychology of doing good things in the world. I could have said this last month; and next month will doubtless be the same. The point is that even in these ostensibly difficult times, people aren’t built to exclusively do harm and be destructive . . . we’re also built to do good and be constructive. If I was into using bad metaphors, I might even say we’re hard-wired to do good.

You might wonder if I’m serious. Absolutely yes.

You might wonder why and how I would decide to write about doing good, when it seems so common right now for everyone to be doing the Dale Carnegie opposite: losing friends and insulting people.

The short answer to this is: Alfred Adler.

Alfred Adler is the short answer to many questions. He was a contemporary of Freud who perpetually saw the glass as half full. When Freud was writing about women having penis envy, Adler was writing about how women just wanted social equality and equal power. When Freud was writing about the death instinct, Adler was writing about the best and most important psychological concept of all time. What was it? Here it is. Get ready.

Gemeinschaftsgefühl

Gemeinschaftsgefühl roughly means social interest or community feeling. Carlson and Englar-Carlson (2017) provided the meaning of this uniquely Adlerian concept.

Gemein is “a community of equals,” shafts means “to create or maintain,” and Gefühl is “social feeling.” Taken together, Gemeinschaftsgefühl means a community of equals creating and maintaining social feelings and interests; that is, people working together as equals to better themselves as individuals and as a community.” (p. 43)

The coolest thing about Gemeinschaftsgefühl is that it’s all natural. We are pulled toward social interest and community feeling. In fact, there’s no other good explanation for why so many people around the world reach out to help their neighbors, friends, family, and strangers—without expecting anything in return.

As my friend and colleague Richard Watts has emphasized, Gemeinschaftsgefühl also makes for a fabulous therapy goal.

Tomorrow (or Thursday), I’ll be posting about Gemeinschaftsgefühl. For today, I just want you all to get to know Alfred Adler a bit better. So here’s a short excerpt about him from our Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories text.

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Alfred Adler (1870-1937) was the second of six children born to a Jewish family outside Vienna. His older brother was brilliant, outgoing, handsome, and also happened to be named Sigmund. In contrast, Alfred was a sickly child. He suffered from rickets, was twice run over in the street, and experienced a spasm of the glottis. When he was 3 years old, his younger brother died in bed next to him (Mosak, 1972). At age 4, he came down with pneumonia. Later Adler recalled the physician telling his father, “Your boy is lost” (Orgler, 1963, p. 16). Another of Adler’s earliest memories has a sickly, dependent theme:

One of my earliest recollections is of sitting on a bench bandaged up on account of rickets, with my healthy, elder brother sitting opposite me. He could run, jump, and move about quite effortlessly, while for me movement of any sort was a strain and an effort. Everyone went to great pains to help me, and my mother and father did all that was in their power to do. At the time of this recollection, I must have been about two years old. (Bottome, 1939, p. 30)

In contrast to Freud’s childhood experience of being his mother’s favorite, Adler was more encouraged by his father. Despite his son’s clumsy, uncoordinated, and sickly condition, Adler’s father Leopold, a Hungarian Jew, firmly believed in his son’s innate worth. When young Alfred was required to repeat a grade at the same middle school Freud had attended 14 years earlier, Leopold was his strongest supporter. Mosak and Maniacci (1999) wrote about Adler’s response to his father’s encouragement:

His mathematics teacher recommended to his father that Adler leave school and apprentice himself as a shoe-maker. Adler’s father objected, and Adler embarked upon bettering his academic skills. Within a relatively short time, he became the best math student in the class. (p. 2)

Adler’s love and aptitude for learning continued to grow; he studied medicine at the University of Vienna. After obtaining his medical degree in ophthalmology in 1895, he met and fell in love with Raissa Timofeyewna Epstein, and married her in 1897. She had the unusual distinction of being an early socialist and feminist.

Historical Context

Freud and Adler met in 1902. According to Mosak and Maniacci (1999), Adler published a strong defense of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, and consequently Freud invited Adler over “on a Wednesday evening” for a discussion of psychological issues. “The Wednesday Night Meetings, as they became known, led to the development of the Psychoanalytic Society” (p. 3).

Adler was his own man with his own ideas before he met Freud. Prior to their meeting he’d published his first book, Healthbook for the Tailor’s Trade (Adler, 1898). In contrast to Freud, much of Adler’s medical practice was with the working poor. Early in his career, he worked extensively with tailors and circus performers.

In February 1911, Adler did the unthinkable (Bankart, 1997). As president of Vienna’s Psychoanalytic Society, he read a highly controversial paper, “The Masculine Protest,” at the group’s monthly meeting. It was at odds with Freudian theory. Adler claimed that women occupied a less privileged social and political position because of social coercion, not physical inferiority.

The Vienna Psychoanalytic Society members’ response to Adler was dramatic. Bankart (1997) described the scene:

After Adler’s address, the members of the society were in an uproar. There were pointed heckling and shouted abuse. Some were even threatening to come to blows. And then, almost majestically, Freud rose from his seat. He surveyed the room with his penetrating eyes. He told them there was no reason to brawl in the streets like uncivilized hooligans. The choice was simple. Either he or Dr. Adler would remain to guide the future of psychoanalysis. The choice was the members’ to make. He trusted them to do the right thing. (p. 130)

The group voted for Freud to lead them. Adler left the building quietly, joined by the Society’s vice president, William Stekel, and five other members. They moved their meeting to a local café and established the Society for Free Psychoanalytic Research. The Society soon changed its name to the Society for Individual Psychology. This group believed that social, familial, and cultural forces are dominant in shaping human behavior. Bankart (1997) summarized their perspective: “Their response to human problems was characteristically ethical and practical—an orientation that stood in dramatic contrast to the biological and theoretical focus of psychoanalysis” (p. 130).

Adler’s break from Freud gives an initial glimpse into his theoretical approach. Adler identified with common people. He was a feminist. These leanings reflect the influences of his upbringing and marriage. They reveal his compassion for the sick, oppressed, and downtrodden. Adler embraced egalitarianism long before it became anything close to popular.

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Stay tuned. Tomorrow I’ll be posting some content on Gemeinschaftsgefühl. I can hardly wait.

Today, I’ll leave you with some of my favorite Adlerian quotations.

“An incalculable amount of tension and useless effort would be spared in this world if we realized that cooperation and love can never be won by force.” (Adler, 1931, p. 132).

When a doctor once said to Adler: “I do not believe you can make this backward child normal,” Dr. Adler replied: “Why do you say that? One could make any normal child backward; one should only have to discourage it enough!” (Bottome, 1936, p. 37)

“All our institutions, our traditional attitudes, our laws, our morals, our customs, give evidence of the fact that they are determined and maintained by privileged males for the glory of male domination.” (Adler, 1927, p. 123)

“[E]ach partner must be more interested in the other than in himself. This is the only basis on which love and marriage can be successful.” (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956, p. 432)

This is a photo of Jon Carlson. He was a devoted Adlerian and a great man. He passed away earlier this year. I, and many others, am indebted to him for the amazing work he did to not let Adler’s ideas fade into the past. Thank you Jon.

John and Jon on M

 

 

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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Secrets of the Miracle Question

This is a re-post from the American Counseling Association Blog.

You might want to sit down because this could take a while.

Developed in the 1970s by Insoo Kim Berg and Steven de Shazer, the miracle question has become a very popular therapy intervention. It’s standard fare for solution-focused therapists and has been written about extensively. In 2004, Linda Metcalf wrote a whole book about it and in 2010 Ryan Howes of Psychology Today declared it the #10 most “cool” intervention in psychotherapy.

To be honest, I have mixed feelings about the miracle question. Although I’ve used it with clients and found it helpful, I’ve never found it the least bit miraculous. It’s a good and clever question that helps clients focus on goals. But it’s no miracle.

My biggest problem with this intervention is the use of the word miracle. Miracles are, by definition, highly improbable, highly desirable, not explained by natural causes, and typically ascribed to divine intervention. Wow. That IS cool…

Using the word miracle to describe a common goal-setting question is excellent marketing. The only thing better might have been to call it the secret miracle question. But as I write this I hear the voice of Rich Watts in the back of my head muttering something about how everybody steals the work of Alfred Adler without giving him credit. Rich is President of the North American Society for Adlerian Psychology. My inner Rich Watts voice is noticing that the miracle question looks a lot like “The Question,” an intervention used and written about by Alfred Adler in the early 1900s. Adler’s version went: “How would your life be different if you no longer had this problem?” Again, good question, but no miracle. And hardly anyone (other than Rich Watts and his Adlerian buddies) ever mention The Question anymore.

If I dig a little deeper, what I find most problematic is that the word miracle leads counseling students and practitioners to adopt one or more of three false beliefs. They begin believing that the miracle question is: (a) a simple procedure, (b) easy to learn and implement, and (c) that it can result in a miracle. Sadly, none of these beliefs are true.

An example from popular literature might help. Think about how long it took Harry Potter to learn the Tarantallegra spell. In case you can’t recall, the Tarantallegra spell forces one’s opponent to dance. I don’t know long it took the fictional Harry Potter to learn the fictional Tarantallegra spell, but I’m certain that even in the fictional world created by J. K. Rowling it wasn’t during his first year at Hogwarts.

The miracle question name erroneously implies something quick and easy and miraculous is happening. Sort of like snapping your fingers and reciting that Tarantallegra incantation. You can try it that way, but it won’t work…because you won’t be manifesting an understanding of the incantation. I’ve seen novice counselors try the miracle question and the most common client response elicited is: “I don’t know.” This is because counseling miracles require sophisticated language and delivery skills, a solution-focused mindset, and education and experience.

The miracle question is all about sophisticated verbal behavior. We should recall that Berg and de Shazer were strongly influenced by the renowned hypnotherapist, Milton Erickson. This is one reason why, when done well, the miracle question resembles a hypnotic induction. Even de Shazer and his colleagues noted that it might take an entire therapy session to ask and explore the miracle question (see the book, More Than Miracles).

Although many published variants of the miracle question exist, below I’m including a detailed version, as described by Insoo Kim Berg and Yvonne Dolan in Tales of Solutions. As you read through this example, remember: The miracle question should be spoken slowly, there should be repeated pauses, and the therapist should deeply believe in the solution-focused principle that all clients already possess the inherent competence to produce positive changes in their lives. Here’s the question:

I am going to ask you a rather strange question [pause]. The strange question is this: [pause] After we talk, you will go back to your work (home, school) and you will do whatever you need to do the rest of today, such as taking care of the children, cooking dinner, watching TV, giving the children a bath, and so on. It will become time to go to bed. Everybody in your household is quiet and you are sleeping in peace. In the middle of the night, a miracle happens and the problem that prompted you to talk to me today is solved! But because this happens while you are sleeping, you have no way of knowing that there was an overnight miracle that solved the problem [pause]. So, when you wake up tomorrow morning, what might be the small change that will make you say to yourself, “Wow, something must have happened—the problem is gone!” (Berg & Dolan, 2001, p. 7, brackets in original)

If you’re by yourself, you might want to go back and read through the miracle question again. This time read it aloud. Think of a small problem of your own and freely insert a few references to it.

Technically, the miracle question is a projective or generative assessment tool and hypnotic induction strategy. This is because it asks clients to project themselves into the future and generate information or scenarios straight from their imaginations. Together, counselor and client create a virtual reality and then try to make it a real reality. This is where I agree with fans of the miracle question: That’s one cool intervention. It makes me want to dance.

On Being or Becoming a Writer (Again)

While I was taking notes on Mary Pipher’s “Writing to Change the World” book, a bug flew in my eye. It was at the precise moment I was typing the following quotation: “When we equivocate we lose an opportunity to build our identities as writers. If you are not doing it already, I advise you to learn to say you are a writer” (p. 76).

Shall I really say “I am a writer!” even if it doesn’t feel quite right?

Or should I be more honest and describe the complete situation by saying, “I am a writer who is trying to write, but I have a bug that just flew in my eye and that’s making it more difficult than it might otherwise be.”

Didn’t someone once say that honesty is the best policy? And isn’t there a story about George Washington honestly confessing that he chopped down a cherry tree that he had no particular business chopping down. Of course that story is a lie and as it turns out Betsy Ross didn’t really sew the first American flag, but she had some fairly effective promotional people who either thought she did or decided to lie on her behalf.

What if I just tell a microscopic white lie to myself? Is that a problem?

Or maybe I just need an agent who will lie willy-nilly on my behalf? I’ve sort of always wanted somebody who would do something will-nilly just for me.

After all, honesty will only take you so far and the only advice my father gave me about being married was that “You don’t have to always tell your wife EVERYTHING you’re thinking.” That’s good advice, except that it contradicts with what Carl Rogers said about maintaining a transparent relationship and how he learned the most from being completely honest with his wife about the things that were most difficult to talk about.

Wouldn’t it be true, however (this, I understand, is how attorneys like to begin questioning the person who has just taken the stand), that lying destroys relationships and can take you to prison where you might share a cell with Piper Kerman. Then again, she wrote a book (Orange is the New Black) that got made into a television show and that’s pretty cool.

It’s very difficult to find clean and straight answers upon which everyone agrees. I’ve noticed this and thought I should honestly articulate this observation.

When I’m doing counseling with young people who have anger problems or who are cutting or who are embracing a negative and unhelpful identity, I sometimes ask them to consider thinking differently about themselves. The technique is a little bit of a knock off of Alfred Adler’s Acting As-If. I don’t ask them to pretend or to tell themselves bald-faced lies, but instead to tell more of the complete hairy-faced narrative truth. For example, when a girl tells me she’s got a “terrible temper,” I suggest and implore and encourage her to capture the WHOLE DARN NARRATIVE and instead tell herself something like, “I believe I’ve had a terrible temper in the past, but I’m working on it.”

Pipher (not Piper) says I should learn to call myself a writer. Obviously that worked for her and she’s been immensely successful and now she’s sharing it as a writing strategy. But what if that doesn’t work so well for me? What if my mantra is that I’m a writer who’s got a bug in his eye and that darn bug is making it terribly difficult, but I’m working on it?

What if I prefer a different hat style?

Here’s what I like instead: “I am becoming a writer.”

I most definitely like that better. I am becoming is a better fit for my tentative always in flux and change and self-reflective in-moderation identity.

I am becoming a writer.

And I hope you are too.