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The Magic of Therapy May Be Overcoming One Debilitating Phrase

April 3, 2016

Tragic wounds are so revealed in the phrase, “but what if.” It is the phrase that creates inertia and perpetuates the status quo. It is the phrase that underscores fear, shame and embarrassment. It is the phrase that keeps people locked in hiding. While understanding what lies beneath a person’s fear helps some move beyond, there are those who can’t see past it and remain overwhelmed.

In these circumstances, arguing the what ifs creates an escalation of anxiety, of fear and uncertainty. Like the thee-year-old who continually asks why to every question answered, there is no amount of reassurance to satisfy the person caught in the conundrum of but what if.

The challenge is to limit attempts at reassurance and facilitate discussion about baby steps, about reality testing, about trying new behaviors in as safe a context as possible in order to begin.

Sometimes that first safe place is the therapist’s office. Instead of the unremitting attempts at reassurance try role playing alternatives. Help the client practice, develop skills, create contingencies.

Skill development, rehearsal, gained mastery in a safe environment can facilitate contemplation of taking the new behavior from the context of the the therapist’s office into the greater world.

To facilitate the transition and the perceived risk of performance, the challenge is to seek the safest conditions for implementing the new behavior and to provide support.

Marjory’s mother had always placed demands on her. Even as a child, Marjory was responsible for her mother’s well being. In so being her mother’s support and confident, Marjory never felt cared for in her own right She was never thanked or validated. Now in her thirties, Marjory would still succumb to the will of her mother even when this interfered with her marriage and the care of her own toddler. Her motivation was to one day be thanked and feel validated by her mother.

Marjory was unassertive as a result and this created issues in other relationships both at work and home. She so wanted to confront her mother yet was afraid to forever lose the fantasy of one day being appreciated by her. But what if I confronted her and she rejected me? But what if?

In therapy Marjory practiced a number of strategies for setting boundaries with her mother as well as with others she felt took advantage of her. She developed assertive skills and came to realize that assertive didn’t mean aggressive. She also came to understand that in the end, she couldn’t control her mother but that she, Malory, could take charge of herself and her own needs. She practiced with the therapist. Skill development supplanted “but what if.”

At a time of Marjory’s choosing, she told her mother she wouldn’t be as available as always required. This began seemingly spontaneously in a telephone call. Marjory’s tone was calm and she remained self-composed. Marjory followed through with  managing her boundary. As Marjory practiced and continued to set boundaries with her mother, she generalized this new behavior to others who would take advantage of her. She grew in self confidence. No longer being taken advantage of, mood and attitude changed. Malory felt more attuned to her toddler and even her husband became more responsive to her needs.

If there is a but what if therapists should be aware of, it is their own. Some therapists worry about not listening enough and concern themselves with what may happen if they place expectations on the client. But what if we upset the client? But what if we push them beyond their comfort level? But what if the client cries or falls apart in my office?

But what if we don’t? Then the therapist is inadvertently inducted into the client’s fear and no longer facilitating development. We are not here to register clients’ problems, but rather to help overcome them. Therapists can be active in that process. Once we understand the issues and what is at stake, we can then suggest, “Let’s try something for a moment. Let’s pretend you are (whoever) and I am you, then let’s switch and you try.” With that the client practices new strategies in safety.

Marjory’s spontaneity was the outcome of practice meeting opportunity with a dose of support in the background. This is the magic of therapy.

Know someone who might benefit from this information? Please scroll down and share this article. Need help yourself? Call me. It would be my pleasure to be of service.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

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Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas and Georgina Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships





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