Distinguishing Behavior from Identity
By Ronald Soderquist
Debbie, who’s in her fifties, called: “I’m so upset about my relationship with my daughter. She and I are always in conflict, and my husband agrees this needs to be changed.”
When she came in, she reported feeling sad because she couldn’t enjoy visiting her daughter, an only child who lives nearby. “It’s such a noisy household. The children scream and squabble; there are two of them under the age of 6. I wish my daughter would be more organized and keep them quiet, so I could enjoy being there. I get so tense, I have to leave her home in the middle of a visit.”
I didn’t have a clear strategy, so I asked her to bring her daughter, Emmy, next time. Then the dynamics became clear. Emmy is a high-energy, outgoing, modern, in-your-face 35-year-old woman. Mother Debbie is quiet, somewhat distant, a loner, who needs her space. I was reminded of the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Mom is a lot like the uptight couple who come into the vibrant Greek gathering.
During the hour with Mom and daughter, it became clear that Emmy wanted her mother to change and just enjoy her high-energy household. “Why can’t you be like other grandmothers, and just come in and enjoy the family?” And Mom wanted Emmy to change. “Why can’t you be more organized and quiet, so I can be comfortable with you? I can’t stand all that commotion.”
First, I tried some conventional strategies, like helping them listen nonjudgmentally to each other, but there was no movement in their relationship. I didn’t see any point in seeing them together again, so I asked Debbie to come in alone.
Again, she told me, “It just isn’t me to be like other grandmothers who get on the floor and play with the children and enjoy all the noise. And I like me the way I am. She’s asking me to be someone I’m not.”
I assured her: “You’re fine just as you are, and Emmy is fine the way she is. You just happen to be very different personalities. She’s AM, and you’re FM: she’s rock-and-roll, and you’re chamber music.” She agreed.
“Fortunately, there’s a solution. I’m thinking about Meryl Streep, and how she takes on a different personality for every role, but off-stage, she’s still Meryl Streep: she doesn’t have to change who she is. I wonder if you’d enjoy inventing a role that works well when you’re with Emmy and her family? (Here, I slowed to my hypnotic voice and watched her slip into a trance.) When you open the door to her home, you can see it like a stage. You pause at the door, view the scattered toys, and listen to the active children as part of a stage set. You may find it amusing. You’re Meryl Streep slipping into a role. Your creative inner mind will be alongside your conscious mind, enjoying the flow as you engage with your daughter and your grandchildren in fun ways, and every time you enter that stage, that family stage, you’ll find yourself expanding into your new role in satisfying ways, sometimes surprising yourself, always enjoying your secret strategy. It’s OK to let your husband in on it. Afterward, you and your husband may chuckle about the relaxed grandmother character you’ve created. You’re both director and actor on this stage. Really enjoy surprising them.”
She came out of her trance and exclaimed: “I can do that!” After some additional mental rehearsal, she left in a very good mood. Three days later, my phone rang: “This is Meryl Streep calling. I just earned an Oscar. I spent a whole day with Emmy and her family, and at the end of the day, my husband asked Emmy, “How did your mother do today?” Emmy said: “She did great!”
It was their first pleasant, relaxed day together in many years, a day without tension and conflict. I asked Debbie what she found interesting while playing her new role. She replied, “I felt so calm–very different–calm and comfortable.” ;
A well-deserved Oscar!
A few weeks later, she called to say, “I’m so excited and happy because I entertained my entire high-stress clan, and did my Streep thing, and enjoyed myself!”
A couple of months later, she said, “I’m so glad I did it. Strangely, now I feel more motherly and understanding toward my daughter than ever.”
By Steve Andreas
This is a really lovely example of many different important aspects of change work, and the importance of a careful choice of words.
The first session doesn’t offer a clear direction for intervention, so Ronald Soderquist wisely brings in the daughter, so he can observe them interacting, rather than knowing the daughter only through the filter of the mother’s perceptions and report. Although the interaction becomes much clearer when the daughter joins the mother for the second session, having them both together makes it difficult to intervene usefully.
In that session, it becomes clear that, for both of them, the issue is one of identity, in contrast to behavior. Both want the other to change, and each speaks of this change in terms of being different–in contrast to acting different. The daughter says, “Why can’t you be like other grandmothers,” and the mother says, “Why can’t you be more organized and quiet.” (Most answers to either of those questions would lead only to justifications and rationalizations, neither of which would be useful.)
For most people, being different seems to be much more difficult than doing something different. If you describe a certain behavior as “being different,” most clients will object, as both mother and daughter do in this case, and this is one source of what many therapists describe as “resistance.”
As long as both mother and daughter think of their differences in terms of the other having to be different, not much is possible. Demanding that someone else be different is an ill-formed outcome that gets many of us stuck and frustrated, because while you have at least some choice about your own behavior, you really don’t have any choice about what someone else does. That’s why having them “listen nonjudgmentally to each other” in the second session went nowhere, despite how useful that intervention often is.
But if you describe the same behavior as “doing something different” or “acting different” a client will often be willing to consider it. This distinction between identity and behavior is one that many therapists have never learned, and it’s often a crucially important reframe. In this case, it’s the key understanding that allows the mother to change her behavior and have a new internal response to the chaos of her daughter’s household.
In the third session, the mother states even more blatantly that her understanding of the issue involves her identity, “It just isn’t me to be like other grandmothers. . . . I like me the way I am. She’s asking me to be someone I’m not.” That brief utterance makes six references to her identity and five to her being: isn’t, me, be, I, me, I, am, me, be, I’m.
Soderquist begins his intervention by exquisitely pacing her focus on her identity, assuring her, “You’re fine just as you are,” relieving her of any pressure to change who she is, and implying that her daughter’s attempt to change her isn’t valid. He follows this up immediately with saying, “And Emmy is fine the way she is,” which implies that the mother’s attempts to change her daughter are just as invalid. Since the mother already agrees with the first statement, she has to agree with the second, which only reverses the direction of the logic. Abandoning her attempts to get her daughter to be different closes a door that leads nowhere, and opens a door to a more useful alternative.
To strengthen this understanding, Soderquist first offers a generalization about two of them being different. “You just happen to be very different personalities.” Then he follows this up with two metaphors that express this difference in who they are, “She’s AM, and you’re FM: she’s rock-and-roll, and you’re chamber music.” Both metaphors are drawn from contexts in which differences clearly don’t need to change.
He begins his description of Meryl Streep, and the difference between her self and the roles she plays, with the word, “Fortunately,” a cognitive qualifier that creates an expectation of good things to come. If he’d used a different adverb, such as “unfortunately” or “sadly,” the mother would have had a very different expectation about what he’d say next. Saying “there’s a solution,” further directs her attention away from the problem and builds even more positive expectation.
“I wonder if you’d enjoy inventing a role that works well when you’re with Emmy and her family,” is called an embedded question, a hypnotic linguistic form often used by Virginia Satir, one of the greatest therapists who ever lived. Although it’s a statement, it elicits an internal response as if it were a gentle question, but without demanding an overt response the way most questions do. This invites the mother to consider changing her behavior without any demand that she do so, and with no need to respond verbally.
Notice how different an overt question with the same content would be. “Would you enjoy inventing a role that works well when you’re with Emmy and her family?” would demand a verbal answer, and keep her externally focused on Soderquist, making it harder to turn inward and consider whether she could enjoy doing that. The embedded question focuses her attention on whether she’d enjoy playing a role, implying that she can do it; the question is merely whether she’d enjoy it or not. Before, she demanded that the daughter change; now she’s invited to change her own behavior (while keeping her identity intact)–an enormous shift in attitude that most clients can benefit from.
As she begins to consider this possibility, she’ll naturally become more internal, a perfect time for Soderquist to slow his voice to be more hypnotic and set up the specific cues for her new role play–all in present tense, so that she can rehearse it as if it’s happening at the moment. “When you open the door to her home, you can see it like a stage. You pause at the door, view the scattered toys, and listen to the active children as part of a stage set.”
Then he permissively suggests a response she might have, “You may find it amusing,” and follows with even more detailed suggestions that continue to encourage a rehearsal of new behaviors. “You’re Meryl Streep slipping into a role.” The use of “slipping” implies that it will be easy and effortless. Think how different it would be for her if he’d said “trying to get into role” or “struggling to act differently”! He then goes on to suggest other behaviors, and possible pleasurable responses for her.
When he says, “Your creative inner mind will be alongside your conscious mind,” it implies that the creative mind is unconscious and will assist her. As he goes on to say, “enjoying the flow as you engage with your daughter and your grandchildren in fun ways,” it implies that much of this will occur unconsciously and spontaneously. Notice all the words that make this rehearsal an enticing prospect: enjoying, flow, engage, fun, expanding, satisfying, surprising, enjoying, secret.
A bit later, when Soderquist says, “Afterward, you and your husband may chuckle about the relaxed grandmother character you’ve created,” it invites her to take a future vantage point and look back on what she’s imagined, as if it had already happened, further cementing its reality as something she can do. With all this elegant hypnotic language, it’s not surprising that when she emerges from her trance, she says, “I can do that!”
This entire intervention probably took less than four minutes, showing that when you know what to do–and how to do it–change is easy.
I think Ronald Soderquist deserves an Oscar, too!
Ronald Soderquist, Ph.D., a hypnotherapist and licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, is the director of Westlake Hypnosis in the Los Angeles area. He’s served on the staff of California Lutheran University and other universities and graduate schools. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Steve Andreas, M.A., has been learning, teaching, and developing personal-change methods for more than 53 years. His books include Virginia Satir: The Patterns of Her Magic; Transforming Your Self; and Six Blind Elephants: Understanding Ourselves and Each Other. His new book is Transforming Negative Self-Talk: Practical, Effective Exercises. Contact: email@example.com.
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