I’ll give you three months,” Rosemary announced, shaking my hand and plunking herself down on the couch. “I’ve done therapy before, and I don’t want to go digging around into childhood stuff or anything like that.”
Ugh, I cringed inwardly. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear at the onset of my first session with a new client. She’d set the timer for tangible, lasting results, and the clock was ticking. I knew I wouldn’t have the luxury of gradually letting therapy unfold, and I’d already seen the shortcomings of many of the techniques out there for effecting the quick change she demanded.
Then I saw a picture that captured the experiential intensity that can make a real difference in people’s lives. It showed a group of boys playing soccer on a pile of rubble in the wake of the 2004 tsunami. The joy on their faces was undeniable. It felt like their beaming expressions were screaming at me, “We all know how to be happy, no matter what. It’s encoded in our very being.” As a result, I developed ways of helping clients access intense memories of positive childhood experiences that could jump-start the therapy process.Gone Too Fast
Rosemary had made the call to my office for a session at her husband’s prodding because she’d lost interest in sex, but she confided that a lot more than just sex didn’t interest her anymore. She felt increasingly that her life had no meaning.
“All I do is take care of other people, and I’m tired and worn down,” she told me. “I used to be passionate about so many things, but now I feel as if I’m just going through the motions.”
She was clearly ambivalent about being in therapy and was sitting in my office only to appease her husband. I knew that if I didn’t find a way to get her solidly hooked, I could easily lose her.
Rosemary began by talking about her weight and her inability to control her bingeing. She knew she was using food to calm her anxiety and mask her depression, and she hated herself for it.
I knew that to help her expand her sense of possibility and capacity for pleasure, I needed to help her deepen her sense of fully felt happiness. The breadth and depth of our work would be exponentially increased if I could help her raise her expectations for what was possible in therapy.
Many therapists often overlook this piece, but I’ve found it to be a powerful motivational component. Once clients have had a taste of the level of happiness that’s still possible for them, they begin to work toward something (happiness), as opposed to just trying to get rid of negative feelings.
With this in mind, I broached the subject of tapping into a positive childhood memory, reminding her of the healing potential these happy snapshots could have for her and what a dramatic effect they could have on her life. I explained that I suspected it’d been too long since she’d felt the kind of fun and freedom she must’ve felt as a child, at least at times. When I described the picture of the boys playing soccer the day after the tsunami, she agreed to try accessing them.
Given her earlier experience of triggering an abuse memory, I was careful to move more cautiously into Rosemary’s internal landscape. “You’re the driver of this experience, Rosemary. I’m just making suggestions,” I said, “so if there’s someplace that doesn’t feel right to you, just let me know and we’ll redirect.”
I could see that Rosemary was relaxed. She was breathing deeply. “I see some trees,” she said softly.
“Great. How does that feel?” I asked her.
“Good. Kind of calm.”
“Great. So just move into that experience,” I instructed.
“I think I’m with some friends,” she whispered.
“Just see yourself there with your friends.”
“It’s my two best friends, Liz and Jason.”
“About how old are you?”
“Maybe 10 or 11. We’re playing by the creek. This is where we used to cannonball into the water.”
“Great,” I said. “Just allow your experience to flow.”
“We’re swinging on a rope.”
“Let yourself be with that. Really dive into it,” I suggested, asking her to step back into that 10- or 11-year-old body, to smell the air around her and feel it on her skin. I asked her to feel the rope in her hands, to feel the water when she hit it.
Once she was fully engaged in the memory, I asked her how strongly she was experiencing the memory on a scale of 1 to 10. She said she was at a 3. I asked her to see if she could turn up the volume. As she did, I watched her face become increasingly animated even though her eyes were still closed. The corners of her mouth slowly broke into a smile, and a light filled her face. It was like watching the sun rise across her features. Gradually she reached an 8.
“I feel it! I feel it like it’s happening now,” Rosemary beamed. “I mean, I really feel it!”
She stayed with the memory, fully relishing it. When it was time to finish, I asked her to notice her body, to feel the energy in every cell of her being, and to let the memory fade while still maintaining the feeling state. Rosemary’s face was radiant as she opened her eyes, returning fully to the room. “I haven’t felt that alive in years!” she exclaimed.
This session was the turning point of Rosemary’s treatment. I asked her to include this memory of childhood joy in her daily meditation and to come back to it as often as possible, even if only for several moments, throughout her day. We talked about her using this memory as a way of peppering little doses of happiness into her life. In time, this peppering would add up and begin to put her progress on a fast track.
She began clearing out anything that stood in her way of feeling that kind of aliveness and vitality as often as she could. In that way, helping clients directly taste the kind of spontaneity, freedom, and untethered happiness that’s often left behind in early childhood, while not in itself offering an instant cure, can become a powerful beacon illuminating the path toward healing.This blog is excerpted from "Rediscovering Happiness: The Use of Positive Triggers in Psychotherapy". The full version is available in the May/June 2015 issue. To subscribe, click here. >>Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!>>