Creative Therapy with the Humor Antidote

Using Playfulness to Move Stuck Clients Into Recovery

Cloe Madanes

Today, it often seems that the only unbreakable rule for doing therapy is never to surprise, never to be anything other than soothing, neutral, nonconfrontational, usually non¬directive, and pleasant, and never to shock anyone---not clients and certainly not the insurance companies that reimburse their treatment.

But there are times when clients are deeply stuck, not just in the unhappy circumstances of their pain---the failing marriage, the unrelenting depression, the crippling anxiety---but in the unshakable sense that nothing they do will make any difference. Often, they’ve seen several therapists; sometimes they’ve even been in therapy of one sort or another, talking about their “insoluble” problems, for years.

In fact, most of the clients I now see are consultations referred by desperate therapists who haven’t been able to move things forward. If I’m not going to give these clients a version of the same old thing that hasn’t worked before, I have to do a kind of therapy that some would consider provocative, even outlandish. I must come up with a new perspective, a new kind of strategy, one that the clients don’t expect.

It follows that many of these clients have lost all sense of perspective, all capacity to see any possible humor or lightness in their problem or in their lives. Emotionally and cognitively, they’re trapped in their own sad story.

In these cases, the approach that I’ve found most useful is a kind of soft shock therapy in the form of a humorous paradoxical directive. By consciously and knowingly directing clients to do something preposterous and absurd, but uniquely suited to them and their dilemma, I aim to upend their expectations of therapy and life. Before you recoil in horror, know that I never ask them to do anything immoral, illegal, dangerous, or humiliating. But I do ask them to do things that’ll help them find the humor in their tragedy, and I always explain the rationale behind my directive.

Playful, humorous strategies can be like therapeutic life preservers, which keep both therapist and client afloat until both can get back to shore. Often humor can help clients gain different, more useful perspectives, helping them regard their stories less as melodrama and more as comedies of error, less as tragic romance and more as epic adventure. Humor is a trigger for change because it reboots the emotions and enables us to look at our situation with fresh eyes.

One of the ways I use this technique in therapy is with a typical problem presented by husbands: they complain that their wives want to talk constantly about unpleasant matters, be it money, in-laws, the children, or their lack of intimacy. At dinner together, on a walk, during a visit with friends, even on vacation, the wives bring up the same issues. The tenor of these “conversations” is all too familiar: the wife nags endlessly while the husband repeatedly tries to change the subject or sinks into sullen unresponsiveness, which just makes matters worse.

In these situations, I’ll typically explain how important it is to contain these unpleasant conversations to a specific time and place, instead of letting them invade the couple’s entire life. I ask the couple to decide on a day and time, once a week, when they’ll meet for lunch. I tell them to bring notebooks in which they’ll have listed their issues and to take turns discussing them, knowing that the issues may not be solved and that this might be one of many conversations that they’ll have in the future. It’s important that these meetings always be on the same day at the same time, and that they happen in a public place, like a restaurant, so the couple doesn’t start screaming at each other. I tell them that these issues won’t be discussed at any other time, unless it’s a dire emergency. When they’re both nodding solemnly in unison, agreeing to the weekly meeting, it’s time for the comic punch line.

I tell the husband that if the wife forgets the agreement and begins to discuss one of these matters outside of the special meeting, he should begin to take off his clothes. He might first remove his tie, his watch, his shoes, his socks, and continue undressing, no matter where they are, for as long as the wife continues to talk about the issues. He should continue to undress, even if it means that he’ll end up naked in public.

Typically, the husbands laugh and say something like “I can do that.” The wives usually laugh too, and the atmosphere of the session lightens. This is an outrageous strategy, but it works to break the pattern of negative interactions and turns them into playful exchanges. Humor involves outrageous behavior, and so can therapy. Plus, I don’t think I’ve ever had a husband who had to remove more than three or four items of clothing.

As I see it, a good therapist is primarily a kind of detective. Our mission is to burrow in and find out who our clients really are and the sources of their problems---even when they themselves aren’t entirely sure or aware of what drives them (which is often the case). This kind of work requires, more than many forms of therapy, an ability to pick up on the sometimes hidden-in-plain-sight idiosyncratically funny details of their situation.

Built on thoughtfulness, deep attention, and obvious regard for the clients, these kinds of directives work because they wake people up from their misery-trance. You can see the new spark in their eyes, almost hear their brains start to buzz with more liveliness. In a sense, these paradoxical directives are a bit like acting class: the clients may start out as melodramatic tragedians, but during this process they learn how to do pretty good stand-up comedy!

This blog is excerpted from “Soft Shock Therapy". Read the full article here. >>

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Topic: Professional Development | Anxiety/Depression | Children/Adolescents

Tags: creative therapy | depression | psychotherapy | therapy | strategies | Cloe Madanes | recovery | networker | client | play | creativity | stuck | techniques | humor | creative | tools | tricks | playfulness

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