Breaking The Spell


7 Questions to Ask When Therapy is Stuck

May/June 2013


When therapy goes wrong, it’s typically because we’ve entered our clients’ trance, joining them in their myopic misery. Once there, our job is to break the spell, broaden the vision, and open ourselves to possibilities outside the tunnel.

We’ve all had moments, sometimes entire cases, when the therapy seems stuck, our wheels spinning in the mud, unable to get any traction. Nothing we say breaks through the client’s dogged negativity, convinces her to take even a small step forward, or gets her to look more directly at her own self-destructive behavior. At these times, the tightness in our bodies can lead to thoughts like “Is this why I went through years of graduate school? Maybe I should get a job as a Walmart greeter!”

When clients get immersed in their problem, they often suffer from a kind of tunnel vision, focused on a small range of experiences, with their bad feelings taking center stage. It’s a state that resembles a hypnotic trance: a limited, intense, internal focus of attention. When therapy gets stuck, one way of moving it forward can be to think of clients as being in a troublesome trance induced by parents, caregivers, and difficult life experiences. They’re trapped in what Buddhists call maya, the world of illusion.

When therapy goes wrong, it’s typically because we’ve entered our clients’ trances with them, joining them in their myopic misery. In this mutually reinforcing state, neither client nor therapist can see beyond the…

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4 Comments

Sunday, May 19, 2013 7:33:38 PM | posted by Susan Quinn, MFT
Steve Andreas is the foremost NLP master of metaphor! I loved the brilliance of his examples here.

Friday, May 31, 2013 1:27:51 PM | posted by Consumers perspective
As a consumer, if a therapist, particularly male, started making dirty sexual jokes during a session, I'd fire him on the spot, feel depressed and angry for several days afterwards, and would file a complaint with the board of professionals. Really stupid advice, that.

Monday, July 22, 2013 7:42:19 PM | posted by Laura Perry, RMHCI
Good suggestions for stepping back and breaking out of patterns. This article is so timely, too: just before this issue was out, I had become aware of the irritating trancelike effect sometimes produced in session and was wondering how to avert it--or even better, how to use it to promote progress. Thanks!

Saturday, August 10, 2013 8:33:22 PM | posted by MabelMabel
I gasped as I read that Mr. Andreas actually thought that a "joke" that used a pole-dancing woman as a catalyst was funny -- in fact, he said that the "joke" was his "favorite." As a female client, I would have told him that I thought he had some deep-seated problems telling me a "joke" that demeaned women, and I would have immediately fired him. Does he really do this? And if so, how has he avoided being reported to his licensing board? As for the rest of his advice, much of it came across as paternalistic, patronizing, and too directive, giving the impression that he thinks way too highly of his opinion in the therapy session, rather than taking his cues from his clients' perspectives.

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