“Sally” hated a man she had once admired because as it turned out, he hated women, and had repeatedly accused her and criticized her in front of others. She came to realize she couldn’t trust him; felt she couldn’t defend herself; and felt unsafe around him. They both lived in the same small town, and although she tried to avoid him, inevitably there were times when their paths crossed. Whenever she saw him, she felt tightness in her chest, and intense anger and disgust—“almost on the verge of tears.”
I asked her to think of someone she had hated in the past, but now felt okay about. Then I asked her to see her image of that person, and her image of the man she still hated at the same time, compare them, and notice the differences in her internal experience. The image of the man she hated was straight in front of her, about two or three feet away. The image was of his upper torso and face–“big, clear, and in vivid color.”
The image of the person she had hated in the past was about 15 feet away, 20 degrees to her left and full body–“faded, foggy, in muted color.” There was no sound with either image, but she felt the image of the man she hated “held a quiet menacing anger.”
I asked her to take the image of the man she hated, allow it to move to 15 feet away, become faded, foggy, and in muted color, and then shift to the side until it was about 20 degrees to her left. When I asked her how she felt with the image in this new position, she said it was somewhat better, but her feelings of anger “dragged along with the image”–an indication this was not an appropriate change for her. I thought there might be something about her resource experience that didn’t quite fit, so I asked her about the person whom she had once felt anger toward, but now felt okay about.
“What was it about that person that allowed you to let go of your anger?” I inquired. She said she had come to care for him and trust him. Then I asked, “It certainly wouldn’t be appropriate to care for and trust the man you still hate, would it?” She heartily agreed. This told me we needed to find a somewhat different resource memory.
“Think of someone you once hated, but were able to let go of your anger, and you still don’t care for him or trust him,” I said. When she paused thoughtfully, I said half-jokingly, “Surely there must have been at least one or two of those.” She laughingly agreed, and thought of someone. This person was again about 15 feet away from her, and also faded, foggy, and in muted color, but the location was straight ahead of her, down about 30 degrees from the horizon.
When I asked her to move the image of the man she hated into this position, and allow it to become faded, foggy, and in muted color, she immediately felt the tension in her chest release; she could breathe easily, and her anger drained away completely. When I asked her to imagine seeing him in some likely place in her town, she reported, “My internal reaction is, ‘Whatever; he’s over there; it’s okay.’ I don’t want to have anything to do with him, but I don’t have that reaction I used to have. This feels better.”
Then I asked her to imagine several other scenarios in different locations in her town where she might encounter him, and simply notice her reaction. These rehearsals both tested her new response, and also programmed it in, so it would be automatic when she encountered him in the real world. She had no significant emotional reaction to any of these, so I asked her to send me a follow-up email after she had actually seen the man she hated.
About three weeks later, Sally emailed me: “I saw him today! It used to be that if I saw him from a distance I would get a sudden adrenaline rush, followed by the type of anger where you can’t think straight, and then I would ruminate about it for 10 or 15 minutes. Today I glanced up, saw him, had the thought, ‘Ugh, I don’t even want to talk to him,’ so I looked in the other direction and kept walking. There was a tiny blip of irritation and then I was over it in about four seconds, and I didn’t even think about it again until now when I thought about emailing you. That’s fantastic! Thank you”
During the December 2011 International Congress, we took a taxi to visit the Erickson home and on our way had a conversation with our driver. At first it was pleasant chitchat, but then we engaged on a deeper level and asked the driver how he came to live in Phoenix. He told us about his unhappy divorce–how several years earlier his wife, who he thought was the love of his life, had abandoned him in order to take a job in another state. When he admitted he felt “puzzled and sucker punched” the atmosphere in the taxi became tense and quiet.
Michele asked the driver if he knew who Lenny Bruce was. He did not. She then told a story in which a waiter in a Chinese restaurant who had served Lenny and his girlfriend for years asked Lenny one night, “Where’s momma?” And the waiter also raved about her. When Lenny replied that she had left him, the waiter said, “Oh, well, you’re better off without her.” Our driver chuckled a bit, but said he was still grieving his loss.
As we were driving, we saw Squaw Peak Mountain in the distance. Michele asked our driver if he had ever climbed the mountain and he said, “No.” Sensing he would never do it on his own initiative, she recommended he climb just for the view–an idea he strongly rejected. (In brief therapy, always offer an initial suggestion that can be rejected.)
As we were getting closer to the freeway exit Michelle took advantage of the moment and asked, “Have you heard the one about the taxi driver?”
“No,” our driver predictably answered.
“Well,” she continued, “he was driving along when a cop pulled him over. The taxi driver begged the cop, ‘Please don’t give me a ticket,’ and the cop said, ‘I’ll tell you what, if you can tell me a good story, I’ll let you go.’”
“The taxi driver replied, ‘My wife ran off with a cop. When I saw you, I got scared you were him and you were bringing her back!’”
Now our driver laughed wholeheartedly. The rejection he had felt from his wife switched to his relief. Despite the pain over losing her, he realized that he might not even want her back.
When we got to the Erickson home and Michael was paying the fare, the driver said, “I’m going to remember that story,” and laughed again. Michael smiled and gave him a $10 tip to remember us and the joke.
As Dr. Erickson so wisely taught us, context and sequence are important for a brief intervention to have a maximal chance to take hold.
After a session of brief therapy in a taxi, we visited the Erickson home, and it was lovely.