By Richard Landis, Ph.D.
Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes, 28 seconds
Sue was a 27-year-old, single woman who was intelligent and valued self-awareness. She came to therapy after her roommate told her that she needed therapy because she was “far too rational to be real.” She was able to see everyone’s perspective and rarely got angry. Sue had recently broken up with Clay, a boyfriend of three years after she had walked in on him having intimate relations with his secretary in his office. Sue admitted being hurt and feeling betrayed. However, she quickly was able to rationalize his infidelity by citing his difficult childhood and that the secretary was pretty. She genuinely felt sad for him because she thought he would never be able to have a monogamous relationship. I was beginning to understand why her roommate was concerned.
Physically, Sue was suffering from several different but related gastrointestinal disorders and severe tension headaches that seemed to “come out of nowhere.” When I asked if she were happy, Sue replied, “I am satisfied, but I couldn’t actually say ‘happy’.”
Sue’s history helped make sense of her “coping mentality.” Sue left home at the age of 18 to escape her father who raged and broke things during his rages. He was easily set off and seemed to be looking for excuses to rage out of control. When he raged, Sue’s mother would scream and cry, but remain intimidated and helpless. Everyone would hide. At a young age, Sue promised that she would “never rage like Dad.”
During our first session, I said, “Sue, your roommate sent you here, but I do not know if you are motivated enough to do what you need to do to be safely happy and to enjoy life and get rid of unnecessary tensions.” I then spent the next ten minutes getting her to agree to do what I told her to do without actually telling her what I wanted her to do. When she finally agreed to this unconditional agreement, I instructed her to go to any store where they sold cheap, thick clay plates. She was to buy a cheap thick clay plate that was of a pleasing color on the outside. She was then to take the plate, a fist-sized rock, and some eye-protection goggles and to find a nice clear area of cement in the driveway. In great detail, I told her to put the rock on the ground and, with both hands bring the plate down gently but strongly on the rock so the plate broke in half. She was then to look and notice how far the pleasant color actually went into the clay. She was then, on the rock, to comfortably break the plate into several small pieces. She was then to take the rock and grind the pieces into sand and dust. She was then to scoop the sand and dust into a plastic food storage bag and bring it to the next session.
Sue returned the next week exhilarated with her ground sand and dust. The day after she had reduced the plate to rubble, she had phoned her old boyfriend and told him off. The assignment contributed to her being able to reconcile her inner battle of attributing the expression of anger with being her father. Once she recognized that the issue was not anger per se but uncontrolled anger, she was able to express her feeling more congruently. By having her destroy something in a highly controlled fashion, she felt safer in expressing her anger at appropriate times.
My intention also was to use the fact that it was a clay plate to be associated with Clay, her boyfriend. Also I had hoped that the obviously shallow layer of the color glaze might trigger an appreciation of his depth, or lack of depth. Regardless, after a few more sessions, the tension headaches disappeared and the gastrointestinal ailments started to respond to medical treatment.
I spoke with Sue three years after we ended therapy. She still has the sand and dust from the plate in a glass urn in her living room. When asked why she kept it, she replied laughing, “I don’t know. It just feels good.”
This excerpt has been extracted from Volume 24, Issue No. 2 of The Milton H. Erickson Foundation Newsletter.
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