Dying at the Age of 26

The case study “Dying at the Age of 26” illustrates how compulsive ideas can be modelled in such a way as to eliminate what previously made them so worrying. This follows a cartoon approach; a problem symbol is visualised and metaphorically transformed without reference to any real-life contexts until it becomes a solution symbol. The result is reinforced by a final suggestive question which implies that the answer will be a solution. This procedure merely defuses the substance of the compulsive idea rather than challenging it or taking it away from the client. If the problem recurs at the age of 92, the patient can turn back the figures to 26 or double a figure so that she imagines dying at the age of 292 or 929… The method is also suitable for words imagined in writing, whose letters can be rotated, replaced and altered (“mad” can be changed to “sad”, for example).

“I have a problem,” a friend once said to me. “I’ve somehow got this idea into my head that I’m going to die at the age of 26. That’s not all that long away. I know it’s stupid, but I can’t get rid of the idea, and it frightens me. What can I do about it?” “Create a mental image of the number 26 and examine it very closely,” I answered. “Now swap the figures around. What do you see?” “The number 62,” said my friend. “Exactly. Now rotate the six by 180º and stand it on its head. What do you see now?” “The number 92.” “So when do you expect to die?” “At the age of 92.” “Is that ok?” “Definitely,” said my friend, who was free of the problem from then on.

Looking forward to a new year

2020 has been a tough year. Structures we have been relying on for a long time have collapsed. Others which we would not have trusted in have shown more stabile than we expected. We see our world in the midst of a transformation with dimensions which cannot be overseen. Yet, as every sunset is followed by the dawn of a new day soon after, there will be light, new chances to be taken. I will open my eyes and I invite you to do so as to see how the ashes of the old can nurture the new which is ready to come to our lives.

King of the Wood

Polycentric organisation is more effective than centralised organisation in many contexts. The fable “King of the Wood” is designed to encourage clients to relinquish conscious control and to trust in their unconscious (or alternatively in life, their community, nature, God). The wood can function as a metaphor for the way in which body and soul operate on an involuntary and unconscious basis, for example. The story can also be used to challenge controlling social systems.

“There’s too many of us,” said the trees in the wood once upon a time. “We need someone to rule over us. We need someone to tell us where we should grow and how we should form our branches. We need someone to tell us when we should grow buds in spring and when we should change our leaves to bright colours in the autumn.” And they elected an old oak as their king. Although trees grow very slowly, the king had a lot to do. He had to tell every tree where which branch should grow and when which leaf should be unfolded. He had to decide who should withdraw how much water from the soil, and he was even faced with the most challenging task of all – who should consume how many nutrients. After just a short time, the entire wood began to suffer from fungi and parasites; some trees dried out and others fell prey to root rot. The trees began to grumble and argue amongst themselves. The king accused his people of insubordination, the people accused the king of being incompetent and they all accused each other of being idiots and common rogues.

On a beautiful July day, when the leaves were starting to fall, the king abdicated. All the trees were happy, and held a big feast. And from then on, things gradually improved for the trees.

Fear of Moths

The case study “Fear of Moths” illustrates how the stressful feelings which are associated with a particular situation can be dissociated from the situation and replaced with feelings which are associated with a more pleasant situation. The story can be used for spiders and any other phobia triggers as well as for moths.

Yesterday I visited some friends of mine. “Our daughter is afraid of moths,” they told me. “Every time she sees a moth in the apartment she has a meltdown and makes a huge fuss. Is there anything you can do?” “I don’t know,” I said, and turned to the daughter, who was sitting at the table with us and drinking a mug of hot chocolate. “The next time you see a moth, make sure that you don’t think about hot chocolate and that you don’t think about not thinking about hot chocolate, and that you don’t think about how the hot chocolate tastes right now and the way you feel when you drink hot chocolate, because if you think about hot chocolate and how you feel right now because you’re drinking hot chocolate you might have hot chocolate feelings whenever you see a moth, accidentally and without meaning to. And what would happen if you felt as though you could almost taste and smell hot chocolate and as though you had hot chocolate feelings whenever you saw a moth? How would you cope?” “I wouldn’t care.” “Watch out!” I said. “Even if you think you wouldn’t care about having hot chocolate feelings whenever you saw a moth, you need to be careful that you don’t end up not caring about the moths themselves, because it would be a shame if you didn’t care about the moths so much that you got hot chocolate feelings whenever you saw them……” The young girl saw a moth quarter of an hour later, and stayed calm and relaxed

Dark Room

The story “Dark Room” highlights the fact that anxiety is a widespread human experience, and invites the listener to think about who and what can help to bring light into a life filled with darkness.

Do you still remember being a child and lying in bed in the dark? A dark which was so impenetrable that you were afraid of it. Perhaps you called for your parents, or perhaps you just stayed absolutely silent and pulled the quilt over your head and under your heels so that there was no way in at all. Anything might be lurking out there in the dark – a goblin, an animal or an evil person. I said “might”, but one time there was definitely something moving around under the bed or in the wardrobe, I could just feel it!

Do you still remember how it felt when you called your parents and they came to see you? First you would hear your father’s or your mother’s footsteps, then the door would open and light would flood into the room. Perhaps you were dazzled by the light to begin with, but that wasn’t a problem. The darkness had gone. Someone was there to look after you. The fear vanished, and all the night-time ghosts became powerless.

Thank You

The brief dialogue “Thank You” shows how a surprise can stop aggression in its tracks. A similar use of non-sequiturs in conversation with people who habitually ignore the contributions of other participants (which is true for many patients suffering from schizophrenia or personality disorders) can make it possible to hold a coherent conversation. The therapist takes the side of the symptom in order to allow the client to perform a behaviour which matches that of the therapist. In therapeutic terms, this equates to use to the symptom or to the delegation of patterns of behaviour and the assumption of one side of an ambivalence by the therapist

“A woman just bawled me out because I turned my car around in her driveway.” “What did you say to her?” “I said, ‘Thank you – you’ve made me sad, and I’m very happy about that. Then I drove away.”

Life as a Game

“Life as a Game” outlines a basic model for infinitely variable stories which can be developed spontaneously. The method of integrating the desired suggestions into a fictitious computer game is used here in the context of shyness and teasing at school.

Imagine that your life is a computer game. While you’re practising karate or playing football, or doing any other activities which you’re good at and which you enjoy, you collect health and skill points –brightly coloured little spheres which help you to level up in the game. While you’re walking around at school, there’s an invisible glass shield in front of you which protects you against attacks by other pupils, who are trying to shoot at you with brightly coloured little spheres just like yours. Sometimes you open your glass shield very briefly at exactly the right moment in order to defend yourself and attack the other players, by shooting at them with the brightly coloured little spheres which you collected while playing football and practising karate. As you get better at the game, the attacks reduce in frequency. When they disappear altogether and you’re completely calm, you’ve won the game

Finding Treasure

The story “Finding Treasure” prompts the listener to use aggressive and auto-aggressive impulses as a springboard for progress towards a genuinely rewarding goal. Unpleasant feelings such as anxiety, aggression or loneliness can only be put to good use if they are dealt with from a resourced-focused perspective.

This is something I was taught by Fedor the Magician. Many have tried to find the treasure by attempting to kill the dragon who guards it. They were fools who sacrificed their lives to a plan which was doomed to failure. If you tame a dragon by meeting him without fear, he will use all his powers to help you – and it’s a lot easier to find gold with a dragon by your side than to steal it from him!

Dinner for One

“Dinner for One” illustrates how memories, momentary experiences and future expectations influence each other, and how concentrating on negative memories can have a particularly negative effect on future expectations and the very nature of the future. It encourages the listener to distinguish between memories which should continue to be used as a basis for expectations, and those which should be ignored when developing a personal vision of the future.

Last Sunday, while sitting in my consultation room, I thought to myself, “I need to see a therapist.” “But you are a therapist,” said my inner voice, “and this is your consultation room.” “Well, if you say so…” Three glasses were standing next to a half-full bottle of apple juice. I filled up the glasses, and invited everyone to attend a family therapy session; the I of memory, the I of momentary experience and the I of expectation. All three took their seats, and I asked for their permission to drink from each of the glasses in turn on their behalf. I led the conversation. To begin with the three almost got into an argument, because Expectation I believed that no one was taking any notice of him and that Memory I – who had nothing positive to say – was getting all the attention. I asked Expectation I how the situation could be improved, and I asked Momentary Experience I to give his opinion on the relationship between Expectation I and Memory I. I also asked Memory I for his opinion on what had been said, remaining neutral and acting like a good family therapist should. Each of the three had some good ideas. They suggested that a distinction should be made between pleasant and unpleasant memories, and that only the pleasant memories should be used as a basis for developing new and more heartfelt expectations. When everyone was happy and the bottle of apple juice was empty, I thanked them, dismissed them and ended the session. This therapy session had a long-lasting effect on me, and put me in a very optimistic mood…

Life as a Sinus Curve

A life is described as happy or otherwise not primarily because of the actual events which occur during it, but because of the way they are arranged in the individual’s memory. Many life stories stop at an unhappy ending rather than continuing to the subsequent happy ending. In order to achieve a “happy” biography, the stories told by a person about his or her life must end with events which were experienced as positive, and also start with such events if possible. Like the following stories, “Life as a Sinus Curve” encourages the listener to structure biographical stories in such a way that they end with positive experiences of this kind.

If we imagine that life’s ups and downs resemble a sinus curve, we can draw this curve in two different ways. We can start the curve at its highest point, trace it down through its lowest point and then return to its highest point – or we can do the opposite, and draw the curve from its lowest point, through its highest point and back to its lowest point. In mathematical terms, it is exactly the same curve.