Revelation of a New Way
Roberta was a new psychotherapy patient who made me feel completely ineffective within fifteen minutes of meeting her. She had come to me with a very specific goal: she wanted to stop obsessing about the idea that her boyfriend was cheating on her. “I go through his messages, grill him with questions; sometimes I even drive by his place to spy on him. I never find anything but I can’t stop myself.” I thought her problem was easily explained by the fact that her father had abruptly deserted the family when she was a child. Even now, in her mid-twenties, she was still terrified of abandonment. But before we could delve into that issue more deeply, she looked me in the eye and demanded, “Tell me how I can stop obsessing. Don’t waste my time and money on why I’m insecure—I already know.”
If Roberta came to see me today, I’d be thrilled that she knew exactly what she wanted, and I’d know exactly how to help her. But my meeting with her took place twenty-five years ago when I was a new psychotherapist. I felt the directness of her request shoot through me like an arrow. I had no response.
I didn’t blame myself. I had just spent two years devouring every current theory of psychotherapeutic practice. But the more information I digested, the more unsatisfied I became. The theories felt removed from the actual experience someone would have when he or she was in trouble and needed help. I felt in my gut that I hadn’t been taught a way to respond directly to what a patient like Roberta was asking for.
I wondered, Maybe I can’t pick up this ability from a book; maybe it can be learned only in face-to-face consultation with someone who’d been in the trenches. I had developed close ties to two of my supervisors—not only did they know me well, but they had many decades of clinical experience. Surely, they must have developed some way to meet these requests.
I described Roberta’s demand to them. Their response confirmed my worst fears. They had no solution. Worse, what seemed to me like a reasonable request, they saw as part of her problem. They used a lot of clinical terms: Roberta was “impulsive,” “resistant,” and “craved immediate gratification.” If I tried to meet her immediate needs, they warned me, she would actually become more demanding.
Unanimously, they advised me to guide her back to her childhood—there we would find what caused the obsession in the first place. I told them she already knew why she was obsessed. Their answer was that her father’s abandonment couldn’t be the real reason. “You have to go even deeper into her childhood.” I was fed up with this runaround: I’d heard it before—every time a patient made a direct request, the therapist would turn it back on the patient and tell him or her to “go deeper.” It was a shell game they used to hide the truth: when it came to immediate help, these therapists had very little to give to their patients. Not only was I disappointed, I had the sinking feeling that my supervisors were speaking for the entire psychotherapeutic profession—certainly I’d never heard anyone say anything else. I didn’t know where to turn.
Then I got lucky. A friend told me he’d met a psychiatrist who didn’t accept the system any more than I did. “This guy actually answers your questions—and I guarantee you’ve never heard these answers before.” He was giving a series of seminars, and I decided to go to the next one. That was where I met Dr. Phil Stutz, the coauthor of this book.
That seminar changed my practice—and my life.
Everything about the way Phil thought seemed completely new. More important, in my gut it felt like the truth. He was the first psychotherapist I’d met whose focus was on the solution, not the problem. He was absolutely confident that human beings possessed untapped forces that allowed them to solve their own problems. In fact, his view of problems was the opposite of what I’d been taught. He didn’t see them as handicapping the patient; he saw them as opportunities to enter this world of untapped potential.
I was skeptical at first. I’d heard about turning problems into opportunities before, but no one had ever explained exactly how to do this. Phil made it clear and concrete. You had to tap into hidden resources by means of certain powerful but simple techniques that anyone could use.
He called these techniques “tools.”
I walked out of that seminar so excited, I felt like I could fly. It wasn’t just that there were actual tools that could help people; it was something about Phil’s attitude. He was laying himself, his theories, and his tools out in the open. He didn’t demand that we accept what he was telling us; the only thing he insisted on was that we actually use his tools and come to our own conclusions about what they could do. He almost dared us to prove him wrong. He struck me as very brave or mad—possibly both. But in any case, the effect on me was catalyzing, like bursting out into the fresh air after the suffocating dogma of my more traditional colleagues. I saw even more clearly how much they hid behind an impenetrable wall of convoluted ideas, none of which they felt the need to test or experience for themselves.
I had learned only one tool at the seminar, but as soon as I left, I practiced it religiously. I couldn’t wait to give it to Roberta. I was sure it would help her more than delving deeper into her past. In our next session, I said, “Here’s something you can do the moment you start to obsess,” and I gave her the tool (I’ll present it later). To my amazement, she seized on it and started using it immediately. More amazingly, it helped. My colleagues had been wrong. Giving Roberta something that provided immediate help didn’t make her more demanding and immature; it inspired her to become an active, enthusiastic participant in her own therapy.
I’d gone from feeling useless to having a very positive impact on someone in a very short time. I found myself hungering for more—more information, more tools; a deeper understanding of how they worked. Was this just a grab bag of different techniques, or was it what I suspected—a whole new way of looking at human beings?
In an effort to get answers, I began to corner Phil at the end of each seminar and squeeze as much information as I could out of him. He was always cooperative—he seemed to like answering questions—but each answer led to another question. I felt I’d hit the mother lode of information, and I wanted to take home as much of it as possible. I was insatiable.
Which brought up another issue. What I was learning from Phil was so powerful that I wanted it to be the core of my work with patients. But there was no training program to apply to, no academic hurdles to jump over. That was stuff I was good at, but he seemed to have no interest in it, which made me feel insecure. How could I qualify to be trained? Would he even think of me as a candidate? Was I turning him off with my questions?
Not too long after I began giving the seminars, this intense young guy named Barry Michels began to show up. With some hesitation, he identified himself as a therapist, although, given the detailed way he questioned me, he sounded more like a lawyer. Whatever he was, he was really smart.
But that’s not why I answered his questions. I’ve never been impressed by intellect or credentials. What caught my attention was how enthusiastic he was; how he’d go home and use the tools himself. I didn’t know if I was imagining it, but I felt as though he’d been looking for something for a long time and had finally found it.
Then he asked me a question I’d never been asked before.
“I was wondering....Who taught you this stuff...the tools and everything? My training program didn’t touch on anything remotely like it.”
“No one taught me.”
“You mean you came up with this yourself?”
I hesitated. “Yeah...well, not exactly.”
I didn’t know if I should tell him how I really got the information. But he seemed open-minded, so I decided to give it a try. It was a somewhat unusual story, that began with the very first patients I treated, and one in particular.
Tony was a young surgical resident at the hospital where I was a resident in psychiatry. Unlike a lot of the other surgeons, he wasn’t arrogant, in fact when I first saw him, cowering near the door of my office, he looked like a trapped rat. When I asked him what was wrong, he answered, “I’m afraid of a test I have to take.” He was shaking like the test was in ten minutes; but it wasn’t scheduled for another six months. All tests scared him—and this one was a big one. It was his board-certification exam in surgery.
I interpreted his history the way I’d been trained to. His father had made a fortune in dry cleaning but was a college dropout with deep feelings of inferiority. On the surface, he wanted his son to become a famous surgeon to gain a vicarious sense of success. But underneath, he was so insecure that he was threatened by the idea of his son surpassing him. Tony was unconsciously terrified to succeed for this reason: his father would see him as a rival and retaliate. Failing his exams was his way of keeping himself safe. At least that was what I’d been trained to believe.
When I gave this interpretation to Tony, he was skeptical. “That sounds like something out of a textbook. My father has never pushed me to do anything for his sake. I can’t blame my problem on him.” Still, it seemed to help at first; he looked and felt better. But as the day of the test drew closer, his anxiety returned. He wanted to postpone the exam. I assured him this was just his unconscious fear of his father. All he had to do was keep talking about it, and it would go away again. This was the traditional, time-tested approach to his problem. I was so confident that I guaranteed he’d pass his test.
I was wrong. He failed miserably.
We had one last session after that. He still looked like a trapped rat, but this time an angry trapped rat. His words echoed in my ears. “You didn’t give me a real way to conquer fear. Talking about my father every time was like fighting a gorilla with a water pistol. You failed me.”
My experience with Tony opened my eyes. I realized how helpless patients could feel facing a problem by themselves. What they needed were solutions that would give them the power to fight back. Theories and explanations couldn’t give that kind of power; they needed forces they could feel.
I had a series of other, less spectacular failures. In each case, a patient was in some state of suffering: depression, panic, obsessional rage, etc. They pleaded with me for a way to make their pain go away. I had no idea how to help them.
I was experienced at dealing with failure. I was addicted to basketball growing up and played with kids bigger and better than I was. (Actually, almost everybody was bigger than I was.) If I performed badly at basketball, I just practiced more. This was different. Once I lost faith in the way I’d been taught to do therapy, there was nothing to practice. It was as though someone took the ball away.
My supervisors were sincere and dedicated, but they attributed my doubts to inexperience. They told me most young therapists doubt themselves, but as time passes, they learn that therapy can only do so much. By accepting its limitations, they don’t feel as bad about themselves.
But those limitations were unacceptable to me.
I wouldn’t be satisfied until I could offer patients what they asked for: a way to help themselves now. I decided I would find a way to do this no matter where it took me. Looking back, I realize that this was the next step on a path that had started when I was a child.
When I was nine, my three-year-old brother died of a rare cancer. My parents, who had limited emotional resources, never recovered. A cloud of doom hung over them. This tragedy changed my role in the family. Their hope for the future became focused on me—as if I had a special power to make the doom go away. Each evening my father would come home from work, sit in his rocking chair, and worry.
He didn’t do it quietly.
I’d sit on the floor next to his chair, and he’d warn me that his business might go bankrupt any day (he called it “going busted”). He’d ask me stuff like “Could you make do with only one pair of pants?” Or “What if we all had to live in one room?” None of his fears were realistic; they were as close as he could come to admitting his terror that death would visit us again. Over the next few years, I realized my job was to reassure him. In effect, I became my father’s shrink.
I was twelve years old.
Not that I thought about it that way. I didn’t think at all. I was moved by an instinctive fear that if I didn’t accept this role, doom would overwhelm us. As unrealistic as that fear was, it felt absolutely real at the time. Being under that kind of pressure as a kid gave me strength when I grew up and got real patients. Unlike many of my peers, I wasn’t intimidated by their demands. I’d been in that role for almost twenty years.
But just because I was willing to address my patients’ pain didn’t mean I knew how. One thing I was sure of: I was on my own. There were no books I could read, no experts I could correspond with, no training programs I could apply to. All I had to go on was my instincts. I didn’t know it yet, but they were about to lead me to a whole new source of information.
My instincts led me into the present. That’s where my patients’ suffering was. Taking them back to their past was just a distraction; I didn’t want any more Tonys. The past has memories, emotions, and insights, all of which have value. But I was looking for something powerful enough to bring relief right now. To find it, I had to stay in the present.