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Excerpted from Shortcut through Therapy by Richard Carlson. Copyright 1995 by Richard Carlson. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Putnam, Inc.  All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. HTML and web pages copyright by SpiritSite.com.

"One of the most important things I've learned is that when a person is already feeling threatened or insecure, the last thing you want to do is ask him or her to focus on the problem."

  Richard Carlson, Shortcut through Therapy, Part 4

The Effects of Insecurity

During the past decade I've taught many clients and friends to deal with stress and to appreciate the art of happiness. One of the most important things I've learned is that when a person is already feeling threatened or insecure, the last thing you want to do is ask him or her to focus on the problem. The result nearly 100 percent of the time is that the individual is propelled into even greater insecurity and a lower emotional state.

Whether the client realizes it or not, the therapist's constant probing questions are experienced as attacks, and the natural reaction is to set up defenses. The client may retreat internally, offering whatever answer he or she believes the therapist wants to hear so that the therapist will stop probing into those painful areas.

A client who recently took the licensing exam to become a therapist told me about a question on the exam. It read: "What does it mean when a client begins to appear happy in a session?" The obvious response to this question, probably consistent with your first reaction, is that this reflects an improvement in the client's state of mind. He or she simply feels better. But according to this licensing exam, the correct answer is that the client is probably denying that he or she has problems or trying to avoid dealing with an important issue. If your therapist doesn't believe you when you tell him or her you're happy, how can you make progress? Even if you win, in the sense of being happier, you lose because your therapist doesn't believe you.

Let's reflect on what happens in traditional therapy, and discuss some alternative approaches. Had a woman come to my stress management center as a client and told me about the problems and negative events of the previous week, I might have shifted the discussion to moods in general, explaining that it was natural for her to feel different depending on her current state of mind. I'd help her learn to recognize her inner mood (or state of mind) and to avoid panicking when she was not at her best. Instead of encouraging her to recount her feelings of the previous week, or asking her how she was feeling at the moment, I would have put the focus on teaching her to achieve-and maintain-a deeper state of mental health. By reaching this state, she would learn many things:

  • Not to be so totally concerned with the way she was feeling.
  • To gain insight from her past, but without being adversely affected by it.
  • To accept her current feelings, whatever they might be, without being frightened by or concerned about them.
  • To see her feelings as an internal monitor to let her know when she was on track and when she needed to make mental adjustments.
  • To use her feelings, even the ones she didn't like, to her own advantage.

As a result of all these learning experiences, she would leave my office on an emotional high, knowing that last week's feelings don't have to affect the way she feels today. She would come to the conclusion that recounting her feelings of last week--or her feelings of ten years ago--won't help her improve the quality of her life today.

Many of us grew up with too little love, too little positive attention, too many demands on us, poor role models. But you can't go through life using those misfortunes as excuses to avoid personal responsibility for who you are and what you can become. It seems to me that the underlying solution is fairly straightforward: We need better training to help us return to the basics, a crash course on how we're wired as human beings. We need to understand what makes us tick and what makes us fall apart, and relearn the art of living a happier and more secure life....

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