A simple way to explain therapy

I was trying to explain how therapy worked to somebody who didn’t know much of anything about it.  He was a “thing” person, not a “person” person.  Give him something to fix and he was extremely capable. Give him a situation to fix – say a crying child – and he had no idea what to do.

So saying, “It’s a corrective emotional experience” or “You heal through the relationship” didn’t seem like it would cut it.

I went for a visualization that contained familiar things. “Think of three circles. Label one ‘trauma and pain,’ another ‘destructive ways of responding’ and the third ‘constructive ways of responding.’ Okay?” After a couple of examples of what trauma is and what are destructive and constructive ways of dealing with things are, he got it.

“If the constructive circle is really large and the destructive circle is small, a person is in good shape. That’s mental health. They may not be happy about their pain and whatever caused it, but they cope, and cope well.

“If the destructive area is large and the constructive area is small, that’s a person with problems. The therapist’s job is to coach that person on ways to shrink the destructive circle and enlarge the constructive one. You can’t just erase the destructive patterns, because even though they aren’t ideal, they are a way to cope. You have to put something in their place first.

“So why do people choose destructive ways of coping in the first place? Why don’t they go for the gold when they are kids?

“Well, maybe they were taught destructive patterns. If their parents were no good low-life scum, that’s what they had as role models. Or maybe their parents taught them destructive ways, either because it was easier on them or out of ignorance. Kids learn from the people around them. They copy what they see their parents doing.

“Also, unfortunately, destructive ways of coping are very effective in the short term. If you lose everybody you love in a car crash, you could forget the pain for a while by getting blissed out on heroin. If you are dead broke, you could try robbing a few people. Problem solved for now, but far more problems ahead.

“So therapy is teaching a person to replace poor methods of coping with better ones and of titrating awareness of the pain so that it’s not too much, so that it doesn’t overwhelm the coping mechanisms.”

For you “person” people out there, titrating means adding one liquid to another, drop by drop, until you get the balance you want.)

He got it. No magic, just plain old ordinary common sense. And it is all true!

I just thought, this might be a good way of explaining therapy or healing to a kid alter. It would be above the littlest ones’ heads, but at about eight, their thinking should be sophisticated enough to understand.

Locus of Control

This is one of those psych jargon words that looks like it means nothing but actually describes a pretty useful concept. Locus is the Latin word for place, and “locus of control” means where a person thinks control comes from. If you have an internal locus of control, it means that you feel in control of yourself and your environment most of the time. If you have an external locus of control, it means that you feel that things outside yourself control you and that you merely react to these forces.

Belief about locus of control is generally set early in life, although it can be modified with experience. I’ll use my upbringing as an example of how locus of control is set.

My parents believed that children should be given plenty of structure so that they would grow up disciplined, orderly, and tidy and have clear, precise ways of thinking. Every aspect of my existence was micro-managed. As a baby, I was fed the same measured amount of the same foods at the same times every day and put down in my crib at the same exact times every day. No change was made unless the pediatrician initiated it.

The rigid schedule continued through pre-school and grade school. Everything was allocated a certain amount of time and was to be done in a certain way. There was no deviation from the routine. School to me was an oasis of freedom, even though school bells signaled the beginning and end of classes, recess, and lunch period. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to enjoy the freedom and often stood at the edges of things, waiting to be told what to do.

I grew up feeling like a little piece of wood bobbing on the waves of a great big mysterious ocean. I didn’t get an A, I was given an A. Why? Who knew. It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I noticed that the things I did or didn’t do had an effect on other people and on my surroundings. But to this day, I have to remind myself that I do have control over myself – I just was trained not to believe it.

Too much structure and no freedom to make choices isn’t the only way to create a kid with an external locus of control.

If parents have no idea of structure, kids are brought up in chaos. Nothing is predictable. One day the kids get smacked for something, the next day they are hugged and called cute for exactly the same behavior. They fall asleep when they can and wake up when they are startled out of sleep. They eat when there is food around and get a bath when somebody thinks of it. They are often late for school and skip a lot of days, so they miss out on the structure of the school environment. Kids like this are every bit as run by other people as I was.

I haven’t talked about abuse of any kind, let alone ritual abuse. I wanted to remain focused on the basic process of raising a kid with no sense of self-control and not get wound up in the horrors of ritual abuse. But it’s clear to me that adding severe abuse and torture shreds the last vestige of a child’s sense of control. No wonder we are easy to re-victimize.

Flashback Worksheets

There is an entry on the Winter Solstice, Yule, and Christmas on December 15, 2012.

I found it far less upsetting to have a flashback if I knew it was a flashback. Otherwise, it never occurred to me that what I was experiencing was a memory; I thought I was crazy or had a brain tumor. Once I learned to recognize a flashback, I could say “Oh fuck, here we go again!” and brace myself. It’s a lot easier theses days.

Caryn Stardancer designed a flashback worksheet and published it in Survivorship. * When I tried to use it, I found I got stuck on identifying the trigger.  I was so immersed in the flashback that I had no attention to spare and could not scan my environment for possible triggers.  I rewrote the worksheet and omitted the whole concept of triggers, which helped a lot.

My Worksheet:
1. What am I thinking/feeling?
2. What in the past could have set off this reaction?
3. What in the present could be causing this reaction?
4. How can I test if it’s from the past or present?
5. If it’s in the
Present – what action can I take to solve the problem?
Past – what can I do to calm myself down?

Modifying the Worksheet
I like questions because they jump-start me. Many people don’t, however. If you feel interrogated or intimidated by questions, you can use phrases:
“I am thinking/feeling ….”
“…. from the past might be causing my reaction.”
“…. in the present might be causing my reaction.”
“I can test if it is past or present by ….”
“A present problem could be handled by ….”
“I can soothe myself and calm past feelings by …”

If you don’t like the way I have designed the worksheet, start from scratch and write something different. Whatever works best for you is the way to go!

You might consider dating the worksheets and saving them in a notebook or folder. That way you can flip through them and see if you have had this particular flashback before. (I once had the same flashback for three straight months. No fun.) And you can look back and see how you have changed over the months or years.

A Personal Example

1. What am I thinking/feeling? “I am anxious, almost panicking, because I have to drive to a new place. My heart is pounding. I am afraid I will get lost and never be able to find my way back again. I’ll never see anybody I know ever again.”
2. What in the past could have set off this reaction? “Well, I did get taken to strange places for rituals and other horrible things. I didn’t know where I was going, or whether I would get back alive. I had no choice and no control, no options. It was terrifying.”
3. What in the present could be causing this reaction? “I am going to a supermarket in a different town. There  is no logical reason to have this kind of reaction”. Or: “I am planning to drive across Death Valley. Lots of people have gotten in trouble in Death Valley. My anxiety is realistic.”
4. How can I test if it’s from the past or present? “If I’m not sure whether I’m over-reacting (in a flashback) or not, I can ask a friend who doesn’t have a trauma background. If I don’t have a friend handy at the moment, I can ask myself “How would So-and-So react?”
5. If it’s in the present? “If I am going to Death Valley, I might really get into trouble. I might run out of gas or water or blow a tire. I would be dependent on somebody finding me and helping me, and I understand desert roads are pretty untraveled. It would be sensible to do some research at AAA or the Park Department website to see what I need to do to protect myself. It also would be sensible to carry a cell phone. I need to take some real action in the present in order to stay safe.”
If it’s in the past? “If I’m going to the supermarket, though, chances are I am having a feeling flashback, so I need to soothe myself. I can tell myself that it’s okay, I’m in control and at the wheel now, and I have a map, a full tank of gas, and a charge card. If I get lost I can ask somebody. I have made lots of similar trips successfully, and nothing bad happened.”

Of course, it could be a bit of past and a bit of present. In that case,you need to take sensible  precautions and reassure the frightened parts of yourself.

One you have used your worksheet for a while, you will find that you don’t need it anymore. Differentiating between past and present becomes automatic. So does preparing yourself for a present-day challenge and soothing yourself if the past comes welling up.The worksheet is a simple tool that will help you get to that point a little faster. And it’s nice to know you have an old friend you can always fall back on if you need to.

* I think it is called “Reprogramming Worksheet” and was published in the Survivorship Journal, Volume 3 Number 8 (August 1991) and Volume 4 Number 3 (March 1992.) You can order back issues from https://survivorship.org/back-issues-of-survivorship/
If anybody happens to have a copy, please post it in the comments section. We are okay copyright-wise: it is “fair use” and we cite the source and credit the author and publication.