What can you do when your client has low self-worth? You have tried everything but your client is not engaging. The low self-worth is so rooted that you can’t help wonder if it’s even possible to unpick it. You resign yourself to the idea that this will be long-term work with slow change.
Imagine if your client changed quickly instead. What if you had a clear sense of how to help your client. Instead of long and laborious therapy work, your client felt good about themself soon.
The goal of therapy is to help trigger memory reconsolidation. When this brain mechanism occurs, old trauma responses are overwritten and erased.
In this article, I’ll be sharing three possible approaches to dealing with low self-worth. They are all based on the core steps of creating mismatch experiences and repeating them.
- Imaginal Reenactment
- Solution Focused Therapy
- Daniel Brown’s Ideal Parent Figure Protocol
A good starting point is to assume that low self-worth makes sense. Consider that low self-worth has been a useful strategy for preventing an even worse outcome.
There may be understandable resistance to dropping their low self-worth. Contrary to the one-dimensional outlook of disorders, this approach allows for various explanations depending on the client.
A client who has taken on low self-worth may report a range of reasons why. For instance:
- it ensures they don’t get “above their station” or “too big for their boots”
- it keeps them humble so they don’t get power-mad like Dad and misuse that power
- it gives them a sense of power in a bad situation – “maybe if I accept I am awful, I can be better and then this bad situation will stop”
- it prevented them from challenging their abuser which would have made it even more dangerous
As you can see, each client is different, and clients may have purposes for low self-worth that contradict each other.
I developed a technique called The Single Sentence Technique to quickly find the rationale of low self-worth. You can read some examples of it in the articles below:
- Why does your client self-sabotage their success?
- Feel like you still know nothing but have no time to learn more, try this
- How to find your client’s true target of change
Once you know what your client’s low self-worth defends against, you can find a past scene where this may have been learned.
This allows you to start the process of imaginal reenactment. There will be many ways to approach this. One of my preferred ways involves:
- finding the feelings from the original scene
- listing the feelings they need and want instead
- creating a new scene designed to produce those wanted feelings
- experiencing the new scene using the imagination – and repeating it
The mismatch experience has the potential to instantly rewrite feelings of low self-worth and has produced remarkable outcomes for many clients.
For more details of this approach, click here to read A 4 Step Road Map For Imaginal Re-Enactment Work
Solution focused brief therapy
Solution Focused Therapy is an approach that is particularly focused on drawing out the strengths of the client.
Amongst its most common questions are
- What is going well?
- How did you manage to do that?
- What does it say about you that you did that?
The philosophy of SF is epitomised by the title of Barry Duncan’s book What’s Right With You?
It helps clients flesh out the details of what they want. It then uses scaling questions to identify how far along they already are. For instance:
“If what you want is a 10, and 0 is the furthest thing from that, where would you say you are at the moment?”
Even if a client says they are only at 1, the solution focused approach would then inquire what was already present that put them at 1 rather than 0.
The approach fundamentally validates the client. They notice that change is already happening to some extent, and see their own role in that. Asking “what does it say about you that you did that?” then connects that change to the intrinsic qualities of the client.
We can then explore how it is for them to experience this list of positive, intrinsic characteristics. “What is it like to notice those things about yourself?”
Clients have spoken of feeling proud of themselves. Others see that this is a list of qualities they would want in a friend.
For a client with low self-worth, this produces a potential mismatch experience between the old feelings of low self-worth and these feelings of pride. The therapist then has an opportunity to stay with the mismatch and repeat it.
Solution Focused Therapy is relatively easy to learn. For a quick primer on the approach, listen to this interview I did with Guy Shennan, author of Solution Focused Practice.
The ideal parent figure protocol
The Ideal Parent Figure protocol, developed by Daniel Brown at Harvard, is an imaginal technique.
It involves imagining that one was raised in a family different from the family of origin. Instead, it imagines Ideal Parent Figures, perfectly suited to the client and their nature.
One can then bring distressing experiences or feelings to the imaginal parent figures. The client will sit, usually with eyes closed, and experience being with these ideal parents.
The therapist guides the client to experience particular qualities of the ideal parents. For instance, for low self-worth, Daniel Brown focuses on three positive attachment characteristics:
- Safety and Protection
- Expressing Delight
These can be done as separate scenes.
The client first imagines an ideal situation with the imaginal parents that brings an ideal sense of safety and protection. Not too much that they feel controlled, and not too little. The exact amount of protection that they need.
The client next imagines an ideal situation where the imaginal parents are perfectly attuned. They are able to know and see the client fully in just the way that they need. They are attuned to the client’s internal state of mind, and also to the feelings and distress they may be experiencing.
Next, they imagine an ideal situation where the imaginal parents are expressing delight in the client’s very being. Not because of any achievements or any other conditional reason, but unconditionally. The client experiences the ideal parents expressing delight in everything they do. The ideal parents take joy in the presence of the client and the client gets to experience this imaginal scene.
The experiences of safety, attunement and delight offer a mismatch to the old feelings of low self-worth.
If you sense that the client may not want to replace their original parents, other devices can be used. I have even used the concept of a Fairy Godmother with one client, which had the same healing effect.
To see an example of Daniel Brown guiding an exercise in Imaginal Ideal Parents, see the video below.
Issues of low self-worth can be a challenge for therapists. Yet using the steps of memory reconsolidation means the client can be free of it for good.
There is no one way to trigger memory reconsolidation. The key is to provide mismatch experiences and repeat them. It is also important to ensure that we mismatch the right target.
In this article we have looked at three possible ways to deliver those mismatch experiences when it comes to low self-worth.
- Imaginal reenactment
- Solution Focused Therapy
- Ideal Parent Figure Protocol.
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