Feel like you still know nothing but have no time to learn more? try this

You’ve completed your studies. You’re working with clients. And you’re burning out. Not only is the workload heavy. But worse, you feel like you know absolutely nothing.

You feel like you clearly need to learn a lot more. Yet there are hundreds of modalities out there. So that doesn’t help. It just adds an extra burden of confusion. And let’s face it, how the hell are you going to get the time to study it anyhow??!!

When you dip your toe into the various models, they seem so complicated and take an age to learn. There’s so much to study and understand, and no time to do it. You see other therapists learning in their spare time and you think “Really? How the hell do you even find the headspace? Never mind the energy!”

Other therapists try to reassure you that what you are feeling is normal. “Don’t worry” they say. “It takes at least five years to feel like you know what you’re doing.” Aaaghhh! Five years?! That’s no comfort at all. You want to get a handle on this right now!

There is another way. You can get a handle on this fast with barely any additional study.

By the end of this article, you will have a sentence (yes, a mere sentence!) that you can use to understand pretty much every client you work with.

The answer is to Simplify

When it’s cold, you put the heating on. When it’s hot, you turn it off again. So what about when therapy seems complicated and you’ve no time? The answer is to simplify.

Simplifying makes sense for three reasons:

  1. It reduces the amount you have to learn
  2. It reduces the time it takes to learn it
  3. It allows you to get to the essence and apply it right away

The end result is that you quickly go from feeling like you know nothing, to feeling a sense of mastery with the minimum of effort.

The monster in the corridor problem

The key simplification is to assume that your clients make sense. This is what I call the “monster in the corridor” problem.

For instance, your client has a million dollars in the next room yet they live in poverty in this room. It looks like strange, pathological behaviour. Why not just go and get the money next door?

Yet you learn that a monster lives in the corridor that connects this room to where the money is. Now the client’s behaviour doesn’t seem so strange. Now the client makes total sense.

Our job is to uncover what that monster is. The client wants something. But they are doing something else. And for good reason.

So let’s get to that sentence I promised.

The simplified formulation

Here’s a way to think of it that takes me no more than one session to work through with almost any client.

If I allow myself the thing I want
Then this bad thing happens
So I do this instead
Even though I want to do that
Because ANYTHING is better than the bad thing.

This is pretty much every client that you see.

Let’s Break it down

This formulation does not take hundreds of pages to read or hundreds of hours to learn. It has just 3 basic components:

  1. The problem they want to change
  2. The underlying fear that produces the problem
  3. The thing they want instead

Identifying the problem itself is easy. The client tells you this, often pretty quickly. It is the reason they are here to see you.

What the client wants is easy too. It tends to be the opposite of the problem. You can discover this by asking a question like “how would you like it to be in that situation instead?”

The real work is discovering the fear or concern that reproduces the problem. What is their monster in the corridor?

EXAMPLE

Let’s take the monster in the corridor case that I mentioned above.

If I allow myself to go and fetch the million dollars
Then I’ll have to face the monster in the corridor
So I continue to live in poverty
Even though I long to live in financial ease
Because ANYTHING is better than facing that monster

As you can see, this statement makes sense. It also shows why the client hasn’t changed independently of seeing you. The problem (staying in poverty) is actually protective. It solves an even bigger problem (the monster). And anything is better than facing that monster.

If there was no longer a monster in the corridor, they would go and fetch the money with ease.

A more typical case

Let’s apply this to a more typical case. A client who had an abusive childhood has an explosive temper. They wish they could air their grievances calmly.

If I allow myself to air my grievances calmly and at an even volume
Then I’ll risk being under the power of somebody else
So I yell and shout aggressively in a scary way
Even though I long to be calm and loving
Because ANYTHING is better than being under the power of somebody else (just like I was with Dad).

This is a simple way to get to the core of what is going on with clients very fast. You don’t need to spend hours of study getting to this point. You can apply it right away.

How to identify the monster

When you find the monster, everything clicks into place both for you and your client. You’ll feel a sense of mastery. You will both have a clear sense of understanding about what is going on.

There are many ways to discover the monster. For instance, you can ask them to imagine being in a situation where they did the thing they want to change. Now instead, have them imagine behaving in the new way. Ask them to notice what feels uncomfortable or scary.

My preferred way, however, is to use a technique from Motivational Interviewing that draws out the benefits of how things are, and the fears around change. You can read a quick overview of that approach here.

A road map to change

Once you know the “bad thing” that the problem is protecting against, you can use memory reconsolidation to generate lasting change. You can find a road map for memory reconsolidation here.

Recap

The answer to overwhelm and burnout is simplicity. This approach can be applied to almost all clients. It helps you quickly get to the core issue without years of study. You will feel a sense of mastery that will result in you enjoying your work again.

All it takes is to know 3 things

  1. The problem they want to change
  2. The underlying fear that produces the problem
  3. The thing they want instead

You can then formulate it in this sentence and even give it to the client too:

If I allow myself the thing I want
Then this bad thing happens
So I do this instead
Even though I want to do that
Because ANYTHING is better than the bad thing.

Then use the 3 steps of memory reconsolidation to help create the lasting change your client needs.

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