I, You, and Need

I often make the mistake in therapy of reinforcing I-statements (“nice I’s!”) so much that it starts to imply it would be negative to use the word “you.”

But the word “you” is absolutely as crucial and as positive as the word “I”; maybe even more crucial.

When teaching people how to do empty chair work or direct contact, the instructions are: use the words “you” and “I” as much as possible. Both words are essential.  Together they paint the complete picture of the ‘contact in the field.’

When we add the word ‘need’ into the contact, then there’s a good/bad right/wrong way to do it.  It depends whether the word ‘need’ goes to the “I side” (I need) or the “you side” (you need).

The words: “you need” are almost always an error when we put them together.  It’s a lot like a ‘should’ – it can only be correct and healthy if there’s an ‘if’ somewhere around it.  “If I want to feel better, I should exercise.”  “If you want to have a good financial future, you need to plan and budget.”  If we don’t put an ‘if’ there, then it’s almost always false.

“You need to start treating me better.”  False.

“You need to let me know when you’re going somewhere.”  False.

The reason ‘you need’ is false is because of the centrality of self-preservation and self-regulation.  At any given moment, the organism is acting in accordance with its needs.  So if we’re sitting on the outside of an organism, viewing the organism, and then we impose an idea from the outside that it needs to be doing something different than what it’s already doing, that’s inherently false.  It’s already doing what it needs.

So if you notice the words ‘you need’ / ‘he needs’ / ‘she needs’ coming into your thoughts/voice, try and wiggle them around because they might be an error (based in some other need that you have).  Try changing the location of the word ‘need’ to the ‘I side’ (“I need you to start treating me better.”) or try adding an ‘if’ somewhere (“if you want to keep your X-Box this week, then you need to let me know where you’re going.”)

Keeping the self-preservation / self-regulation in mind, how interesting does this phrase look: “She only calls me when she needs something.”

Everything everyone is doing at every moment is because of their exact configuration of needs.  So if we tell someone what they need, it implies it’s different than what they’re currently doing – which makes it false – and thereby it’s much more of a reflection of our own needs.

Do I do DBT? And how to pick a therapist.

I hate getting this question and I’ve gotten it quite a few times in the last handful of months so here we are with a longer, more thought-out answer.

The answer is ‘yes and no.’ I’m not a DBT expert but I’ve spoken with them and read them, specifically about the overlap of DBT and gestalt. There aren’t philosophical differences that make them contradict. Gestalt is a beautiful, rich, complete philosophy and DBT has the same set of beliefs. It’s tomato tomato. (ha)

So that’s the ‘yes’ side. Gestalt and DBT come from the same set of beliefs and have the same goal. DBT is the newer packaging, cooler logo. I’m a big fan of DBT.

As far as the ‘no’ side, some DBT practitioners don’t flow organically from the belief system but use workbooks and curriculum. So when someone asks if I do DBT, I don’t know if they are asking if I hold a DBT set of beliefs or if I do workbooks. And most people don’t know what they’re asking. They’ve read/heard something that says, “if you have such and such symptom or diagnosis, seek DBT,” so they fire off emails to different therapists asking if they do DBT. So when I respond like I am in this post, it’s generally just frustrating for both them and me.

It can’t be a clearer ‘yes’ (we believe the same things and aim at the same result) while also being a completely clear ‘no’ (I don’t do workbooks). I just sound annoying when I respond with, “well, that depends. Are you wanting workbooks or are you interested in the philosophy underneath DBT?” Most people probably just hit ‘delete.’ Now people will receive a link to this post. And then they will probably hit delete.

Here’s the main reason I’m writing this post though.

Labels like gestalt, DBT, CBT, psychodynamic, humanistic, transpersonal, etc; they’re just flags. You can’t tell whether a therapist is good by what kind of flag they wave. There are crap therapists who wave a gestalt flag. There are crap therapists who wave a CBT flag. There are crap therapists who wave a DBT flag. And there are amazing CBT’ers, DBT’ers, etc.

And to make things more complicated, even a great therapist who waves a certain flag still won’t be the best fit for every client (or even the same client at a different time in their life). A huge amount of therapy success depends on how the two personalities correspond. And you can’t tell how your personality is going to match with their personality based on what kind of flag they wave.

So when friends/family ask about finding the right therapist, I tell them to do a bunch of consults (hopefully for free) and see which one they like the best. Don’t search for what flag they wave. Just because someone wears a Peyton Manning jersey doesn’t mean they’re Peyton Manning. It just means they’re a fan. Same with these labels. Therapists are just fans. It doesn’t say anything about their skill level or how good of a match they will be for you. You can only figure that out by interacting with them and paying attention to how the interaction affects you. A therapist is waving their flag before they even meet you, which proves it has nothing to do with you.  So don’t worry about the flag, interact with them, and choose the therapist whose impact you appreciate the most.

In case the word ‘hate’ threw anyone off at the beginning, here’s an analogy.  When I get this question as the first interaction, it feels the same as someone saying, “hey. I’m looking for a therapist.  Pick a number between one and ten and if you get it I’ll come see you.”  How crappy would that be if every therapy journey started like that?  Many beautiful potential journeys would be thrown out because of such a wonky beginning. I would hate it.

If you enjoy analogies and redundancy, here’s some more:

It’s like picking what car to buy.  People think the flags are like the make/model of the car.  They’re not.  It’s more like the color of the car.  “Well, I’m thinking about buying this car over here and it’s red.  But there’s this other car over here and it’s gray.” “Well, ya know, red cars generally run a lot better than gray cars.  So you should go with the red one.”  That’s silly.  You have to test drive a therapist in order to know what their make and model are.  And people have different needs:  you might appreciate gas mileage and efficiency or you might appreciate tight cornering and style.

Let me know if you need more analogies. 🙂

The Ability to be Happy Alone

I told a couple of you guys about this quote. Here ya go:

The capacity to be alone is the capacity to love.

It may look paradoxical to you, but it is not. It is an existential truth: only those people who are capable of being alone are capable of love, of sharing, of going into the deepest core of the other person – without possessing the other, without becoming dependent on the other, without reducing the other to a thing, and without becoming addicted to the other. They allow the other absolute freedom because they know that if the other leaves, they will be as happy as they are now. Their happiness cannot be taken by the other because it is not given by the other.

– Chandra Mohan Jain

Eye Contact

Eye contact is an interesting thing. Sometimes people come up with a goal of keeping a steady, fixed gaze into my eyes during sessions.  This never goes well because there’s not enough leftover energy to allow thoughts/ideas/concerns to come into the foreground for them. So the person goes blank.  And then they’re very uncomfortable because they’re staring into my eyes and they’ve gone blank.

The opposite is also true.  People bring up their genuine concerns and they can feel their eyes moving around to correspond with their mental movement and then they say, “you probably noticed I don’t make much eye contact.” But I assure them they didn’t seem unnatural. They were simply letting their eyes do what they want while the rest of them searches their soul.

So don’t beat yourself up for “not making good eye contact.”

When it’s natural, a person actually “lets go” of their eyes and only occasionally accesses them again at key moments when (1) they’re wondering what kind of reaction the other person is having or (2) they’re putting extra emphasis on a specific (already formed) thought that they want to make sure is fully delivered into the other person.

So let them go. Let them loose.  You’ll know when to access them naturally.

If you make eye contact your primary goal, you’re probably going to get in the way of something.

And the fear of seeming weird by not making enough eye contact is going to make you seem weird from too much eye contact and going blank while staring.

Don’t get mad at. Get mad that.

There is often no bad guy. Events are collisions of millions of forces that leave people hanging with intense feelings with nowhere to point them. It’s really hard to let anger pass through you when you don’t have a place to put it.

The more intense the feeling, the less helpful this post. But maybe it can be a seed.

In situations where there is clearly no bad guy, try channeling your anger into being mad THAT it happened; rather than being mad AT someone.  The anger is pointed at the event.  At the collision.

Sometimes life just freakin blows. And there isn’t a single person in the equation who would’ve wanted an event to unfold the way it did. Nobody won. Nobody’s happy. It’s an abstract concept – and certainly easier said than done – but if you can grab onto glimpses of being mad THAT it happened, maybe this can be an effective channel to release some of the feelings and free yourself up a little.

Feelings never want to stay. They are best handled when they’re welcomed (once they’ve already entered) and then shown back to the place where they entered from.  The ’empty chair technique’ is beautiful when the feelings can be channeled at a specific person and placed right back towards the person who was the creator of the disturbance for you. But it’s not always that simple. So this post is for those types of events where there’s no bad guy, no single disturber whose needs ran into yours. It is wise of you to realize it would be inaccurate to get overly angry AT anyone involved, since not a single person would’ve pre-wished and pre-created this outcome. But then what to do with your anger?

Lastly, sitting with the words, “I am so angry that this happened,” will likely encourage your system to go deeper into the sadness, which is less pointed and doesn’t get stuck as easily (we generally don’t have a wish to stab someone with our sadness like we do with our anger). Finding the softer sadness can be a little more of a landing zone with more restful spaces (though still intensely uncomfortable). It’s a little easier to be sad without a secondary urge to have to “do something about it.” There is sometimes nothing to do. Life has some brutal edges, sometimes completely vulnerable to chance. Nothing can be done. Be sad. Be mad that it happened.  These are the worst.

A Questionnaire for Existential Therapy. Does it ignite anything in you?

Check out this pre- and post- test for measuring the effects of therapy.  Participants rated each item on a scale of how true/relevant it is for them.  (This is out of Yalom’s text: Existential Psychotherapy.)

I communicate openly with my loved ones.

I appreciate the beauty of nature.

I have a sense of personal freedom.

It is important to me to be liked by everyone.

I obtain much pleasure from life.

I communicate honestly and frankly.

I do only those things I really want to do.

I live in the present rather than in the past or future.

I have moments of deep serenity.

I stand up for my own personal rights.

I have a sense of psychological well-being.

I communicate openly with my friends.

I feel I have something of value to teach others about life.

I am able to choose what I want to do.

My life has meaning and purpose.

Religious / spiritual beliefs have much significance for me.


How neat?? I imagine there could be such a wide range of reactions!