Monday, November 7, 2011

Betting on Change

In an Erickson Foundation Newsletter (Vol. 23, No. 3) article, "Making the Illusion Real," a case was described where "Allison," a "six-foot-two, big-boned woman held her entire family hostage to the fear that she would embarrass them. She was brash and insensitive to anyone's feelings but her own. With glee, she would point out any shortcoming or physical imperfection a person might have." 

This woman might be a personality style Eight -- they don't always realize how devastating their humor can be to the recipient or embarrassing to others around them. Members of Allison's family, though, valued the illusion of family unity and were afraid she wouldn't come to family get-togethers if they confronted her. 

Her brother Jim wanted very much for the family to get along better and came to the therapist for advice, but also said "there was nothing to do and he just had to live with it." The therapist supported Jim (who could be a style Six) in his belief that he was powerless to make the family more cohesive, but also listened carefully to Jim's description of their get-togethers. 

The family always had betting pools on sporting events they watched on TV, so the therapist suggested they "set up a betting pool to predict how long after Allison arrived she would drop the first bomb? Or to whom it would be directed? Or how many of her all-time favorite 'inappropriatenesses' she would do in an hour?" Jim was convulsed with laughter at the idea – a good sign, and one I often see when a question or suggestion has already broken through habitual ways of thinking. 

On the face of it, the therapist's suggestion may seem manipulative compared to more direct confrontation. But it's a good example of the invocation to "do something different" in order to break a trance. The focus was not on teaching Jim new communication skills. That might well have no effect on Allison. By shifting the family's focus, the therapist's suggestion could change the way they viewed Allison.

Jim reported later to the therapist that the get-together was wonderful. Rather than feeling fear or hurt, family members were now curious to see what she'd do, anticipating disappointment if they lost the pool. And because of the shift in their responses, they showed more acceptance toward Allison. She felt this difference and joined in with their post-game banter. "She was no longer an outsider, but one of the family."