PERSIST WITH CLEAN LANGUAGE
by Philip Harland
M is one of my 'conceptual' clients. Over three sessions she
talks almost exclusively in abstract terms - about trust, love, fear,
guilt, depression, etc. She wouldn't know what a metaphor was
if she got one for Christmas. M's problem pattern, which comes
up several times in different forms, is "The moment I feel love and
trust ... I become scared I am going to lose it ... and then I
do." It's a particular problem, as you might imagine, in her
intimate relationships with men.
A question such as "Scared like what?" produces the answer
"Like fear." "Fear like what?" "Like, you know, I'm
scared." And so on round the houses. Normally with
clients like M I persist with clean language for half an hour and
then find myself slipping into traditional therapy-speak.
With M, I persist beyond my usual boredom threshold. For three
sessions almost every question comes from the clean language
model. M herself never falters. Never once does she
answer, "I don't know" or "I don't understand your question".
She allows the most circumlocutory of generic musings or the most
convoluted of Grovian questioning with perfect equanimity, and there
is something about her serious and persistent commitment to her
process that keeps us together. And suddenly - is it always
suddenly that these things happen? - M has a memory of what I can
only describe as the ultimate Defining Moment. It is about
whether she is to live or die.
"I'm five. I want to go for a swim from the boat. My
father says yes. I ask him to take me out of the sea when I've
had enough. He says he will. I swim for five meters, then
suddenly I get scared. On the boat they're all laughing at
me. I laugh as well, but I can't swim any more, and I don't
have any energy, and I'm sinking. I wave to my father in the
boat, and he waves back and laughs. I'm drowning, and he's
laughing. I love my father, and he's laughing and letting me
sink, and I'm drowning."
I'm concerned. M is reliving the trauma. I'm just
about to intervene with a question to 'rescue' her - to drag her back
into the boat - when she says, "I can't tell you how relieved I am to
remember that and to be able to talk about it and to know I
survived." She is shaking, and crying - and laughing too, as
you might expect. I am very moved. She goes on to make
her own cognitive connections to her problem as an adult around love
And in the fourth session, for the first time ever in our work
together, M goes into metaphor.
The lesson is: persist with clean language. Clients don't
have to go into metaphor to benefit. They don't have to have
defining moments like M's. They don't even have to 'get
better'. Persist with clean language, persist with
© May 1999 Philip Harland
by Sylvia S.
I am Philip Harland's client M.
When Philip asked if he could write a note for the Internet about
our first few sessions together, he asked me if I would like to say
how they had been for me.
Well, there seemed to be a lot of 'before' questions: what
happened before this? ... what happened before that? ... and I
wondered what he was getting at. I knew it was a sort of
psychology. He had told me it was going to be a little bit
different from ordinary conversation, but to stay with the questions,
and just answer what came up.
So I was answering the questions but thinking not to get
lost. I didn't want to say something glib or untruthful.
And then I got scared. Why is he asking me these
questions? I was scared of being upset and crying - and I don't
cry. He doesn't know me, and he's asking me these strange
questions and I'm going to cry ...
And I was surprised. I was amazed at myself for remembering -
it just came from me, this memory of when I was five. And I
started to cry. Strange and sometimes hard, but simple
questions ... I didn't want to cry ... but I was moved ... I answered
so simply and this huge thing just came out.
And later I made the connection to all sorts of things in my
life. I can admit to myself that I'm weak sometimes, when I've
been so strong, maybe too strong. I understand myself
more. I understand more about my relationships with men - about
love and trust, and running away. Scared they would let me
down. It's all connected.
I don't know how I'll use this yet, but a couple of weeks ago at a
party with strangers, I just decided I was going to talk to anyone -
about anything. It was a test for myself. I've always
been too shy and unconfident. And everyone was so nice!
They talked to me, and it went so well.
And now I have a lot of closed boxes I want to open. I don't
know what's in the boxes. A part of me is scared to find
out. I want to know what's in the boxes before I decide whether
I want to open them! At the last session it was a long time
before I could open the biggest one marked 'myself'. I wouldn't
open it because I didn't know what was in it. And then I
stopped worrying about trust, and just answered the questions, and
thought about them ... and I remembered something else, when I was 12
or 13, something confusing and important to me that I had never
talked about before to anyone ... and I found myself talking a lot
about this time, for the first time ever.
And maybe there are more boxes to open, we'll see!
Sylvia S., June 99
by Philip Harland
A post-script to Client M's (Sylvia) note about coming clean.
In 'Persist with Clean Language' I wrote about the client
reconstructing a long-repressed memory of almost drowning at the age
For most of her life (she is now 23), Sylvia has had a fear of
water that she has not been able to understand. A fear of going
out of her depth, literally and metaphorically, that has affected
every part of her life.
Four weeks after the near-drowning memory, Sylvia comes into the
"I have something to tell you," she says.
I wonder if she has found a new boyfriend, got a new job ...
She looks so pleased with herself, in her sweet and shy way.
"I started swimming lessons this week!"
It seems the perfect ending to our little story. And of
course for Sylvia it is only a beginning.
"You remember me telling you how I could never talk to
people? And how at a party a few weeks ago I decided to test
myself by talking to everyone? It was like a test I was setting
for myself. Well, this week its not an examination. It's
only an exercise."
She smiles at me. A lovely smile. And I wonder what
© June 1999 Philip Harland