An earlier version of these articles was published in The Magic Lamp Issues 7 - 12

COMPULSION

by Philip Harland


Week 1

"Melting in the mouth ..."

Do you have a predilection for certain foods? One in particular? Go on, what is it?
Condensed sweetened milk? Pickled gherkins?
Would you say you indulged yourself now and again? Oh, daily? Several times a day?

Sam is a happily married, hard-working young man in his 30's. Active, ambitious and slightly overweight. He has a compulsion - not for drugs, sex, smoking or gambling, but chocolate. I'm fascinated by this because I like chocolate myself, and I can identify with him enough to know there's a fine line sometimes between liking and craving, and a short step from craving to compulsion. Have you ever wondered how easy it might be to take that step yourself? Sam's addiction started as the sort of petty pattern of occasional craving that touches most of the people I know. As this is such a universal problem I want to try an experiment and share my work with Sam as it happens. I have his permission to do this on the understanding that he will see these articles before they go on the web. As I write we've had our first session and have contracted for half a dozen more. We have no idea what the outcome will be.

First session. Sam says he wants to change his eating habits and lose 20 lbs. When we look more closely at this desire, it develops into "To control my compulsive eating." In a conversational version of clean language we clarify what he means ("What kind of 'control'? What do you mean by 'compulsive'?" etc). Then I take him through an Addiction Audit (see footnote), a comprehensive analysis of the attitudes around and influences on the client's addiction - without making any assumptions. I have theories about the systemic structure of dependency, but I shan't impose these. We'll just see if any patterns emerge during the audit that Sam may recognise and elect to find out more about later.

First we look at emotional gain. Sam describes his compulsive eating as "Like filling a garbage can". A fascinating metaphor, but doesn't sound much like a gain to me. However you can never take metaphors for granted. There may well be a latent resource in the garbage that we'll discover later.

We check cultural influences . Sam speaks with feeling about the layout of his local supermarket, where sweets are concentrated near the checkout, a place he has no choice but to linger at while queuing.

He talks about family influences, including an exciting weekend ritual when Daddy - absent for most of the week - would produce a special treat after lunch ("Now who would like a nice bar of chocolate?" ).

We go back to school, where Sam had to have special remedial lessons for dyslexia. He would eat (and was often sick on) whole packets of Hob Nobs as a way of distracting himself at an emotionally difficult time.

We break down the sensory distinctions related to his enjoyment of chocolate: "I want the sensation of sweetness ... I like the crumbling texture ... I enjoy the feeling of it melting in the mouth." You can sense yourself how addictive an indulgence this could become.

We look at Sam's strategies for his compulsive eating and discover an association with rest: when he's working he doesn't notice the need for chocolate; when he stops after two or three hours he does. We find that when he's with friends he's "considerate" and eats moderately, but when he's alone there's "no inhibition".

We consider the issue at all levels of his experience : environment, behaviour, capability ("I can't control it" ), beliefs & values ("But I believe I can make it disappear" ), identity ("I'm the sort of person who would have to forget I ever liked chocolate" ) and beyond self ("It would be better for human progress if I were healthier ." ) Somewhere in the information generated by this audit is a clue to the solution Sam wants, which is to rid himself of the compulsion. But where is the clue? In a light trance Sam finds himself going back to school again. He's having a bad feeling now. "Where is that feeling?" I ask. He pulls a face. He says "Oh, I don't want to go down that route." I hesitate. I don't want to lead him, but my experience tells me this may be a good route down which to go. Without prompting he adds, "So I guess I should!"

Next week I plan to ask Sam to identify the positive intention of his compulsion. What is the pay-off he gets from something he doesn't want?

Footnote on the Addiction Audit: Notes by American NLP trainer Sid Jacobson ('Some Important Considerations in Quitting or Controlling Smoking') inspired me to develop this systematic assessment and treatment model applicable to any addiction, compulsion or dependency. It's available for personal use by downloading the Possession and Desire paper (see below) - if you make use of the model I ask only that you give me a credit and don't be shy of referring yourself or your clients to me. Please remember that the articles and the audit are copyright material and are not available for anything other than your personal use without the express permission of the copyright holder.


Week 2

"Reward me ..."

Second session. I invite Sam to get a sense of that metaphorical 'part' of himself which feels the compulsion to eat chocolate. In a trance he identifies a feeling of isolation ... and immediately goes back to problems associated with reading and writing at school. Thirty years ago no-one called it dyslexia. The 7-year old at his new school feels stupid and alone. "I don't have the tools. I'm in a jungle, with no daylight. I want to disappear into another world."

Sam has now come up with several metaphors related to his dependency pattern, and I'm tempted to invite him into a Grovian/symbolic modelling process immediately to explore them. Instead I ask him to put a name to the part-self he has identified as responsible for the compulsion. He finds himself calling it 'Reward Me'. This is another revelation for Sam. The first was that the compulsion he named only recently began almost 30 years ago. The new revelation is that chocolate was a compensation - not for having to work on a mass of facts and figures he couldn't make head or tail of - but for the associated feelings of stress and shame. And the further revelation is that he has been carrying these idiosyncratic connections -

dyslexia = isolation = shame = hard work = need for compensation = chocolate

- thoughout his adult life unconsciously .

For a moment I feel quite sad for this 7-year old. I ask Sam to go inside and acknowledge 'Reward Me'. Many of us are reluctant to acknowledge parts we don't like, or wish we didn't have, in case they take acknowledgment for encouragement and the behaviour or feeling gets worse. When of course lack of acknowledgment is guaranteed to have the associated behaviour or feeling returning time after time to haunt us.

When Sam has acknowledged 'Reward Me' I invite him to take a step further and embrace this part and its needs wholeheartedly. It's been an important, even necessary, response of his system to the systemic experience. He has some initial reservations about the idea of loving something he's been ashamed of for so long and has been aching to get rid of, but can accept that when it first came into being it was essential for his survival. Without it the trauma of the time may have overwhelmed him.

Now comes the crucial stage of this neurolinguistic journey, as I invite Sam to ask 'Reward Me' what it's positive intention has been for him. Chocolate has been the vehicle for an emotional need. What has the part-self with the compulsion wanted for him all this time? Sam goes quiet and concentrates deeply.

After a minute or two he comes up with: "Getting my breath back after struggling." At a cognitive level he can't understand where this answer comes from. I remember the addiction audit we undertook last week, when Sam had talked about the desire for chocolate coming not while he was working, but when work had stopped. His reward at that time had to be something more than rest and relaxation. The last conscious connection he's likely to make as an adult after hours on the phone or in highly charged meetings (he has a demanding job as a film producer) is the memory of having to struggle with dyslexia as a 7-year old and bingeing on chocolate as a reward. Sam's need to get his breath back after struggling may date back to difficulties in taking his first breath after the trauma of birth. It may even have its beginnings before birth or in past generations. I don't share this speculation with him because I could easily be wrong. If these are appropriate connections for Sam he'll make them for himself when the time is right.

I ask: "If 'Reward Me' were to be convinced there was another way of getting its reward that would be at least as effective, and hopefully more so, than eating chocolate, would it be prepared to try it?" Sam goes inside to answer the question. He reports, "'Reward Me' says slightly reluctantly it could try" . I ask him to go inside again and thank 'Reward Me' for its response. The invitation to 'go inside' is a simple and powerful proposal that moves the client's attention from mental abstractions to embodied experience. All our past experience has been embodied in some way (otherwise where is it?), but too many of us believe the only way to access it is by reason rather than feeling.

Next week I shall invite Sam to be creative.


Week 3

"Juggling oranges ..."

Last week Sam identified the positive intention of his compulsion for chocolate as "Getting my breath back after struggling". The part-self responsible for the compulsion (he called it 'Reward Me') has reluctantly agreed to try other behaviours for getting what it wants - if it can be convinced that they will work at least as well as chocolate. How can Reward Me be convinced?

Third session. I invite Sam to get a sense of his Creative Self and he nods immediately. Some clients spend hours defining and rediscovering their creativity. We are all creative as children (think of all that drawing and playing), but after being put through the mill of conformity at home, school and work we lose a sense of ourselves as imaginative and innovative. Our natural creativity learns to lie low as we discover there is a 'right' and a 'wrong' way of being in the world. This might easily have happened to Sam as he worked his way through a conventional public school system, but it's likely that his experience of dyslexia gave him the idea that he was different, and that in turn gave him a determination to do his own thing. I brief Sam's Creative Self to come up with five ideas. It will have no responsibility for implementing any of them and can be as imaginative and irresponsible as it likes. What ideas does it have for allowing Sam to 'get his breath back after struggling'? Creative Self comes up fairly readily with:

1. Juggling oranges.
2. Standing at an open window.
3. Stretching exercises.

Then Reward Me butts in and denounces these as 'boring'. So already Sam's creativity is ahead of the game - with no prompting from me he has started to negotiate between these key parts of himself. Creative Self is now invited to ignore Reward Me's intervention and continue. It comes up with:

4. Going on a helter-skelter.
5. Going to the Bahamas to eat lobster.
6. Go-Kart racing.
7. Eating ice cream.
8. Watching cartoons.

Creative Self reckons that Reward Me will find it hard to describe these as boring. Creative Self is thanked by Sam, and Reward Me is invited to evaluate the ideas. Reward Me rejects all those that require Sam to go out of the building where he works, on the grounds that there are too many shops nearby where chocolate is available (Sam works in London's West End). Reward Me considers the option of eating ice cream, but rejects it on the grounds that it has the same fattening associations as chocolate. So Reward Me says he might try the exercises, and acknowledges without enthusiasm that looking after the body would also contribute to Sam's professed desire for more fitness. Creative Self is getting fed up of Reward Me's half-hearted responses to his ideas, and comes up with two further options:

9. Doodling. (Reward Me is not impressed.)
10. Moving the office into the country away from the shops. (Reward Me derides this as impractical.)

So Reward Me has eliminated all but the stretching exercises. He agrees to try these in intervals between work. Personally I'm not convinced that a little light aerobics will be enough to meet such a long-held emotional need for reward after hard work, but I don't have to be convinced - my job is to continue drawing Sam's attention to his own process. I elicit from Sam what his first steps will be in taking on the new behaviour. He hesitates. And what he says is very interesting: "I need an internal buzzer that says 'Please relax', and I need a second buzzer that says 'Go back to work'". He wants some kind of symbolic system of control that will help him remember. He can't work out how to get this, so asks long-suffering Creative Self for more ideas. Creative Self is tired, and doesn't want to make 'sense' any more, so is invited to relax and let his mind wander. And what comes up in a trance state is quite strange:

1. A body with strings attached to its parts.
2. A ship leaving port.
3. A cartoon of a Minotaur on the rampage.
4. A maze.

Sam is baffled. "I ask for a system of control," he says, "and I come up with rubbish." I'm puzzled too, but I'm convinced that an important message has arrived via Sam's unconscious. He just needs a way of decoding it. And I find myself saying, "How about asking Reward Me to commission Creative Self to come up with ideas for a control system using unconscious process?" Sam says, "Yes." So I've set us up. How do I get us going?

Reflecting after the session I think my instinct was right. Next week I plan on moving into more intuitive mode using clean language to facilitate Sam to explore and decode this symbolic information that has come directly from his unconscious. Remember the first session where Sam deswcribed his compulsive eating as "like filling a garbage can"? The 'rubbish' he's come up with today must have some connection.


Week 4

"Hanging by a thread ..."

Sam is a 37-year old film producer addicted to chocolate. His psychotherapy sessions with Philip Harland are written up shortly after they happen.

In the first session I took Sam through an Addiction Audit (see week 1 footnote) exploring the attitudes and influences around his compulsive eating. Over the next two sessions he discovered that the part responsible for the compulsion ('Reward Me') actually wanted him 'To breathe after struggling'. Sam's Creative Self then came up with several ways that Reward Me could achieve this intention other than by eating chocolate. Before agreeing to try one of these alternative behaviours, Reward Me has commissioned Creative Self to come up with a reminder and control system.

Fourth session. After recapping the end of the last session I ask Sam, "And what would you like to have happen?" He allows his mind to to free-associate. Then he says, "I see a big Great Gatsby type party ..."

"What kind of party?" I ask, and we move naturally into clean language. Sam answers "Style, flair, enjoyment, people laughing."

And what happens next?" "I'm talking to someone unaware that my trousers are falling down." He laughs. So do I.

I'm tempted to ask about the trousers, but instead go for the talking. "Oh - social chit-chat, not important."

Perhaps I should have gone for the obvious. I ask what happens next. "Now we're playing a game with cakes on a string."

The word 'string' stands out. Last week one of the things Sam's Creative Self came up with when asked for ideas for a control system for the new behaviours was the image of a body with string connected to its parts.

"Is that the same or different string to the string connected to the body parts?" "Different. In the party you eat your cake and it's pulled out again using the string. It's a joke."

"What kind of joke?" "A joke of familiarity between friends."

I wonder if this visual-linguistic joke contain a resource metaphor. "What happens just before you eat your cake and it's pulled out?" "A great thing is made of presenting your piece of cake. Pomp and ceremony, waiters in white gloves ..."

Piece of cake? I get quite curious about phonetic ambiguity in client-generated metaphor. "And what happens just before presenting your piece of cake?" "A cowboy scene. There are people drawing guns. Like in a Mel Brooks movie. The guns are on strings connecting them to the holsters, so when you pull them out they pop back in again."

So the symbolic pattern repeats. Guns on string. Cakes on string. Putting in, pulling out. "What kind of string is that?" "Aquamarine blue sewing thread."

Oh. Is he setting a new direction? What do we go for now? That 'aquamarine' could hold a great deal of information. So could the 'blue'. Or the 'sewing'. Or the 'thread'! I can't decide between them, so I ask a general question: "Is there anything else about aquamarine blue sewing thread?" "It seems very fragile but has amazing strength, and it's to sew up clothes."

"What kind of seems is a thread to sew up clothes?" I don't know where this question comes from. It's logical enough within the conventions of clean language, but is not wholly grammatical or sensible. There is a pause. Am I on to something here, or have I distracted the client with a foolish construction and now he's struggling to get back on course? The pause lengthens, his eyes glaze over. Is he getting bored and drifting off? If so, what do I do now? Or has Sam moved to a deeper level of his own unconscious? This could be important. I must not break the thread ...!

Sam's eyes open. He asks me to repeat the question. I check the clock. Our time is up.

Next week I aim to start where we finished. This sewing metaphor may contain the coded solution to Sam's compulsion.


Week 5

"This week I didn't try not to eat chocolate ..."

A reminder: these articles document one individual case history. Some so-called 'eating disorders' have aspects in common, as have some addictions, but their source - and solution - will be different for everyone.

Fifth session. Sam starts by apologising. "I was going to keep a chocolate diary. I failed. But this week I didn't try not to eat chocolate." He seems to think this is a sign of progress. I hope he's right. At least he is not giving himself a hard time for his addiction, and that's new. Sam is realizing that the part-self responsible for the compulsive eating has somehow helped him survive all these years. A couple of weeks ago it was craving acknowledgment for the job it has been doing. Now it wants more than acknowledgment, it wants loving. Many of us find it difficult to love the parts we hate, but we can't move on until we do. So where does Sam go now? During the addiction audit it transpired that his desire for chocolate came not while he was working, but when work had stopped. He needed a reward. Sam has a clear understanding of his shame=hard work=reward pattern, albeit at a conceptual level, but then came up with another pattern - an unconscious symbolic one around string - guns on string, cakes on string. The string developed into sewing thread. Which "seems very fragile but has amazing strength, and it's to sew up clothes". What is it that connects these patterns?

The ambiguity of 'seems' catches my attention. The sewing thread ..."seems very fragile but has amazing strength, and it's to sew up clothes." Clothes with 'seams'? The English word ambiguity comes from the Old French ambigu - 'a banquet at which a medley of dishes are set on together'. I sense a feast.

Towards the end of the last session I asked Sam, "What kind of 'seems' is a thread to sew up clothes?" and he went into a deep trance where things were happening at a level beyond words. After a few minutes he had asked me to repeat the question, and later reported that it had sent him "on a weird journey ... with a sense of dislocation .. I lost everything except what was in my brain ... I threw out a line in the hope that you'd get hold of it - I was drowning in a sea of my own images ..."

After that session and before this one I analysed my question, "What kind of 'seems' is a thread to sew up clothes?", and it is of course a crazy question. If I were to ask you a question like that in normal conversation you might legitimately wonder who was the therapist and who was the client. In the context of Sam's process, however, it constitutes legitimate clean language. It makes no suppositions, it honours Sam's unique metaphor and is transparently logical.

My guess is that something about the ambiguity of 'seems/seams' sent Sam off on his weird journey. I can't begin to speculate what 'seems/seams' might mean for him, but I decide to draw his attention to it again while at the same time attempting to give my tone of voice a take-it-or-leave-it quality. If the question is meaningful at an unconscious level, Sam will go with it. If it isn't he won't and we'll go somewhere else.

"What kind of 'seems' are 'seams' like that?" As I ask this I attempt the impossible - to draw Sam's attention to the alternative spellings and to remind him of the alternative meanings ... There is a pause. His system allows the question in. His unconscious processes the information the question prompts. "It's like everything is connected," he says eventually. "The thin acquamarine thread seems (?) to connect everyone together."

"And then what happens?"

"A stage. Something spinning in the background. A Victorian fireplace, toys, little seals. Not thread, but rope for picking up this soft toy. A smiling face, eyes that seem alive. A young woman standing by a swimming pool that's like an enormous sheet of A4 paper. A little square on the paper divided into boxes. I'm ticking off the boxes. Ah, I need just one page. How many boxes must I tick off? Look at me, I'm ticking off the boxes. There's a sprig of cherry blossom on the page. Five empty boxes in a row. The whole page has five rows of five boxes. Now I see a window open, the sun shining through - a breath of fresh air!"

Phew. A lot of information there, finishing on that 'breath of fresh air'. Several weeks ago Sam learnt that his compulsion for chocolate wanted him "To get my breath back after struggling". Has the client got what he came for? Has the information in the pattern suddenly been released and the problem transformed? What should my next question be? Should I intervene at all?


Week 6

"A good ticking off ..."

Sixth session. Sam starts where he finished last week: "I saw a window open, the sun shining through. A breath of fresh air. There was a sprig of cherry blossom on the page. Now I see the page has five rows of five boxes."

Sam's Creative Self had been briefed to come up with a control system for new behaviours to replace the compulsive bingeing on chocolate, and it has been doing this in non-cognitive symbolic process over the last two or three sessions. But in everyday terms what is Sam saying?

"I have a sense of doing a job here," he tells me. "I'm paying for your time, so I've instructed my unconscious to go with relevant, not irrelevant images, so I can get the best value for my money." He draws a grid of five columns, marks them Monday to Friday, divides them by five rows for different times of the day, and titles it 'Reward Me' - the name of the part-self he identified several weeks ago as being responsible for the compulsion. "I shall fill each box with rewarding things I can do for myself while working-stretching, juggling, standing at an open window, breathing deeply." The rewards were identified several weeks back, when they seemed less than compelling. Now they have come into their own in this grid, where the notion of ticking them off five times a day, five times a week, is compelling! I wonder if Sam is merely changing one compulsion for another - translating the pattern rather than transforming it, but I reckon that filling a few boxes is a healthier alternative than stuffing himself with chocolate.

"Anything else about fill each box?" I ask. "Actually I don't need to use the grid every day, only when I need it," he replies. He seems to be moving away from the idea of replacing the compulsive eating with compulsive form-filling. "I have an image of a young woman ticking the boxes."

He had identified a young woman in his metaphor landscape last week ("standing by a swimming pool that's like an enormous sheet of A4 paper" ). "She'll tick when she knows it's right. I don't have to have five rewards a day, or a day of rewards a week or even every month." I ask about the boxes again. "Oh, that's interesting they're three-dimensional now, they're not empty boxes waiting to be ticked, they already contain rewards!"

So the metaphor, as often happens, has taken on a life of its own. "These boxes are closed, so I don't know what's in them. I think I have to accept from the boxes, not take!" The metaphor has transformed. All I have to do now is help Sam mature the transformation.

"And when you think you have to accept, what kind of accept?"
"The perfect gift."
"And what kind of gift is the perfect gift?"
"The young woman is the giver."
"And what kind of young woman is the giver of the perfect gift?"
"She's wearing a simple white casual dress. A mature woman. Like a young mother. Attractive, kind, very nice, concerned and graceful."
"Where could a woman like that come from?"
"From my dreams. She is showing me something, but not making a big fuss. The other women were sexier. This woman is more at home. She surrounds herself with light - air - smells - friends - family. She has more to look after than me. Lots of responsibilities."

Now Sam has a wonderful insight. You could call it a defining moment when the two kinds of his knowing - conscious and unconscious - come together. "The family could be all my little parts and personalities. Bits of me that need to be nurtured. This woman is there for every part of me. A family playing and squabbling. She disciplines us and supplies the air and the sunshine, and in turn we have to nurture her. I see her name." He pauses. "It's Asa." He is thrilled. "Asa the woman in my life." I start to ask another question, but suddenly he's tired. "This is important, but it's fragile. I want to find out more about her, but I want to wait."

A gentle reminder to me about timing. I suggest an assignment for homework: to look up the name 'Asa'.


The last week

"The woman in my life ..."

Seventh session. It's a few weeks later and I'm seeing Sam for a follow-up session. He starts, "All round I feel more steady and stable. The idea of small rewards at intervals is so well ingrained in me now that I can go for days without even thinking about it. I now understand when I'm working too hard. I allow myself rest and relaxation rather than thinking I have to work through the tiredness."

He recalls some of the images that came up during his metaphorical journey: the falling trousers, the Mel Brooks revolvers, the silly string "Maybe they were different parts of my creative self. Asa is the only clear figure. The woman in my life. Being helpful. So I've been doing the Relax Me's and mentally ticking off the boxes."

'Relax Me'? Does he realize he's changed the name of the part that was responsible for the compulsion? It used to be 'Reward Me'. "Sometimes I say to myself I deserve a reward for hard work. Once that would have meant an uncontrollable urge to go out and indulge myself. Now I tell myself I'll relax and have a box." Sam doesn't know what's in the box until he opens it. This is the 'perfect gift' of Asa, the giver, the young woman who nurtures, disciplines and rewards Sam. She is his symbolic reminder that rewards are gifts which come to him, not those he takes.

I still haven't asked him directly about his original compulsive need for chocolate. When I get round to it he almost dismisses the question. "Oh yes, I occasionally have a bit." It's as if the compulsion was never there. Only weeks ago it had seemed to loom very large indeed. I feel a sense of anti-climax. I press for more information. He indulges me.

"Well, three weeks after the last session I hadn't had any chocolate at all, maybe one bar. Perhaps I was too busy." Too busy? It used to be when he was busy that he felt the need. "On the Monday of the fourth week I went back to the old habit eating M & M's all day. I felt I'd let myself down. So I talked to Asa, and on Tuesday I had a breakthrough. I bought a bottle of Perrier. I don't think I've had any chocolate since."

"You don't think you've had any?"
"I don't think so. I haven't consciously avoided chocolate. It's not an issue."

Not an issue. The client's casual acceptance of change is a well-known phenomenon. Sam's transformation simply happened at the pace that was right for him. It could have taken an hour or several months. Given Sam's particular mix of motivation and imagination it became a matter of weeks.

I checked with Sam again recently. He reports that he hardly ever eats chocolate - a compulsion that once possessed him. The metaphorical Asa is still his mentor for growth, a spiritual reference he uses in all kinds of ways. His research on the name came up with a Hebrew doctor, by the way, a true physician who heals both mind and body. Sam has learnt to do this for himself. Who is the woman (or man, or resource by any other name) in your life?


© 2000 Philip Harland

Photo of Philip Harland

Philip Harland is a neurolinguistic psychotherapist specialising in working with addictions and compulsions through autogenic (client-generated) metaphor and symbolic modelling.

If you have an issue related to addiction or dependency, or if there is any other psychological health matter you would like to explore, you can contact Philip by emailing philipharland@blueyonder.co.uk. Philip has an active private practice and limited time, but tries to respond to all feedback on his articles and to genuine requests for information or assistance, and if unable to help personally will refer you to colleagues or other agencies.

Other articles on this site by Philip Harland:


The Magic Lamp - A Newsletter for NLP, Personal Development and Alternative & Complementary Therapies - can be obtained from Organisational Healing Ltd. www.organisationalhealing.org


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First published on this site 8 January 2001. Last modified 14.4.01 +