First published 29 December 2003
This case study demonstrates how Michael blends Clean Language seamlessly with what he already does so elegantly; mixing various techniques and models to therapeutic effect. Clean questions are highlighted in purple [the colour of Michael's prose?].
I offered 'Jay' my hand, which, looking directly into my eyes, he shook firmly. I thought I detected a slight surprise in his eyes. Surprise is not unusual when I shake hands with young people; it is, I think, fairly unusual for adults to offer a handshake to children and also I usually reach out to them before shaking hands with their parents.
This acknowledges and honours the child – without whom none of us would be experiencing this particular encounter. It also gives me a sense of their state or mood and their degree of responsiveness at that moment. Even very young children will respond automatically by offering their own hand. If they do not, it is very revealing and informative. Their response is also useful for gauging shifts or changes at the end of this - or the beginning of future sessions.
Most of all though, that physical contact with people – children, parents, delegates on training sessions, adults, adolescents – enables me to ‘intuit’ levels of energy, anxiety or excitement, and to assess their mood, their relationship with (perceived) authority (me), their sense of hope or hesitation, their boldness or timidity and more.
Jay was obviously in full survival mode and, naturally enough, had his guard up. Information gathered in the next few minutes gave me more information to support my first intuition and begin to form hypotheses about how best to help this troubled and troublesome young man and his family.
“Tell me,” I said to Jay's parents, when we were all seated, “What do you love and appreciate about..." I paused, looked at Jay and, emphasising his name, said, "...Jay"
He looked me in the eyes, again somewhat surprised, then looked at his parents,
“It’s hard to think of anyth...” dad started.
“Take your time,” I interrupted. “And what do you appreciate about Jay?” I asked mum.
“So many things.”
Again I interrupted, “Well, no more than seven, then.”
There was a little ripple of laughter. Good sign! At least we were capable of sharing something light-hearted, even though what they brought with them weighed so heavily.
“Well,” said mum, “He’s caring, intelligent.”
“Yes,” dad chips in, “He helped me with the computer, cos I’m crap at that!”
Eventually, with constant attempts to list his vices, they jointly listed seven virtues. I decided to stop them while we were on a high!
“How does it feel to hear all that, Jay?”
Confusion was to prove a key issue in the session, in Jay’s head and in his home, school and social life.
“In what way confusing?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is it strange to hear these things?”
“Yes, I didn’t know they felt like that.”
“Well,” said dad, “It’s difficult to remember those things after ten years of struggling, and five years of asking for specialist help and not getting any. It wears you down!”
“And it wears you down; and is there anything else?
“Yes, we don’t know what else to do. I dread coming home from work and wondering who he’s hit or what he’s broken. I feel helpless and frustrated and I get more and more angry with him because he won’t tell me what’s wrong.”
“And it gets frustrating when he won’t talk to you about how he feels.
“How can I help him if he won’t talk to me? I hate to see him so unhappy and I can’t help him.”
I turned to Jay, “I know you were surprised to hear how many things your parents love and appreciate about you, Jay, and how does it feel to know that your dad wants to help you when you’re unhappy?”
“Well, he only tells me off or they’re always in a bad mood.”
“And he only tells you off and they’re always in a bad mood. And is there anything else?
“Yeah, when I’ve had a good day at school and I come home, there’s a bad mood in the house, and then I get upset.”
“And when you come home and there’s a bad mood in the house and you get upset, what is that bad mood about?”
“And it’s you, and is it always you?”
“No it’s not always about you,” says mum, “sometimes it’s one of the other two.”
“Yes, but you’ll blame me in the end. You’ll say it’s because I upset them, or that I put you in a bad mood.”
And we went on for a while, me ‘allowing’ each person to speak but not allowing more than a couple of ripostes before checking out a feeling, recapping or reframing, making sure that each person was heard and felt understood, if only by me.
Jay’s journey prior to adoption was traumatic. Since adoption, his path has remained much troubled and, like many adopted teenagers, and adults, he wonders at times whether he is mad or bad. This is not so surprising, and not exclusive to adoptees; if you are, as one 13 year-old once described it, “dragged to one mind-doctor after another, and then drugged [Ritalin] to shut out your feelings because they can’t fix you” it is reasonable to wonder about your place in society and the state of your mind.
His parents were shocked to discover that Jay was convinced they thought he was mad. I helped them to make sense of it by asking Jay some questions (some of them Clean Language) and pointing out a few obvious clues. The fact that they had been telling him for a long time that he was mad might have been reason enough!
As well as being mediator and translator for these people, I wanted to find out Jay’s strategy for confusion, and the impact it had on his functioning at home and at school.
'Strategy' is NLP jargon for the internal and external sequence and structure of representational systems [Visual, Auditory, Kinaesthetic, Digital] that lead to or result in specific thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
Good spelling, for example, includes:
visual recall [Vr]
a positive feeling [+K]
although the speller may not be consciously aware of this process. Many less good spellers, including many who are deemed dyslexic, have very different strategies.
For example, they may not have the visual image of the word stored or, get multiple choices in their mind’s eye:
Emmbarrassment? Embarassment? Emmbarressment? [Vr]
they’ll have negative self-talk:
“I’m stupid!” internal auditory [-Ai],
uncomfortable = ‘bad’ feelings [-K]
I wanted Jay and his parents to understand about how the brain works and how they can regain control over their thoughts and feelings, at least to the extent they are more able to function intelligently and less likely to damage other people or themselves (I should mention that Jay’s despair has been such that he has made a few suicide attempts).
I focus on all of them because they are a system, and each of them can change something to help and support mutual change – or be understanding, if not compassionate when the others are stuck. I sketch diagrams to illustrate concepts and models – circles, triangle, boxes, spirals, quadrants, stick people, anything that gets the point across.
It was wonderful when Jay started to ‘get it’ and to ask me questions as he extrapolated from the diagrams and the descriptions. He came alive, animated, lucid. He smiled, explained and revealed wonderful ideas. For example, he had figured out, when he was about eight, that a star had a certain number of points, each representing something that a person needed, e.g. care, food, family, friends, a home, safety. But as he imagined a star, a point would always break off, and if one broke off then the whole star would go dark. He also ‘knew’ that if points didn’t break off there would be something important in the middle. But he could never figure out what it was, and that confused him, which then frustrated him and that would “wind him up” and he’d get angry – although, at 14, almost anything could wind him up! [Clean Language is ideal for working with this kind of symbolic/metaphoric representation.]
His parents told him the answer must be happiness. They insisted, even though Jay was saying he didn’t think so! The more they insisted, the more he resisted. The more he resisted, the more frustrated dad’s voice sounded and the more heavily mum sighed as she gave up. This led to Jay feeling more confused and more convinced that they thought he was the cause of their frustration and moodiness – and that he was ‘mad’.
For the first time, I saw part of the problem dynamic being enacted. Mum and dad, with good intentions, want to tell Jay the answer. Jay knows it isn’t or, we ascertained later, he wanted to figure it out for himself.
After ‘letting’ this go on long enough for me to understand how the process worked, I asked Jay how he was feeling (answer above). I also asked his parents.
“I am just amazed,” said mum, “He has never talked to anyone in this way, and he’s never told us anything about any of this. And I can understand why he feels so frustrated and what we are doing isn’t helping.”
Dad: “I didn’t know how much he was hurting. I’ve only been angry for so long.”
“And you didn’t know how much your son was hurting because you’ve been angry for so long. And is there anything else?
“I need help. I need to learn how to listen to him, to understand him.”
“And is there anything else?
“Yes, I feel sad”
“And you feel sad, and when you feel sad, where is that sadness?
“In here”, touching his heart.
“And it’s in there, and when that sadness is in there, does that sadness have a size or a shape?
“I don’t know.”
“And when you don’t know, what would you like to have happen?
“I don’t know. I want to cry.”
“And you want to cry, and then what happens?
“But, I don’t know how!”
And so we continued until, eventually, I asked his wife to go over and hug him, which she did.
After a while, I focused on Jay’s strategy for confusion. When he was not confused, he had coloured pictures of whatever it was he was thinking about, moving along in a leisurely way. He would know what he wanted to say or the answer to a question, but he would interrupt himself with self-doubt. Then the picture would slow down and sometimes stop. He would try harder and harder to guess the right answer (even though it turned out that he often had the right answer in the beginning!) and the picture would begin to turn grey.
He understood my explanation of how the amygdala prepares and protects us from danger, and how the fight or flight response worked. Indeed, he pre-empted my telling him about the four F’s when, after I’d put Fight and Flight into two quadrants, he excitedly said, “Or Freeze, it (the amygdala) can freeze us, and there must be something else beginning with ‘F’ in the last square!” (Flow – and he was in it!!) Yet another example, easily and readily acknowledged by myself and his parents, that he is smart.
When they asked him why he’d never told them about his star (as if!), he said, “Because I thought you’d think I’m mad!” They had the grace to look sheepish, and mum murmured acknowledgement.
There was much more, but I will relate just one more thing that happened. I explained to them about the four feelings: sad, angry, scared, glad, and the concept of ‘The Whole Message’ – that we can feel all of them simultaneously, and choose to share those feelings with people. I wanted to coach them in good listening and recapping skills.
I asked dad and Jay when they’d last had a row, luckily for me, it had been the night before. We would focus on that and they would all give a whole message and recap to the other two, separately.
Three different pairings (M+D, J+D, J+M), each pair in turn holding both hands of the other and looking into each other eyes. Then, “Last night I felt sad/scared/angry/glad about ...” and the partner would recap.
Jay: “I felt scared because I though you were blaming me and I felt confused
“What feeling goes with confused, Jay?”
Jay: "Sad and scared together, they are all jumbled up and I felt glad I could just go to my room to get away from you [dad].”
Dad: “I don’t understand why you felt scared, we weren’t angry with you!”
“Now let’s just explore how that wasn’t recapping and how you’ve taken the focus back to you and your feelings and your version of what was going on!”
Dad, with a wry smile:“I said I needed help!”
and Jay smiled, and they were still holding hands.
By the end of it, they had all been listened to and had all listened and recapped well.
Lastly, I suggested a ‘mood measuring’ technique, namely, the parents asking jay for hugs because they needed his help if they were to break some old habits. If he was in a bad mood he would not be able to give them a hug, and even if he expressed his mood in the good old fashioned, familiar “Fuck-off!” mode, they were to hear it as an expression of his mood - with compassion - not with despair as a reason for their moods.
Jay would also ask or offer hugs, if he felt able (but he is not OK with spontaneous affectionate of displays – yet.)
“And what did you get from being here, Jay?”
“I know they don’t think I’m mad, and they love me and they want to help me.”
“And is there anything else?
“Yes, I thought they they sent me to therapy because they didn’t love me. I didn’t want to come here today, but I’m glad we did.”
[Jay had been in three years of therapy and the only information given to his parents was; "He doesn't talk much!" And what kind of 'doesn't talk much is THAT kind of doesn't talk much?]
Dad: “I’m gob-smacked. I didn’t even know my son had a voice, and I didn’t know how much I had to learn. This has been a real eye-opener and extremely helpful, thank you very much, Michael. Thank you.”
Mum: “Hope! I have hope for us, and I haven’t felt that for years. I think we can make it now, but we need to work at it together. We can do that.”
Me: “It took a lot of courage and strength, especially as you were all so desperate and frustrated. I especially want to thank you, Jay. I can see how lonely it has been for you, and how you have tried to do your best. I can understand that you sometimes felt life wasn’t worth living and that you haven’t felt loved or lovable. You don’t have to make the rest of your journey alone. Your parents love you and need you and want to help you. You will need to be patient with them because they may have forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager - it will take longer for them to break old habits.
“You are still going to have problems and arguments and rows, because that’s what families do a lot of the time. And you can take your time to practice the listening and hugging and getting to know each other. You are good people in a difficult situation, and it's obvious that a lot of love has been turned into hurt. Treat yourself and each other with great respect, you’ve been on a long journey – longer than Frodo Baggin’s – and you have a way to go yet. But I see and hear and feel that you will make it together and I can help you.”