How Did I Learn About the Family Dynamics I Write About?

From Mark Anderson, https://www.andertoons.com/In my Psychology Today blogpost of 10/14/13, Don't Ask, Don't Tell, I discussed how patients in psychotherapy do not volunteer a lot of information about their family dynamics unless they are asked very specific questions - and often not even then until (and unless) they have formed a trusting relationship with their therapist. I mentioned the case of a patient who was smart enough to have been a Ph.D. candidate, came in complaining of anxiety, and did not think it relevant to tell me until months into therapy about the daily conversations with her mother that literally made her nauseous.So, therapists who think that what they see and hear in the office is indicative of what is really going on in a patient's life may be sadly mistaken. For example, a woman may complain that her father is "controlling." The therapist should want to invite the father in at some point to see if this is accurate. Most do not. However, even if the therapist does this, both of them may then mislead him or her. The father may at first appear to be anything but controlling - telling the therapist about how he gives the adult daughter money to do whatever she wants without obvious restrictions, and never stopping her from doing anything she wants. What neither might mention, however, is that he always calls her incessantly on her cell phone whenever she goes anywhere!When I was in training as a therapist during my psychiatric residency, psychoanalysis was the king of psychotherapy paradigms, and I was not taught about how to ask my patients about repetitive dysfunctional interactions with family of origin members occurring in the present. A lot of both analysts and CBT therapists seem to think that patients' problems reside entirely within the confines of their own heads, as if we are not social organisms at all.When I write in my blogs about the types of family dysfunction that I have seen with my patients, a frequent criticism I get is that I am taking patients at their word, and that since patients often distort things, I am surely getting a distorted picture - which by implication must have led me to form distorted ideas about what actually is and has been taking place.So how do I know that these patterns are real? Well, let me tell y'all how I discovered them. (Hey, I've lived in South now for over twenty years).When I was a beginner as a therapist, I kept noticing that my patients usually did not respond to various interventions in the ways described in the psychotherapy literature. I would sometimes have some success with these interventions, but the results were often rather inconsequential. So in response I started reading about other paradigms one at a time, and each time, I would have the same experience. Perhaps I was not doing them right, but other therapists would tell me that they noticed the same limitations.I somehow stumbled on a version of a therapeutic questionthat had, unbeknownst to me, first been proposed by Alfred Adler, one of the three founding fathers of psychodynamic psychotherapy. I had started to ask my patients why they were not employing the obvious solutions to their problems. If I could think of an obvious solution such as "why don't you just leave your abusive husband?" no doubt the patient has already thought of it, and has decided against it for some seemingly strange reason. When a therapist asks a question like that, the first answers he or she often gets in response is one described by Eric Berne. It goes something like, “Yes, I could do that but…” followed by some lame excuse for why they cannot do that. This is known as the game of Why Don’t You – Yes But.I decided I would play my own version of the game that I called Why I Can’t – Yes But. Every time I heard a yes-but answer to my original question, I would counter with, “Yes, but you could handle that obstacle by doing [such and such].” This solution would of course also be yes-butted by the patient with another lame excuse - for which I would provide another obvious solution. An example from my last book: one adult female could not seem to hold a job and always seemed to end up going back home to live with and depend upon on her abusive father and inadequate mother. I knew other relatives also lived in the home but I had no clue as to their significance. The patient was bright and had made it to the upper echelons of a sport that she liked to play, so I knew she was highly capable of holding a job. Every time she offered an excuse such as “I’m no good in school so I can’t learn new skills,” I would counter with my own yes-but. I went through a seemingly endless array of lame excuses in this manner, until finally she said, “If I’m not at the house, my father molests my niece.”Whaaat??? She never thought to mention this before????  So, a bit off guard, I said, “Have you thought about reporting him to child protective services?”  She replied, “Of course, but if I did that my mother would end up on the street because she cannot support herself." Her mother would suffer, and it would be all her fault. No doubt she would be blamed by the family.Well, lessee. She could handle that obstacle to holding a job by…by…by…er, how exactly could she handle that problem? I had no answer. She could write her mother off, I suppose, but since when is caring about the survival of family members or her niece's safety a bad thing? This was a really devilish conundrum. As mentioned, I also wondered why she had not told me about this in the first place. That was the moment that I was first confronted by evidence that family members may be acting for altruistic motives rather than selfish ones, and that family problems might be incredibly difficult to solve. I then found an easier way to get to this answer than playing a long game of yes-butting: the Adlerian question: What would happen if I could wave a magic wand and you suddenly got better and stayed better?At first, patients would often answer with such non-answers, "I'd just find some other way to screw things up" or "I cannot even imagine what that would be like." I would not accept those "answers" and pressed on. Then I started getting the real answers. But were they really real? Was I just being fooled by my patients with distorted perceptions. Well, just so readers know, I do not just take them at their word. I began to have conjoint sessions with the patients and their parents. I have had both the mothers of patients with BPD and their daughters with BPD as patients in individual therapy separately, some at the same time, on several occasions. As a psychotherapy supervisor, I have watched videotapes of the mother of a daughter with BPD in a session with one therapist and the daughter with another therapist describing the very same interactions. Even more revealing, I have had patients who were sick and tired of being accused of distorting everything bring in audiotapes of phone conversations with their parents when the parents did not know they were being recorded. Illegal in some states to record, but not for me to listen to. I heard some of the most unbelievable things come out of their mouths.In individual sessions, I listen very carefully to what the patients say and ask follow-up questions about anything that seems contradictory - when the patients with BPD are in "spoiler"mode (which is when they are distorting things, but sort of on purpose), they do that all the time. But knowing a few tricks of the trade, it's easy to get them to stop doing that.One still needs a good theory in order to interpret the behavior that I had been observing. Luckily, as I started to try to make sense of the evidence before me, I came across some relevant ones. For example, there was Sam Slipp, who wrote about the dysfunctional family roles of savior, avenger, and go-between. And then there was family therapy pioneer Murray Bowen, who wrote about family emotional processes and the intergenerational transmission of dysfunctional family patterns.So no, my ideas about family dynamics do not come just from listening to my patients alone.

 
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