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|"It's what's right with you that fixes what's wrong"|
Chris Dyas vividly describes how he teaches troubled children to be their own therapists.
Meg looked at me with eyes that reminded me of the rabbit I had narrowly avoided on the road when I was driving into work that morning. "Are you psychic?" she asked. I laughed. "No, it's just that you're human, and most humans react the same way when bad things happen…"
Meg and I were talking for the first time. She is 14 and her story is depressingly familiar to me. She was sexually abused by her stepfather for a number of years. When she finally disclosed what had been going on, the family fell apart. Her stepfather was charged and bailed away from the locality, but had been regularly seen by the rest of the family driving around the neighbourhood during the 18 months it took for the trial eventually to take place. Meg had been haunted by the prospect that he was plotting revenge against her and had become a virtual recluse during the pre-trial period. She was experiencing nightmares and flashbacks, but hadn't told anyone because she was afraid that they would think that she was mad. Meg's mother had never openly blamed Meg for what had happened, but Meg felt guilty all the same for the depression that had overtaken her mum in the wake of it. All of this had taken its toll on Meg's school performance and ability to make and keep friends. She was feeling isolated and demoralised.
Many children who have suffered prolonged abusive life experiences can end up 'behind the pack' when it comes to social skills. These young people have often missed out on the opportunity to develop these naturally as part of a daily unconscious interaction with a generally positive environment. Even those whose negative experiences are comparatively short-lived can lose confidence and feel socially de-skilled. Both groups of youngsters can therefore benefit from an opportunity to learn or relearn these skills consciously (as they would learn a second language), as part of a holistic package of therapy. This does not have to take very long, however, since I have found that the children I work with can quickly understand and make use of psychological 'facts' and techniques — provided these are explained in plain language, using appropriate metaphors, and demonstrated either in front of them or by reflecting their own experience.
Even small children can understand profound psychological ideas. My own experience is evidence of this. I was in no way an exceptional kid in school. However, when I was nine years old, I went into my local bookshop with my pocket money and I decided to have a go at reading The Psychology of Interpersonal Behaviour by Michael Argyll. I have to confess that the only reason I picked up Argyll's book in the first place is because it was on a low shelf near some Star Trek books. Now, Star Trek was a HUGE influence on my early years — the character of Spock in particular. The fascination of Spock was that he was not emotionless as many suppose, but highly disciplined. Gene Roddenberry's concept was that the Vulcan race became the way they were because they knew that they would destroy themselves if they did not find a way to control the expression of their emotions. Spock continually demonstrated that thinking was easier and clearer if one was able to remain calm, despite arousing circumstances. I loved the idea that I, too, could eventually learn to control the way my mind worked.
I first saw Star Trek when I was seven. The sheer cleverness of the metaphors and story-arcs in it made me ask quite profound questions as a youngster about what it meant to be human, how the world actually works — and how could I get to be a cool spaceman too. Through Star Trek, my mind linked science and adventure together, and probably the only reason I am a therapist now is because a helpful teacher told me that my maths wasn't good enough for me to qualify as an astronaut.
I have no idea how much I actually understood of Argyll's book. I was a good way through it before my teacher kindly pointed out that the book was too old for me, and so I stopped reading it. Fortunately, however, I managed to read enough to absorb the idea of Maslow's 'hierarchy of needs'. Like the metaphors in Star Trek, once an idea like the hierarchy of needs locks itself into the mind it opens the door to other levels of perception. I began to see the hierarchy of needs everywhere — especially in my parents. This gave me something of an edge in predicting important things like the best time to ask for extra pocket money! A few months later I picked up a copy of De Bono's Lateral Thinking — but this time didn't tell any grown ups because I knew what they would say. Again, the effect was practical in that I was able to write far more creative essays (and write them faster, an important skill to a boy who considered homework to be a form of child abuse). And so began what has become a lifelong interest in practical psychology.
Patterns in the brain
"Would it help if I explained what has probably been going on in your head?" I asked. Meg nodded. I have a large white board on the wall of the room where I work, and I picked up a set of laminated pictures and began to stick them one by one onto it as I spoke. "What's this, Meg?" "It's a rabbit." "How do you know?" She briefly looked puzzled and then said, "Because it looks like one." "Would you agree that the only reason you know this is because you've see something like it before and someone told you that the right word for something shaped like that is 'rabbit'?" Meg agreed, with an expression that hinted that she was beginning to feel relieved that she wasn't the maddest person in the room after all.
"Bugs Bunny!" laughed Meg in response to the next picture I put up. "Yep, not just any rabbit, but a particular rabbit." I now put up a picture of a pink silhouette that had a rabbit-shaped outline. "You can even see a rabbit in this one because your mind is able to match the shape to the one you keep in your brain for recognising rabbits with. OK, what do you make of this next one?" Meg looked hard "It's a rabbit … no it's a duck … er — it's a rabbit and a duck." "That's right," I said. "Your brain can match the shape to its pattern for rabbits, but it can also match it to the one it keeps for recognising ducks. Now, notice that you can't see both at the same time. You only see one or the other — but you can choose which one to see. So in this situation you are actually deciding what to see."
Meg's expression had now changed to one of amused curiosity. My next picture had her stumped. "I don't know what that is. It's just blobs," she said, as she screwed up her eyes. "What happens to the picture if I say 'cow'?" "Oh yeah! It's a cow!" "OK," I replied, "now try and not see the cow." Meg shook her head. "I can't. It's a cow." "So," I continued, "to begin with, your brain couldn't find a pattern to match to the picture and so you literally couldn't see anything. But when I gave it a hint as to what to try, your brain successfully made a match to the pattern it uses to recognise cows with, and now won't give it up. This next picture is where I get to the point…"
I put up a picture that at first glance appears to be a hideous grinning skull, but on closer inspection becomes a scene from a Victorian fancy dress party. The skull shape is only inferred from what is basically an accidental arrangement of the people and objects in the scene. "My guess, Meg, is that this is what has been going on in your brain. Frightening things happened to you and your brain has recorded them as patterns it can use to spot if anything like it is going to happen again. But, it might have been doing its job a bit too well and matching these patterns to things that are not dangerous at all. The trouble is that the feelings that come up for you then are part of the pattern that has been matched inside your brain — not what is actually there outside you. Now, your brain does this pattern matching thing with the stuff you hear as well…"
I reached underneath the coffee table and pulled out a small video playback machine. "Just watch this for a couple of minutes," I said, as I put in a video of Derren Brown's TV show where he talks to different people on a train in the London Underground. The video shows him using suggestion and double meanings to get the poor unsuspecting travellers temporarily to forget where they are headed. "How did he do that?" asked Meg.
I took the pictures down from the white board and wrote out one of the sentences that Derren had spoken and showed how it could mean two things: one sounded like an innocent question about the traveller's destination, but the other was an instruction to stop thinking about the destination.
"So, Derren asks the man which stop he' sgetting off at — meaning which station — then talks a little about how easy it is to forget things, then asks the man again "So what stop, thinking about it now, what stop are you getting off at? What happens is that the man's brain heard both meanings, but went with the one that had an instruction in it — 'stop thinking about it now'." We watched a couple more examples of him using more sophisticated versions of this and Meg rapidly began to recognise the suggestions as they were being said. "If your brain finds an instruction or a suggestion about what to do next, in what you are listening to, there is a part of your brain that feels obliged to have a go at it," I told her.
Once the video was over, I pulled everything together, saying, "Imagine this … you are travelling along in a car. Suddenly the driver slams the brakes on because she's seen a body lying in the street. A fraction of a second later she starts to laugh and says, "Who left that bin sack in the middle of the road?" Or you find that you no longer want to eat your dinner at school because someone is telling you about the time they threw up on that table. Or you are walking across the living room with a cup of tea. Someone says, "Don't spill your drink!" Over it goes, as if it had a mind of its own! The driver of the car was probably hot and shaky even though there was no real body in the street. There was no real sick on the table. You tried your best not to spill the drink — but you did anyway. Why? The answer is in the way your brain sorts out what you see, hear, smell, touch and taste before you are able to start thinking about it. When you do get to think about it, your mind has already linked what's in front of you to something that has happened before, even if that something turns out not to be appropriate. This only takes a fraction of a second — but a lot can happen in that time."
Meg and I talked about times when all of these things had happened to both of us, in one form or another. By the end of the hour we had agreed that we should do something about the way her mind was 'seeing skulls' and maybe acting on accidental instructions embedded in the things people around her were saying. The man who had abused Meg used to drive a blue car and Meg described feeling a stab of panic at the sight of all blue cars as a result. She also realised that she felt particularly bad when her mum tried to comfort her by saying something like "There's no need to feel scared of him coming to get you" and decided she would explain what was happening to her mum, who could then be careful to use different language. We planned to meet again in a week's time to use the rewind technique (a quick, non-intrusive means of resolving trauma) to stop the terrifying intrusive memories and nightmares she was experiencing. We would then look at how she could begin to rebuild a set of friends, catch up on her school work, and keep herself realistically safe whilst becoming confident about being out and about in her locality.
Learning the art of conversation
The rewind technique in the following session worked well. Megreported that the nightmares and flashbacks had stopped and that she felt much better. She was keen to move on to how she could build up a set of friends again, because the reduction in her fear of going out was replaced
© Human Givens Publishing Limited and Chris Dyas (2005)
This article first appeared in Volume 12, No, 2 (2005) of the Human Givens journal.
CHRIS DYAS is a human givens therapist working for a children's charity based in Newcastle under Lyme, which provides help for children who have suffered severe abuse, as well as consultation and support for their parents and carers. He also provides training workshops in understanding and communicating with traumatised children, as part of the local authorities' child protection training programme for professionals. He has been applying the human givens approach to his work for the past six years.
> More information can be found in the following book, by Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell
> You can find out more
> More information can be found in the following book, by Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell
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