14. Stereotyped Perception/Lack Flexibility - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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14. Stereotyped Perception/Lack Flexibility

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Out Monkey Trap- Breaking Cycles Rel

Out of the Monkey Trap, Breaking Negative Cycles for Relationships and Therapy
by Ronald Mah

As the therapist prompts individuals to consider alternative ways of looking at things, they often resist giving up set perceptions.  The lack of perceptual flexibility influences or co-exists with impasses.  Being stuck perceptually will affect behavioral and relationship rigidity.  Campbell (1999) notes that narrative therapy says that people make autobiographical stories that include their problems or emotional or mental illness.  The script maintains their lack of resources to handle and solve their problems.  The self-narrative does not describe being able to function well in the system- the family-of-origin originally.  When the story extends to being in another relationship, the main theme may remain the same.  There is a different intimate but one is still unable to make intimacy work out.  Finding the story is essential to trying to change the story, including writing one's own chapters.

Abra and Clay brought their children from their first marriages to their new marriage.  The step-siblings got along pretty well, sharing space in the house without too much difficulty.  The partners did well with each other as well, but there was tension about how each parent interacted with his or her biological children versus their step-children.  Abra thought that Clay's biological children would work him and get privileges, money, and things from him that her children did not get.  Clay had issues about his ex-wife having swayed the loyalty of their older children against him.  He was anxious about his children's bond with him.  He also said that Abra favored her biological children too.  When the therapist tried to get them to acknowledge that each of them inevitably had stronger and special attachment to their biological children, Abra was not able to accept that without immediately saying his behavior was unfair and how it harmed the family dynamics.  The therapist's focus on this value was an attempt to find use the shared value and experience of closeness to one's biological children as an intervention point to build relatedness and connection.  

Abra however was aggressively resistant to being able to accept this point.  She held her rigid perceptions closely for reasons that were not immediately clear.  After further therapeutic frustration, the therapist searched for an earlier point in her cycle of experiences, feelings, and anxiety.  When asked if she had prior family experience of inevitably losing arguments and not being heard, she said that in her family her siblings- her older sister in particular basically always got her way.  To their parents, the older sister was the golden child and they always sided with her.  Eventually, Abra stopped asking for anything and stopped even expressing her feelings in anticipation of being swatted away.  Abra unbeknownst to herself- much less Clay was determined not to let Clay dismiss her and her feelings as happened to her as a child.  In addition, she was braced to prevent her biological children from being discounted in favor of Clay's children, also as she had been dismissed.  In her way, she was trying to break a negative cycle.  Unfortunately, it was a cycle that Clay had no idea existed since the most important parts of it happened in Abra's childhood.  While she tried to break this personal and secret cycle, she injected and maintained a negative cycle of avoiding empathy with Clay in their relationship.

Only as the therapist was able to validate Abra's vulnerability and sensitivity to her family-of-origin experiences could Abra consider empathizing with Clay's anxiety about losing his children's affection.  In addition, she needed assurance that empathizing with Clay would not lead to her losing again.  The therapist reframed her stance as Abra doing the natural things to protect herself as she could not protect herself when she was younger.  Abra was also honored for being vigilant about protecting her children and seeking fairness for everyone.  This was a strength within her that should not be dismissed but valued.  The therapist can prompt her specifically that it takes courage for Abra to risk that old dynamics are not being repeated.  "The task of the therapist is to seek out small examples of these hidden resources and to build on them.  This can be achieved by understanding the process by which these resources have been subjugated by various events and relationships, and then gradually building an alternative narrative containing the new resources… Small efforts are rewarded with interest and understanding, tasks are set between sessions to provide further examples of using resources, and a network of family members and others can be enlisted to facilitate the process of an individual creating a new narrative for themselves" (Campbell, 1999, page 79-80).  When the therapist finds individuals who take well to instruction to consider alternative perceptions, meanings, and interpretations, therapy will tend to go more easily.  However, the therapist will often be continually challenged by rigid perception.  Not only does the inflexibility require addressing but what is gained or lost by holding or releasing the perception.   

continue to Chapter 15
3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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