Conclusion: Monkey Trap - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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Conclusion: Monkey Trap

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

Traditional strategic therapy does not emphasize investigating psychodynamic, family-of-origin, and other prior life experiences.  Therapies can be characterized from a simplistic perspective- a key change will lead to a change in behavior.  From not knowing to knowing, information or insight tells the individual, couple, or family to stop doing or starting doing something.  It's an inherently painful relationship.  Recognizing how the family-of-origin has trained one to perceive and react in some particular manner is hoped to choose to respond in some healthier manner.  Cathartic therapies propose that releasing pent up or stuck emotional energy would allow for healthier flow of energy rather than harmful compulsions.  Narrative orientations propose that painful self-condemning personal stories continue to corrupt life unless individuals can develop healthier self-caring, loving, and valuing personal stories.  In all such theories or therapies, relationship problems would improve and thus enduring emotional and intimacy suffering would also lessen.  Many of these theoretical orientations can be seen as including strategic principles of interrupting a dysfunctional hierarchy or cycle of behaviors.  The interruption is so vital, that it may be essential to achieve by virtually any means necessary.  Various theoretical perspectives suggest often comparable strategies.  Straight directives or paradoxical directives may break a negative relationship pattern.  "Stop screaming or humiliating your spouse."  "Don't date alcoholic jerks because that person will cause you pain."  However, psychoeducation, greater insight, or catharsis can also serve to break problematic patterns.  A book, a lesson, therapist activity, or life experience may startle and create a psychological, emotional, intellectual, or spiritual epiphany to occur for an individual, couple, or family.  The therapist should be open to any activity, experience, or intervention that facilitates desired change for clients.  Strategic principles, in particular of creating second order change are often critical for otherwise intractable client situations.  Many if not most therapists are not clinical or theoretical purists and practice from a variety of orientations, strategies, and principles.  Upon closer self-examination, the therapist may not only find strategic concepts highly useful, but that he or she has already intuitively incorporated strategic principles for effective therapy.

The therapist may find him or herself stuck with clients, especially an individual with relationship difficulties or a couple or family- unable to interrupt or change the dysfunctional relating and relationship.  They keep themselves stuck, unable to let go of engrained reactions and behaviors.  In that clinical situation, the therapist may have extensively tried everything therapeutically that he or she can think of.  Interventions and strategies may have been attempted over and over, with greater intensity.  Therapy much as the client's relationship itself may have been stuck in the first order.  Whether or not the therapist draws extensively from strategic principles, he or she may find it worthwhile to consider how he or she has restricted him or herself.  What theoretical values, therapeutic rigidity, or personal preferences has kept the therapist clinically in the first order?  A review of indicators that suggest using strategic principles in therapy can be applied to the therapist as well.  

Cyclical behavior patterns

Stuck patterns of behavior

Stereotyped perception/lack of perceptual flexibility

Lack of cognitive insight

Presences of unacknowledged implicit values

Authoritarian traditions or patterns

The therapist should note any cyclical behavior patterns- that is repetitious cycles of therapeutic behavior patterns with an individual, couple, or family in therapy.  Is there one or more stuck patterns of clinical behavior the therapist is unable to let go of?  Does the therapist always or has strong tendencies to interpret client behavior from one or a few favored viewpoints indicative of stereotyped perception?  Continued perception or interpretation from attachment, object relations, narrative, cognitive-behavioral, or other theories despite their failure to suggest or direct successful therapeutic strategies and interventions can represent a lack of perceptual flexibility.  The therapist is as vulnerable as anyone to fall in love with a favored clinical viewpoint without considering alternative and possibly more effective conceptualizations.  If unfamiliar with or having failed to stay professionally abreast of current therapeutic research, the therapist may lack conceptual sophistication relevant to the individual, couple, or family in therapy.  Cognitive insight about the logic of problematic choices and behaviors by individuals, couples, and families may be thus limited by theoretical myopia.  In addition, the therapist is charged to invest in personal work to identify, own, and resolve embedded and internalized values that he or she may manifest in therapy with clients.  Failure to do so would cause the therapist to attempt to convert clients to his or her values and/or become judgmental against clients.  Continued judgment or negative counter-transference about clients would keep the therapist stuck conducting unproductive therapy.  Among potential problematic values would be authoritarian attitudes in the therapist.  Such a therapist would expect and demand that the client adhere to therapeutic edicts and may become antagonistic towards him or her.  Any of these can indicate ineffective therapy… and not only a stuck client but also a stuck therapist.  

The therapist much like any person would have tendency to first intensify- that is, to continue doing the same things in therapy.  This is what clients individually or collectively such as Genevieve and Dillard have already done unsuccessfully leading them to try therapy.  Intensification drives the therapist to foster more insight after insight has failed to alter behavior, increase empathy after empathy has not facilitated change, give more detailed and specific directives after directives have been ignored, conduct more empty chair work as other gestalt techniques prove ineffective, attempt deeper emotionally cathartic exercises when tears and verbalized anger fail to reduce reactivity, and so forth.  Any and all of these therapeutic strategies and techniques and the theories they are based on can be relevant and facilitate needed growth, change, and health.  However, when therapy is not working the therapist must not have fallen in love with a therapeutic technique, strategy, or therapy.  The client's needs- his, her, or their therapy must be more important than the therapist's allegiance to some theory or therapy.  Techniques, strategies, and therapies are tools.  Clinical theories are tools for understanding people and relationships.  One could fall in love with a hammer which is a great tool… for pounding nails into wood, but not so great for screwing screws.  A stuck therapist risks pounding the client repeatedly and ever more intensely with his or her therapeutic hammer.  A hammer can be used to crack walnut shells but one risks walnut shell shrapnel spraying dangerously all over the kitchen.  Matching a tool to a task may be an apt analogy to matching a theory and therapy and their diagnostic guidelines, strategies, techniques, and goals to clients.  Effective therapy may depend not just on skills in a favored theory and accompanying therapy, but also the ability to be flexible and adapt to the demands of therapy for each specific client: individual, couple, or family.  After attempting the interventions and strategies within the first order of therapy, it may be incumbent on the skillful and sophisticated therapist to conceptualize and clinically or theoretically try different approaches in the second order.  

Decades ago in a Tarzan comic book, a monkey was shown caught "in" a monkey trap.  The trap was a small wooden box tied to a tree with a small hole just large enough for the monkey to put in its hand.  In the box was a banana the monkey smelled and wanted.  While the hole was big enough for the monkey's empty hand to go into, once the monkey grasped the banana its hand was too big to pull out of the hole.  The monkey holding onto the banana for dear life frantically and unsuccessfully tried to pull its hand out of the box.  Along came Tarzan who would save the poor monkey of course.  However, Tarzan did not cut the rope tied to the tree nor did he smash the box to free the monkey's hand.  Instead, Tarzan plucked a banana from a nearby tree and offered it to the monkey.  Enticed by the newly offered banana, it forget and released the banana it was holding in the box.  The monkey easily drew its now unencumbered slim hand out of the box to reach for the banana Tarzan offered.  Stuck and trapped a split second earlier, the monkey had freed itself by letting go of what it had desperately held onto.  Pulling had not worked, so the monkey pulled had harder and more frantically.  That form of first order change did not work either.  Letting go was different- a form of second order change that Tarzan the therapist tricked the monkey into doing.  Key to both a client and the therapist stuck in some cycle of frustrating fruitless first order change is what one may be holding onto for dear life.  What is being held onto as if it were such a golden fruit?  What is so important or so special that it must be held onto?  What cannot be let go of?  What does the individual, couple, or family… or the therapist feel they must hold onto?  What is so fundamentally fruitful or valuable that it cannot be let go?  Determining such ostensibly precious things, attitudes, values, beliefs, or behaviors reveals what causes one to be stuck in the first order, limiting one's range of options.  The therapist as an individual and a clinician can hold a priceless strategy, a personally or culturally sanctioned value, a psychologically embedded belief, or highly symbolic behavior.  They can individually or collectively hold the therapist therapeutically in the first order to the detriment of therapy.  One of the greatest insights from strategic principles for the therapist may not be about client work but for expanding the therapist's therapeutic work with challenging clients through sophisticated second order conceptualization.

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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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