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3 smart ways to utilize identity to spur your clients to change

By Mark Tyrrell

"You've got to want to change!" That's what they say about psychotherapy. And it seems to be true. But it's also true that a 'cunning' (I use the word advisedly), skilled therapist can help generate and build that motivation in clients who may not - yet -really want to change.

Here's a true story. Some years ago the staff of a retirement home by the sea called on me to help one of their residents. This woman, in her eighties, had suffered a fall some six weeks previously while using her Zimmer frame. Miraculously, the fall hadn't injured her, and she was perfectly physically able to walk with her frame. But she wouldn't. In spite of all the encouragement of the staff, she just refused to move about independently.

Of course, the longer she didn't use those leg muscles, the more risk there was that she wouldn't be able to. With muscle, as with many things, if you don't use it, you lose it.

"Margaret's developed a sort of phobia of using her frame, and insists on being pushed about in a wheelchair, even though she could perfectly well use her frame!" her nurse informed me, exasperation oozing out of her like juice from a squeezed apple. "But the trouble is, she doesn't want to walk for herself. She's lost her confidence, but she doesn't want it back!"

Dancing with the stars

I was shown into Margaret's room and found her sitting in an armchair. I was graciously received in the style of a bygone era. Of course we both knew why I was there, but neither of us mentioned the 'Zimmer phobia'. The metal walking frame stood upright on its four rubber feet in the corner. It made me think of a bizarre angular idol, mocking us mere mortals.

I couldn't help but notice the numerous photos of a younger Margaret arranged on her table. It was clear she had been a ballerina. We started to talk about the life she'd led. With perfect congruence, I was able to comment on the 'grace' she'd shown in these pictures, on her 'poise', on the 'athletic femininity' that she had developed as a dancer. Her eyes began to shine.

I spoke in general now about how some people just have a natural physical grace and others don't. About how the limbs of some people are naturally shapely and, if she would permit me to say so, I could see that she had a naturally perfect dancer's figure.

She asked if I'd like to take tea with her in the communal lounge. "Follow me!" she said, getting up from her chair. "Ah," I said, "you move like a born dancer!"

And she did. Without her Zimmer frame. "Yes, I always was a dancer," she said. "And I think, once a dancer, always a dancer!" I opined (perhaps a tad sycophantically - but she loved it). She practically waltzed down the corridor, with the jaws of the nursing home staff dropping like leaves in October as we made our merry way to tea and cake.

I visited her three more times. As far as I know, she never used her Zimmer frame again but continued to enjoy her 'dancer's figure'. We didn't once discuss why I was there, or her 'phobia'.

I could have got all 'clinical' and 'professional', been all 'appropriate' (and ineffective) with her, or done a 'proper' hypnotic induction.

But why do something when something else works better?

I appealed to her by reawakening her long dormant pride in her self identity as a beautiful woman of grace and movement. The fact that (at that time) I was a young man paying her attention and framing her as someone of movement appealed to her, and was enough to make her want to change.

This approach is not random. It's basedon three natural principles. When we want to motivate our clients, we can:

1. Appeal to their point of pride

If someone is or has been proud of something - nationality, skill, talent, achievement, whatever it may be - we can help them "want to want to" by linking what they need to do with that point of pride. This can be done either overtly or covertly (as I did with Margaret). I both protected Margaret's pride by not being the therapist (after all, it was other people who'd asked me to see her) and appealed to her pride.

Another example was Arnold, a man I worked with whose daughter had died a year before and whose business had failed. He told me how his daughter used to call him "Daddy Lion" when she was little. Now he felt he had lost all his drive and didn't feel able to care for himself or his wife or to try to rebuild his business. We talked about how a young person might think about a lion, and he acknowledge that his daughter had seen him as powerful and strong.

While he was in hypnotic trance I talked to him about how he might "truly honour" his daughter's perception of him as a proud man of strength by "allowing his lion nature to express itself once more." This appealed strongly to him, linked as it was in some way with his cherished daughter and to a feeling of who he had been "before". He had described how he "used to be" and I had fed this back to him as "who you really are."

Notice that Margaret and Arnold's cases seem different because I was appealing to different points of pride in two different people, but the principle is the same.

And talking of 'principle'...

2. Appeal to their point of principle

Two very politically liberal university history professors came to see me (man and wife) to quit smoking. Both had fallen prey to subconsciously associating smoking with a counter culture identity. And they both knew this consciously.

As we talked it became clear they both had a very real passion for fighting what they described as the "evil of big business around the globe". Easy.

I spoke of the 'con' of smoking, of the 'injustice' of it, of the way generations have been duped into being turned into ash by the very thing they had been led to believe is turned into ash by them. I spoke about the tobacco industry, and about how Sigmund Freud's nephew Edward Bernays, the 'inventor' of public relations and the use of psychological techniques in marketing, had purposefully set out to link smoking with being 'cool', and had got a generation of women hooked on smoking.

During their hypnotic inductions I didn't speak about "smoking" but of "the smoking conspiracy" and how, as people "wised up", "big tobacco" would have to find fresh new smokers who hadn't yet seen through the "globalisation of poisonous commerce" that was proceeding apace in developing countries even as we spoke.

I didn't tell them they shouldn't smoke (in fact, I said the tobacco industry needs people to selflessly sacrifice themselves to maintain all the profits), but I did totally demolish any claim smoking may have had to be a acceptable part of their self identities. Both stopped on principle.

So if fairness or honesty or hard work or "protecting the common man/woman" is important to someone - then use it. One woman who saw herself as, above all, "fair minded" was told during trance to "be fair to the aircraft" (she was a nervous flyer) by allowing it to make the adjustments and noises it needs to make in order to fly - especially through turbulence!"

3. Appeal to their area of expertise

A lot of my clients know a lot more about a lot of things than I do.

It helps to discover what our clients "know a lot about" so we can help them change. For example, I worked with a teenage boy who had been depressed. What he didn't know about online games wasn't worth knowing. But he hadn't played any games for a while, and had also stopped doing all the things that had connected him to community, goals and life. Depression had made him withdraw from the very parts of life that ultimately make life worth living.

I talked to him about depression - how it convinces people to think in all-or-nothing, simplified, negative ways, how it stops us getting proper rest from our sleep (even when it lets us sleep), how it makes us think in certain predictable ways. How, in a way, it needs to be outwitted.

I then asked him to describe what made a "really great online game". He talked about the importance of collaboration with other players, "letting them help you and helping them in turn". He talked about having new challenges, interesting "side quests", really difficult "bosses" to defeat (I confess, I had to ask what a "boss" was!), different levels to conquer as you become a better player, and so forth.

I suggested life itself could be seen as a kind of game. I said to him, "I know very little about online gaming, but from what I've said about depression, if you and I were to develop an online game to defeat depression, what do you think we would include? What sort of 'bosses' would a player encounter, and how could they be beaten?"

He proceeded to talk at great length about how the beat depression game would work, and look, and, in effect, about what exactly you would have to do to get to the point of no longer being depressed. He enjoyed 'playing' the game of defeating depression while in a deep relaxing trance.

We had collaboratively merged our areas of expertise and developed a strategy for him linked to his sense of what he knew about.

People generally know a lot about something,even if it's how a drugs culture works, or treatment for an illness they've had.

So by linking motivation to change to a person's perceived sense of self identity, the healthy focus for change can become merged with their sense of who they are - and this is what makes it motivating.

The examples given here were, of course, tailored to fit the idiosyncrasies of the unique individual involved but the principle of appealing to a person's sense of identity is universal and timeless.

You can learn How to Stop Anyone Smoking with Mark Tyrrell on our Smoking Cessation Training Course (online).

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