Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas: “Action: Sometimes Insight is the Last Defense” (first draft)

NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Action” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. Responses and comments welcome

“Action,” Copyright 2012 David J. Bookbinder


ACTION: Sometimes Insight is the Last Defense

The complexities of the mind and heart are endlessly fascinating, and as a therapist much can be learned from following subtle thought patterns, uncovering missing pieces of personal history, assembling it all into the Big Picture of how and why we think, feel, and do. At times I feel like a Sherlock Holmes of the mind, with each client the faithful and resourceful Watson of his or her own unsolved mystery.

A Holmes-like insight is the province of traditional psychotherapy, and it is often a helpful thing. Insight can clarify the causes of anxiety or depression, relieve guilt and shame, explicate the roots of trauma, point the way to new and better ways to live. But insight is seldom sufficient to change, and sometimes, as one of my professors, Leroy Kelley, remarked, insight is the last defense. Clients who walk out of sessions having gained another insight may feel validated and encouraged, but unless insight also leads them to act differently, stagnation often occurs.

In therapy, as in life, actions are more powerful than words. Words are frequently an important precursor to actions, but for growth to occur, we need to change not only how we think and feel, but also what we do. Identifying dysfunctional patterns, self-sabotaging thoughts, and triggered feelings that keep us prisoners of our problems is an important, even vital, preparatory step to change, but it is never enough.

My former therapist and mentor, Jim Grant, envisions our collections of patterned thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as akin to a magic spell that leads us to act in ritualized, self-sabotaging ways. To break the spell, we need not only to alter our thoughts and feelings, but also our actions. Even a slight change in behavior introduces something new and opens the way for future change that no amount of additional insight can, by itself, create.

Addiction is a clear-cut example of spell-mediated, patterned behavior. Addicts typically follow a small set of addiction-spell commands that perpetuate the addictive behavior, such as:
“Once I get the idea in my head, I have to get high.”
“I’d like to stop but quitting is too hard.”
“If I’m around it I have to do it.”
“Getting high is the only thing I have to look forward to.”

In therapy, addict clients can learn to identify triggers, deconstruct their addiction spell commands, and work through the feelings and experiences that led them into addiction. All of this helps. But to break the addiction cycle, they also have to act differently. They have to change their relationships to friends and families, employment, community. They must learn to do new things when they want to get high and have the will to avoid situations that tempt them to use. In the beginning of their spell-breaking journey, they have to act as if they are through with addiction, “faking it till they make it,” even when every conscious thought and habituated feeling is screaming to them to use. Like Odysseus navigating between Scylla and Charybdis, they must tie themselves to the mast of sobriety and resist the sirens’ song. They must, to paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, do the thing they think they cannot do.

What is true for addiction applies to any of the mental maladies that bring people to therapy. Each client has his or her own patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior, and each requires not just insights – words – but also actions to break the cycle and create new, more fulfilling ways to be in the world.

I have been drawn to schools of therapy that encourage both words and actions. Solution-Focused therapy uses words to help clients envision their desired life, but change happens only when they tackle weekly challenges that move them, baby step by baby step, toward their goals. Focusing-Oriented therapy uses words to help clients tap into segmented parts of themselves and to discover what these fragments of self need in order to rejoin the whole, but each session ends with an action item, a step in the right direction. Gestalt Therapy, which  melds psychodrama and Gestalt philosophy, emphasizes awareness to help clients understand the beliefs and habits that govern their lives, but it also incorporates “experiments” that change behavior in the session itself, empowering them to take these changes out into the world.

I use these and other spell-breaking modalities in my sessions with clients. But spell-breaking is not limited to psychotherapy. All that is needed is a practice that allows us to recognize that our self-defeating patterns exist, to identify what they want us to do, and to choose, through whatever means available to us, to do otherwise.

I frequently give this short poem by Portia Nelson, “An Autobiography in Five Short Chapters,” to clients to encourage them to act differently. Maybe  you, too, will find it helpful.

I have.

by Portia Nelson

Chapter I
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am hopeless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter II
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in this same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter III
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it there.
I still fall in… it’s a habit… but,
my eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter IV
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter V
I walk down another street.

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“Autobiography in Five Short Chapters” © Portia Nelson. All other text and images © 2012, David J. Bookbinder. All rights reserved.
Permission required for publication. Images available for licensing.

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