All Kinds of News for August 03, 2016
I was recently facilitating a family workshop, and a father turned to his daughter, and said in an exasperated tone, "why don't you just stop it?", referring to her self harm behaviors. Indirectly, he was highlighting the limitations of logic-based therapy; telling people what to do will rarely affect them at a deeper level.
At Greenbrier Academy, when we refer to a dialectic intervention, we are distinguishing that term from the well-known therapy dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). There are certainly many situations where DBT is an effective strategy to help people build coping skills, and we utilize that modality as an adjunct to the therapeutic process.
However, we are referring to the dialectic process where learning occurs through contrast and comparison. The father’s questioning his daughter’s struggles was not going to be resolved through any kind of logical thought process. To receive his answer, this dad had to become totally immersed in the process of a multi-family group. As he listened intently to the stories of the other girls and parents, old memories were triggered in him, related to his own struggles as an adolescent. He remembered constantly being told what to do, punished, verbally chastised etc. without any corresponding change in his behavior. The concept that was being discussed in the group setting was the formation of unconscious limiting belief systems, and he made the connection through listening to others, that he had developed early beliefs that he was not good enough, unintelligent, and unable to change. These limiting beliefs persisted into his adulthood, and he recognized that he has a history of never being able to complete projects. On the final day of the workshop, he came in and reported that he hadn't done his "homework", and that was the realization that helped him fully understand the concept of limiting belief systems. He instantaneously grasped that his lifelong pattern was connected to these faulty beliefs, and he continually sabotages himself in any situation that requires follow through. He tearfully told his life story to his daughter, who had never seen her father show emotion of a sensitive nature before. This was a dialectic experience for her, as she had always equated her father’s tendency to joke and minimize her issues, as evidence that he didn't really understand her and therefore didn't care about her.
These are the kinds of therapeutic moments that completely restructure the person’s paradigm regarding life. It sometimes seems that the field of psychology has conditioned us to believe that change is an arduous process, which may be almost perpetually on-going. What I've observed over the years is that the catalyst for change often occurs in a much more instantaneous fashion, and as a result of this powerful transformative moment they become motivated to learn the coping skills, strategies etc. that will help them concretize their new belief. Many of our students come from wilderness programs, which just by being placed in a completely new environment, creates all sorts of dialectic learnings. Students refer to learning about appreciation, gratitude and what's really important in life, by having everything taken away from them. Arriving at a relatively comfortable boarding school often helps them to begin to realize that while they created a great desire for change during their wilderness stay, the skills necessary to make it happen have not yet been fully inculcated. We create a number of different experiences to promote dialectic thinking in the girls.
We offer a service trip to Nicaragua that most students partake in. Invariably, our students, many who suffer from "affluenza", come back reporting that they learned at the deepest level the importance of support, family, and that the most important things in life aren't things. We create opportunities throughout their stay that challenge old beliefs on an unconscious level. Recently, we had one of our students do service work at an assisted living home. After going several times, she came into my office, and tearfully announced that she had discovered how much her parents loved her through her involvement at the assisted living home. She described watching a little old man come on an almost daily basis, and sit with his wife, holding her hand and bringing her flowers. His wife suffered from late stage dementia, and had no idea who it was talking to her. It hit this girl in a flash that she was treating her parents much like this unfortunate woman with dementia. She had been adopted, and had done many things to push her parents away, and had often used that hurtful line, "you're not my real parents". Just like the woman with Alzheimer’s, she didn't "recognize " her parents. This was such a dramatic realization that she had to do her parent call in that moment, and had a heartfelt discussion with her parents that they said had never occurred at any level in the past. Her relationships with her parents remain characterized by closeness, openhearted discussions, and appreciation from that day on.
Creating profound opportunities that cause young people to contrast their old hedonistic ways of seeing the world allows the therapeutic process to solidify at a much deeper level. Students regularly report that they have developed a consciousness, a sense of self and a mindfulness that creates an internalized barrier preventing them from falling back into old patterns.
Written by Mike Beswick, LICSW, BCD, Director of Family Programming at Greenbrier Academy for Girls. It is a private, college preparatory therapeutic boarding school for girls in grades 8-12 located in Pence Springs, WV. The psychological model that is used is Strong Relationality.