Milton Erickson Foundation Newsletter, Spring 2007
Cathy was a 55–year-old single client of a colleague. Her initial complaint was that although she was very competent in her work, she repeatedly raged at her boss and at co-workers. It soon emerged that she had a history of sexual abuse from her father, and had a very difficult time separating her own experience from others. This made it hard for her to know her own needs, and defend herself from the expectations and intrusions from others — what is often called “codependence,” or “enmeshment.”
My colleague had done a lot of work with her intermittently over a period of several years, and she had made a lot of progress, but they had reached a plateau. Cathy’s sense of herself was still wobbly and unclear, and she often felt numb, as if she were “just going through the motions,” and she wanted to feel “solid in my skin.” My colleague knew that one of my specialties was working with self-concept, so she asked me to do a session with Cathy while she observed.
When we first sat down, Cathy was obviously very anxious — tense and nervous about what might happen, and her attention was intently on me, rather than on herself, and what she wanted from our session. When I asked her what she was experiencing right now, she said that she was scared. When I asked her what she was scared of, she said, “You’re so big! You’re towering over me.” (Later she said, “At that moment I felt like a child; there I was, this little person with this big giant man towering over me, and all the bad memories of my father’s abuse just rushed in!”)
I immediately got out of my chair, which was a little higher than the couch she was sitting on, and sat down on the floor, and her whole body visibly relaxed. (Later, she told me, “If you hadn’t sat down on the floor, I can’t imagine how that session would have gone.”)
As she told me about her outcomes for the session, she repeatedly said, “Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.” Knowing that what someone says is often literal, rather than metaphoric, I asked her to pause and take a step backward into herself. This was one of those times when I fervently wished that I was recording the session on video, because her nonverbal transformation was so profound — I wish change was always so easy! We spent some time consolidating this new way of being in her body, but that moment when she stepped back into herself was the key that opened a door. In the absence of video, I offer Cathy’s report a year and a half later:
“When you said to ‘Take a step backward’ — WOW, I can still feel it — I literally stepped back into my body, back inside my skin, and I felt so different. At first it kind of scared me — it was unsettling because it was so unfamiliar. I felt ‘connected,’ I felt ‘whole’ in a way I hadn’t known was possible. When I took a walk right after that session, I felt ‘in my body’ so intensely. I felt my skin and bones, a tingling sensation all over, even the movement of my blood through my veins, and all my ‘borders,’ my ‘edges’—where my body ends, and everything outside me begins.
“Before this, the world was kind of a ‘soupy’ place for me. I felt ‘the same as’ others. I thought everyone saw the world the same as I do, and I rarely made distinct choices — I just kind of shuffled along with the crowd. I’ve spent the majority of my life ‘a head of myself,’ in my head and in the future, rather than in my body in the present. I was making life choices based on experiences and beliefs I’d accepted as ‘law’ long ago and far away.
“I now know in my bones that I can choose, that I make choices every minute, and I no longer live from a place of fear. I know now when it’s appropriate to be afraid, and when it’s not. Since then I have become increasingly aware of who I am, what I want, where I stand in relation to others, and not being swayed by what others around me say or want — and this continues to grow. It’s all still amazing to me. And when I sometimes ‘get ahead of myself’ now, I notice it, and I just take a step backward—back to myself!”
It’s very important to recognize that all of Cathy’s insights were the result (not the cause) of taking the action of stepping back into herself, and her own life. Many think that insight leads to change, but actually, change leads to insight.
*Originally published in the Milton Erickson Foundation Newsletter, Volume 27, number 1, Spring 2007.