"I have a dilemma, Bill, and I don't know what to do!"
Daily life requires that we must constantly make choices. Black or brown shoes? Have another beer or go home? Go to the baseball game or to a cousin’s funeral? Fortunately, most decisions are relatively easy to make and don’t require the expending of much psychic energy.
Then, there are the BIG decisions. Most people don’t ask their therapists what car to buy or where to go on vacation. But our clients do ask us to help them to make choices that can resolve dilemmas where their emotional and rational selves appear in conflict.
In addition to our education and our trainings, most of us therapists also develop our own creative and often original techniques, to effectively help our clients. Here is a self-examining exercise, which, from my experience, I find clients respond well to. I call it Wish vs. Expectation.
In our session, (we’ll call her) Janet, presents a dilemma. She confides that she has lately been preoccupied, thinking about an ex-boyfriend. Although she has not spoken to him in more than two years, and both now have new partners, Janet feels that she is on the verge of phoning him.
The relationship did not end terribly… but not particularly well either. Janet states that she never truly felt that she had experienced closure and there is still much that she would like to say (and hear!). She admits that her "emotional" side also wants to know whether he still has feelings for her.
Yet, at the same time, Janet recognizes that reaching out to her ex might be a risky proposition. She fears that there could easily be an unrewarding outcome.
Now she now feels stuck, vacillating between "to call or not to call," because her mind is very good at presenting compelling arguments for both the emotional and rational aspects of the issue.
Responding to her conflict, I say to her, “Okay Janet, your mind is playing ping-pong between two different types of logic. Let’s see if we can break through. Start by imagining [you can close your eyes, if you think it will help] …you call up your ex-boyfriend “out of the blue” as you described it. He answers the phone and you have a conversation. Now… imagining that you had your dialogue and now the call is over… What is the outcome that you would most hope for? Feel free to fully indulge your fantasies. Describe, in detail, what it is that you wish to experience.”
Usually, our wish is to have an experience that will feel great, make us happy – and will have a lasting effect. We recognize that this is fine because we are all entitled to indulge our fantasies of perfect outcomes. But what is most important in this exercise is in the exploration of the conscious and unconscious meanings of the wish. We want to learn about the origin of the wish, how it was subsequently refined and what is the emotional gain that is hoped for.
Once we have a working understanding of the wish, and both its real and metaphoric meaning, my next request is, “Now Janet, let’s go back again to imagining the moment you finish the phone call with your ex-boyfriend. This time, instead of exploring what you wish for, let’s tune into what you actually expect would result? In other words, use your most rational, logical mind to try to predict the most likely consequences of what will occur after you call him.”
I find that clients nearly always recognize, rather quickly, an interesting disparity, or gap, between what their emotional selves yearn for and what their rational selves predict. Further exploration and self-examination of this gap usually gives the client
some insight as to whether her wish for total emotional gratification is likely or even possible. A wider perspective begins to take shape, which is less conflicted and more reality based.
Often, depending on the nature of the issue, the order of the questions can be reversed. I may ask the client to begin by exploring her expectations first and then to entertain the wish fantasy after. Either way, the goal is for the client to become curious about her inner processes and ultimately to be able to use a new analytical skill to help resolve psychological impasses.