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Finding life’s lessons in failure

Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts.

I’ll give you a case of a young man with dating anxiety, who after some prepping, was instructed to make three social contacts in the next week. If he is successful, he may miss an important lesson, since the probability is that he will not “always” be successful.

If he accomplished this, I would then suggest that he go out and collect three “rejections” next week. This usually brings a twinkle to a client’s eyes, because he appears to be used to being rejected.

The win-win nature of this assignment allows the client to succeed even if he fails. If the social overtures are accepted, he has made progress toward his goal, and if rejected, he has succeeded in doing his job and been analyzed by his counselor.

Prescribing failure experiences are appropriate for two reasons: they are instructive and allow for desensitization, because if the client is afraid to fail, he will probably not try in the first place; encouraging clients to do what they view as bad behavior, and working at not putting themselves down.

The insomniac may be instructed to try to stay awake all night, the obsessive to obsess 100 times a day. Doing the very thing that troubles them often removes the “horror” of the behavior and clients report it was difficult to accomplish the assignment. Because chemically dependent clients are always analyzing methods, one client stated, “so you are saying that I should continue to go out and get drunk and this will help me?”

The answer to his question was simple. His fear of “starting the stopping” of the use of alcohol, would lend itself to a philosophy of continuing to drink. Fear of sobriety and lifestyle changes and general health would override rationally the continued use. Where there is proof that continued use sounds good, the reality is that it is an irrational belief.

The next technique used is “shame attacking,” designed to teach clients that if they actually perform a silly or a foolish act, even in public, their world will not come to an end and they needn’t denigrate themselves.

Humor is used widely with shame attacking. Songs, experiences, jokes help reduce the intensity, frequency and duration of the shame-thinking pattern. As stated earlier, clients are taught to learn to rate their behaviors, not themselves.

We often exchange conformity for approval, which is a strong social control device, but which can unnecessarily punish clients with anxiety and shame. People’s thoughts and facial expressions cannot hurt clients in recovery, and they are only real if the client believes they are real. Shame attacking exercises are fun and can help clients to take social disapproval less seriously. So here goes: Go up to a stranger and greet him or her warmly. Ask about their health.

Stand on a busy street corner. Stretch out your arms and say five times “Your Messiah has come. Follow me.”

Go to three nearby shopping centers and try to sell someone a copy of yesterday’s newspaper.

Ride a crowded elevator, standing backward.

Find a restaurant that offers “two eggs any style” and ask for one fried and one scrambled.

Yell out five successive stops on the subway or bus.

Tie a long red ribbon around a banana and “walk” it down a busy street.

An important warning about shame attacking exercises: be certain that the client is not planning to do an exercise that will result in the loss of a job, expulsion from school, or arrest. If the consequence of his or her behavior will be disadvantageous, the assignment will be harmful, not helpful. Also, we do not encourage clients to act in ways that are likely to alarm or unduly inconvenience other people, because most clients “overestimate” the extent to which others care about or even notice their behavior, I had one guy call out the stops on the Metro bus. Two teenagers came up to him and asked “what’s the next stop, mister?” The guy I had ask 10 women for a date in Tops, got nine “nos” and one telephone number.

The list of assignments is long and varied, but in all of them, we encourage the clients to behave differently in order to think and feel differently.

Mike Tramuta has been a CASAC counselor for more than 30 years and currently runs the REBT program on Thursday nights at the Holy Trinity Parish Center from 7 to 8:15 p.m. Call 983-1592 for more information.

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