Highlighting the Perception Part of the Cycle

I met with my supervisor last week and talked to her about a place in session where I consistently feel like I’m doing the wrong thing, but it’s hard to describe what it is.

I’ll be tracking the cycle with someone, and it’s going well. We’re getting through it fairly cleanly. I’ve got the cue/trigger, the feeling, the perception, and the action tendency. Then I turn to have them enact it, and the client does a great job, but I feel like in that process I end up inadvertently heightening the listening partner’s shame. 

Me tracking their cycle:

“So you’re telling me …  when I see that look on her face, I tell myself, she doesn’t want to talk to me, I should just stop talking. And I feel frustrated, and hopeless. At that point I turn away and get quiet. When you see that look on her face, you feel so hopeless. Can you tell her that right now? I do do that, when I see that look on your face, and I feel so hopeless, I just turn away and get quiet.”

Sounds ok, right? I’ve got the cue, the feeling, owning the action tendency.

But, these enactments don’t go so well. The other partner seems to just be hearing, “When you make that face, I feel hopeless.” Which sounds more like a blame/shame message. Then I find myself trying to convince the listening partner that they’re not hearing it quite right, and repeating what the other partner said (these are not the moments where I watch my tape back and feel like a great therapist).

My supervisor made a change in how she was phrasing the partner’s experience that she would have tracked in that moment. It was subtle, but to me it changed everything about the interaction. She tracked it as:

“So you’re telling me … when I see that look on her face, I tell myself, she doesn’t want to talk to me. She doesn’t want to hear about my pain. I feel like, when I see that look, she wants me to be over this already, that it’s stupid for me to still be upset about this. I don’t know what to do, because I am in pain, I am struggling. So I just get quiet, and shut down, and feel hopeless. Can you tell her that right now? When I see that look, I feel like you don’t want to hear about what I’m struggling with, you want me to be over this already. I don’t know what to do, it feels so hopeless to not be able to reach you in that moment, I just shut down.”

It felt like such a difference to me to be linking the cue and the feeling to the perception. In my version, I turned up the volume too much around the cue and the despair, thus sending the message – “when you do x, I shut down”.

My supervisor turned up the volume with the perception and the feeling – “when I get the message you don’t want to talk to me, I feel so bad, I shut down.”

In my version, the other partner gets overwhelmed. They feel more blamed. So when I ask them how they are experiencing what their partner is saying, it’s like, “uh, well, I feel upset hearing that, I don’t know, I’m not that bad …”

In my supervisor’s version, the other partner has a much clearer door to walk through. I can imagine it being easier to say, “I do want to hear from you, but I get defensive in those moments because x,y,z.” Then it clearly gives me an opening to start tracking their own cycle, and what triggers their defensiveness.

I’m going to continue to try to listen for that perception, and helping the client expand around their own raw spot. My hope is that it helps the client connect more with their internal experience, beliefs, and needs, and the message becomes less about blame.