A Random Strange Encounter—
and the Emergence of Fractal Psychotherapy
* * * PLUS * * *
How can you help a family member with Asperger’s /
high-functioning Autistic spectrum problems?
Today’s podcast features special guest host, Dr. Rhonda Barovsky!
I (David) begin this podcast with a description of a random encounter I had one day when I was walking in downtown Bryn Mawr, when my wife and I were still living in Pennsylvania. A young man started walking next to me and talking. He seemed friendly and told me that he he’d been studying Buddhism and was hoping to become a motivational speaker.
That might sound racist to call him a “black man.” I agree, and my colleague, Fabrice, asked, “If he’d been white, would you have called him a “young white man?”
I had to agree that I would not have described him as a young white man. But this was a very white area. If a young white man was walking in a neighborhood that was predominantly black, I think I might actually have described him as a “young white man.”
At any rate, I was curious, and told him I didn’t know much about Buddhism but found it interesting. He explained that according to Buddhism, we get reincarnated repeatedly, going through the life-death cycle over and over again. He also explained that if you could just change yourself for one brief moment, you would experience enlightenment and you’d no longer have to go through the life and death cycle and more. In addition, because the world is one, the entire world would be become enlightened at the same time. He cautioned that it’s extremely difficult to change yourself for even one brief moment, and this achievement typically requires hundreds or even thousands of reincarnations.
This was interesting, but seemed totally nutty, and I was concerned that his prospects as a motivational speaker might be a bit limited. How can one small change trigger enlightenment? And how could the entire universe become enlightened at the same moment?
But when I began to think of what he’d said in the context of my clinical work, it began to make total sense. One of the most important ideas in TEAM-CBT is the concept of Specificity, one of the key steps in Paradoxical Agenda Setting. Here’s how it works. If you’re my patient, and you want help, I will ask you what specific problem you want help with. These are the four most common problems I see: depression, anxiety, relationship conflicts, or habits and addictions. Then I’ll ask you to zero in on one specific moment when you were struggling with that problem.
For example, if you want help with depression and low self-esteem, I’ll ask you to describe one moment when you were feeling down. It could be any moment at all—it might even be right now, sitting in my office (or reading this text).
Then I’d ask you to tell me exactly what you were thinking and feeling at that moment. You might be telling yourself, “I’m no good. I shouldn’t have screwed up! I’m always doing that! I’ll feel like this forever.” These thoughts actually cause the feelings of depression, shame, inferiority, and hopelessness.
In contrast, if you want help with anxiety, I will ask you to identify one specific moment when you were feeling anxious, worried, nervous, frightened or panicky. For example, you might have been feeling shy and insecure at a party, or terrified just before you had to take a test or give a talk at work. Or it might have been a moment when you were having a panic attack and feeling like you were on the verge of passing out or losing control and going crazy.
If you’ve been having trouble getting along with a friend or family member, I would ask you to describe one brief interaction you’ve had with the person you’re at odds with, and I’d ask you to write down one specific thing they said to you, end exactly what you said next.
For example, a podcast fan told me that his wife said, “You never listen.” He responded by saying, “That’s not true! I’m listening to you right now.” He was puzzled when she got even more upset and then the argument escalated!
I recently did a one-day workshop on the treatment of unwanted habits and addictions, like procrastination, overeating, excessive cell phone use, or drinking too much. I encouraged the audience members to focus on one specific moment when they felt tempted to procrastinate, binge, or have a drink, or give in to their habit / addiction, and to write down all the Tempting Thoughts that were going through their minds, like:
- Oh, that beer looks SO GOOD!
- I’ve had a hard day, I deserve it.
- I’ll just take one little sip. That can’t hurt!
- There’s a good basketball game on TV. It will be way more fun to watch if I enjoy a few beers!
In each case—of depression, anxiety, a relationship problem, or a habit / addiction—I focus on one brief and specific moment when my patient was upset and having that problem. There are two reason for this concept of Specificity:
- When we understand what was happening at that one brief moment, we will understand everything of importance about that problem. As it turns out, all of your suffering will be encapsulated in that one brief example. So, when you understand why you were feeling depressed or panicky or whatever at that specific moment, you will understand everything you need to know about why you get depressed, or panicky, or whatever at any moment of your life.
- In addition, the moment you learn how to change the way you were thinking, feeling at that one brief moment, you will become enlightened, and you will suddenly grasp the solution to all of your problems. That’s because that one specific problem will simply repeat itself over and over, in slightly different disguises, every time you are depressed, or anxious, or arguing with a friend or family member, or struggling with temptations. So, once you understand the solution to that problem at one specific moment, you will understand the solution to that type of problem at any time in your life.
For example, if you were having a conflict with a loved one, you will not only learn how to resolve that conflict at that specific moment, but you will learn how to resolve any conflict you have with that person, or with practically anybody.
Fabrice and David link this Specificity concept to the amazing insights of the new branch of “fractal geometry.” Fractal geometry is a revolutionary form of mathematics in which a very simple formula, or shape, gets reproduced an infinite number of times. In the process, it morphs from a simple geometric shape and suddenly becomes a complex picture. For example, it may turn into a stunning green fern, or a gorgeous, multi-colored parrot, or a breathtaking landscape. But if you zero in on the tiniest piece of the picture, it will always look exactly the same—the same simple design that started the process.
Similarly, in “fractal psychotherapy,” we zero in on one very brief moment of your life, but the formula—or error—that caused you to become upset at that moment will always be the very same error you make every time you feet inferior or anxious or angry or tempted. And once you’ve changed at that one brief moment, you really will experience enlightenment! And your entire universe will become enlightened as well!
Fabrice provides another metaphor, that of a hologram. A hologram is a photograph that allows to display a fully 3-dimensional picture of an object. The hologram works differently from a regular photograph. Citing from Wikipedia, “When a photograph is cut in half, each piece shows half of the scene. When a hologram is cut in half, the whole scene can still be seen in each piece.” This remains true as you fragment the hologram into smaller and smaller pieces. So you could say that your problem is a kind of hologram of all the problems in your life, in a single moment so you can see the pattern that is repeated in many other situations.
David provides an example of how this works, using an example provided by a podcast fan we’ll call Janine. Janine was convinced that her husband couldn’t deal with feelings because he had “Asperger’s / high level autism.” David asked Janine for a brief simple exchange between Janine and her husband. what, exactly, did he say to her, and what exactly, did she say next?
That brief moment is all we need to understand her problem; and things suddenly began to look radically different when we examined how she responded to her husband!
You can see the first two steps of Janine’s Relationship Journal if you can click here.
It turned out she was right–someone definitely WASN’T dealing with feelings? But who? You’ll see two spiritual principles brought to life in the Relationship Journal.
- We create our personal reality at every moment of every day.
- We like to blame others for the problems in our relationships instead of pinpointing our own role in the problem.
- Intimacy, and enlightenment, require a painful death of the ego, or self. When you “look inward” for the cause of the problem, instead of blaming, you will find the answer you’ve been looking for–but the answer can sometimes be pretty painful.
- If you’re willing to let your ego, or “self,” die, you will receive a pretty awesome reward in heaven. But this heaven occurs when you are still alive!
Dr. Fabrice Nye currently practices in Redwood City, California and treats individuals throughout the world (but not across U.S. state lines) via teletherapy. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can reach Dr. Burns at email@example.com. If you like our jingle music and would like to support the composer Brett Van Donsel, you may download it here.