Early Sexual Memories and Understatements

Dear Harvey,

I wanted to write and tell you about my experiments with using attention away from distress (understatements?), particularly in early sexual memories (ESM) work.

It was wonderful being with you at the four-day Boston workshop. I liked the opportunity to see demonstrations on the understatement with a number of different clients and to wrestle with understanding how understatements work, how and when to use them, and the difference between contradiction and putting our attention completely off of distress.

In the days immediately following your workshop, I was aching to have a session in which I could talk through my thoughts on understatements and their relationship to what we already know about counseling and clienting. As you said, the understatement doesn't replace what we already know, but hopefully it will enhance our understanding of freeing human minds from the preoccupation with distress. I like the way Catherine Land describes it in her article, as two pieces of the puzzle - the insight that attention belongs away from distress and the knowledge that discharge is how we heal from hurt.

You have described a contradiction as "any factor in a counseling situation which assists the client to become aware that the distress pattern is not present-time reality." In the past, we have typically relied on counselors to provide these contradictions. With the understatement as you used it in Boston, the counselor holds out a general statement about reality that, when crafted well enough, the client can hold onto without difficulty and use to maintain continuing awareness of the distinction between reality and distress, without much intervention from the counselor. The client has more leverage in doing battle against distress precisely because she or he has his or her nose pointed towards reality instead of confusion.

It seems that, theoretically, any piece of reality we hold out for our clients will assist in their ability to wrest their attention away from their distress.

Where I've seen understatements work most profoundly is where they specifically chip away at the client's distorted perceptions of reality. The counselor creates a narrow platform of reality that the client can agree with. From this narrow platform, the client is drawn by his or her intelligence to make logical inferences about reality that inevitably are in conflict with his or her distresses.

It seems to me that this holds great promise in ESM work, as in every other area of counseling. Early sexual hurts have tentacles into so many parts of our lives. They are like glue that binds our chronic distresses together. I'm always looking for precise tools to pry apart the distortions left behind by these distresses. (The distortions are wide-ranging but seem to include lots of feelings about being bad, powerless, and alone.) Since your workshop here last month, I experimented quite a bit with using understatements at two ESM workshops I led.

ESM work can seem challenging because we try to get people to deliberately turn their attention toward distresses they've typically pretended weren't there much of the time. Then we try to get them to client about these distresses without putting too much attention on them. Interestingly it is possible - and apparently effective - to do exactly this.

One of my experiments in using understatements involved listening to someone's ESM and trying to think of a useful contradiction to it. The client had had to handle, at the age of six, an adult male stranger's attempts to touch her inappropriately in a movie theater. She had been instructed by her mother to "be quiet or else" at the theater. Furthermore, she was not seated next to her mother because she was the middle child, and it appeared that her older and younger siblings had more right to her mother's attention than she did.

I decided to offer her a simple statement, "It sometimes happens that a little girl realizes that nobody is more important than she is." After a few initial corrections (including misinterpreting my simple statement to mean that the little girl was more important than anyone else, which objectively isn't true), the client was able to use this statement repeatedly throughout the workshop, with copious discharge each time. As counselor I hardly had to intervene at all, and the client was able to apply the statement to an enormous range of issues in her past and current life, appearing to re-evaluate along the way. I stayed in touch with her by e-mail afterwards to see how the understatement continued to work, and she reported the following:

"As I have been continuing to work with my 'nobody' understatement I have been yawning deeply, with only a few tears and some laughter. I have been working mostly with inexperienced counselors, and my guess is that there is not yet enough of a connection there to work harder on it. I can see that my determination to stick with the direction and work hard is greater than theirs, and that brings up a bit of disappointment. It is interesting to see what memories of my childhood come up after these sessions. I seem to be uncovering a lot of occluded things."

This client's report, coupled with similar reports from others, seems to indicate that the role of the counselor can still be critical in making these simple statements work well. I think that counselors still need to be ready, able, and willing to be "bigger" than their clients' distresses and that clients have an uncanny ability to sense which counselors have decided to do this.

I haven't yet concluded whether there is a qualitative difference between understatements and "simple statements about reality" that serve as contradictions to distress. You have indicated that there is a difference between a contradiction and having one's attention off of distress. If this is true, then I believe that I have been using "simple third-person statements about reality" as contradictions to distress, not as tools to get a client's attention completely away from distress. At the same time, I have noticed that, like me, you have crafted understatements in relationship to the client's specific distresses, and I'm unclear about the difference between a contradiction - that is, anything that allows a client to distinguish between his or her distress and present-time reality - and having attention completely off distress, at least in the context of a counseling session.

What is interesting is that these "simple third-person statements about reality" can work stunningly well as contradictions. I want to experiment much, much more to see if these contradictions subsequently evolve into understatements in the sense that I think you mean them.

Thanks for making your intelligence available to us.

Barbara Boring
Natick, Massachusetts, USA

Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00