going meta


Family therapy got started when the grandparents of the field, interested in cybernetics–the science of self-regulating systems–started studying communication in families. Some of the more interesting ideas they came up with were the three progressively more problematic kinds of contradiction. This is a summary of Virginia Satir’s version of those contradictions, from Conjoint Family Therapy:

Simple contradiction: This is when a person says two things that contradict each other straightforwardly, as when someone might say, “I love you but I don’t love you.” This kind of contradiction consists of assertions that are incompatible, but at least out in the open, in an easily decodable way. That means that the receiver of the message can easily comment on the contradiction, saying “I don’t understand what you mean. You didn’t make sense to me just then.”

Paradoxical (or incongruent) communication: A paradox is a special kind of contradiction, where the incompatible statements exist on different “logical levels.” That is, one of the statements is part of the context of the other statement. These are significantly more difficult to decode and comment on. The two logical levels in human communication are usually verbal and non-verbal behavior, where the non-verbal behavior is the context for the verbal. For example (from p.83) “A says, ‘I hate you,’ and smiles.” If A had said “I hate you” with an angry look on their face, that would be congruent, but what does “I hate you” mean in the context of a smile? This is more confusing than the simple contradiction, both because it is more difficult to track the two levels of communication simultaneously, and because we have unspoken social norms against commenting about how someone is speaking. Consequently, it takes more awareness and bravery to question the speaker’s intent when they present you with this kind of contradictory communication. (Satir calls paradoxical communication “incongruent communication.”) Being able to metacommunicate, or comment on the communication going on, is the major tool of the psychotherapist. We don’t usually know it, but this skill is the main thing we go to therapists for.

The double bind: The double bind is a special kind of paradoxical communication that was first laid out in Watzlawick and colleagues’ Pragmatics of Human Communication. A double bind is a paradox with two additional rules, giving four total requirements:

1) A verbal statement

2) A contradictory non-verbal context

3) A rule that you are not allowed to metacommunicate

4) A rule that you are not allowed to leave the field

This happens to people all the time. Children, especially, mercilessly, unconsciously, are put in this position a lot because they are not in a position to leave their parents “field.” They are completely subject to their parents on every level.

Here’s an example: A parent, obviously stressed out, tense, and in pain for whatever reason, says to their child, “I love you.” This puts the child into a double bind, because the statement is contradicted by the “I don’t love you” expressed by the parents’ body language and facial expression. That’s 1) and 2). Third is that the child can’t comment on the contradiction because they don’t have the tools, and even if they did, and said something like, “Mom, I hear you saying that you love me but it doesn’t really seem like you love me right now. It seems like you’re having other feelings,” the child would almost certainly be punished in some way for being insubordinate, for questioning the parent’s love, for questioning the parent’s word, for making the parent feel uncomfortable. Fourth is that the child is not allowed to leave the field. That is, even if they had the communication tools, the awareness, and the bravery, they have no where else to go if they are rejected by the parent. Their lives are dependent on the love and support of the parent. They are stuck in the field. To cope, they “learn” one or both of the following:

I am not lovable. My parent knows this, and I have figured it out, but at least they are pretending that they love me, which keeps me alive, so I’ll go along with the pretense that they love me.

I may be lovable, but love feels awful. Still, it’s the best thing available.

Then the child grows up and, having their own children, perpetuate the process, being a pretending-to-be-lovable parent with awful-feeling love to give to the next generation. Not only that, but they develop adaptations to this way of living that look like DSM-diagnosable Mental Disorder conditions.

Metacommunication and congruent communication: Notice that metacommunication is the key out of all of these situations. In the case of a true double bind, you might need the help of someone else’s (a therapist’s or friend’s) metacommunication, but metacommunication is still the key. Someone needs to stand up and say, “I’m confused! Can we slow down here and talk about what we’re talking about? What can you say to me right now that your body language and facial expression will agree with?”

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My favorite new term from my family therapy program is parataxic distortion, coined by the “American Freud” and one of the grandfathers of family therapy, Harry Stack Sullivan.

A parataxic distortion is when a current situation or person reminds you of something from your past, often without you knowing it, such that you behave to some degree as if you are in your past, dealing with that situation or person. Parataxic distortion is an umbrella term for confusions like Freud’s transference (client gets inappropriately emotional about therapist) and countertransference (therapist gets inappropriately emotional about client). It is also very much like to co-counseling’s “restimulation of distress.” Most likely every psychotherapeutic school has its own name for this phenomenon.

The idea is that there is a way in which your memories are categorical, not specific. That is, if your dad hit you when you were a kid, you not only attach fear and anger to your dad in your memory, you also attach it to a range of things, maybe bald men, short men, men in general, authority figures in general, certain kinds of places or rooms, etc.

Mostly, our memories are useful. This ability to generalize, for example, helps us avoid burning ourselves on hot stoves in general instead of having to painfully learn not to touch each hot stove. Neat trick!

But with a parataxic distortion, our unconscious memory keeps us from being able to understand and deal with situations as they are, in the present. It patterns your behavior. It limits your options. Usually without your knowing it, it makes your life more scary, sad, irritating, and ultimately isolated than it needs to be. Most therapeutic modalities have some version of this three-stage recipe for resolving parataxic distortions: 1) Form a trusting relationship with someone who has less distortion in the area you have trouble with. 2) Have a “corrective emotional experience,” where you basically re-experience your distortion-driven emotional pattern while demonstrably safe in this trusting relationship. 3) Have a “cognitive reappraisal,” meaning come to a new understanding of your behavior in light of current reality as it is. Go meta.

Easier said than done, of course, but well worth it!

My Couples and Family Therapy program has a lot to say about epistemology. Epistemology is the study of knowledge. We don’t get so much into the history of it–what various philosophers have decided gets to count as knowledge–but we do get a decent overview of what they call modernist, systemic, and post-modern epistemologies.

The basic question for someone thinking about epistemology is, “At what point can I say I know something to be true?” Here’s a super-oversimplified version of a few “epistemologies”:

Pre-modern: I can say I know something if a book or person that I believe has sufficient authority says it is true. Forever. Also, if I feel very certain about something I might consider it true.

Modern: If I observe something with my own senses, I can say that it is true, at least for that instance. If others who look at the same thing make the same observations, that gives more weight to my belief. I ideally keep the possibility open in my mind, however, that new evidence may come along and change my belief.

Post-modern: I can never really say that something is true, as I am forever limited by the perspective given me by my sense organs, my mind, and my acculturation. I will never have direct apprehension of reality. The closest I can come to real knowledge is a guess that produces useful results.

My program conflates post-modern epistemology with what they call “systemic” epistemology. “Systemic” refers to cybernetics, or systems theory, and in my view is actually an extension of modernism. Traditionally, modernism looks for linear causality and uses reductionism to learn about things. Systems theory looks at causality in terms of networks of interacting, mutually affecting/effected influences, all of which you must see, in action, to understand. It’s holistic, not reductionistic. It doesn’t rely, however on the post-modern insight about the limitation of each person’s perspective.

What I like about my program’s emphasis on epistemology, though, is that they encourage us to examine our “personal epistemology,” so that we know as much as possible how the lens that we view reality through shapes our perspective. A very post-modern idea. We are to think about how we think about reality and own our epistemology. We wrote a series of essays in this vein.

Gregory Bateson, one of the founders of the field of family therapy, said that anyone who doesn’t think they have an epistemology just has a bad epistemology. How would you describe your epistemology? What is your bar for labeling an idea “truth”? What things do you believe are certainly true? Why? Do you think your experiences tell you something directly about reality? Can you take anyone’s word about reality confidently?

I’m reading Virginia Satir’s Conjoint Family Therapy. She was this amazing, giant, super-loving woman, one of the founders of the field of family therapy–kind of the Julia Child of family therapy. I’m learning her style of therapy, possibly in part because I was introduced to her work very young, maybe 11 or 12. My mom bought me Elgin’s The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense. It was my first introduction to going meta on communication–thinking and talking about communication, a very useful skill, possibly the central skill of a therapist.

I’m really enjoying reading the original Satir. One of her (many) assertions is that pretty much any time you say anything you are making a request. It could be a request for any number of behaviors, but ultimately they are all requests for some kind of validation. The difference between functional and dysfunctional communication is how overt your requests are. Here’s one of her examples (p. 86):

Functional:

“Let’s see a movie,” or even better, “I would like to see a movie with you.”

Dysfunctional:

“You would like to see a movie, wouldn’t you.”

“It would do you good to see a movie.”

“If you want to see a movie, we’ll see one.”

“We might as well see a movie. It’s Saturday night.”

“There’s a new movie house down the street.”

“My voices are ordering me to see a movie.”

Dysfunctional requests require decoding. If both the sender and receiver of the communication are clear about the codes they use, this is fine, but in general, the more decoding required, the more trouble you get into.

The problem is, if you make a clear request, you can be clearly denied your request. You make yourself vulnerable by saying “Let’s see a movie,” or “Do you like me?” because the answer could be “No.” Unless your self-esteem is quite high, a “No” hurts.

If you send a code, say, “There’s a new movie house down the street,” you can pretend that you’re not putting yourself out there. If your receiver says, “I don’t want to see a movie,” you can say, “What do you mean? I was just commenting on the new building.” Or your receiver can say “No” in code, maybe, “Yeah, that place looks like a dump.” Then things are really fuzzy. You don’t know if they decoded your message accurately, and they don’t know if your message was coded in the first place. It might feel like protection–it might even be protection–but it’s confusing and it lacks intimacy.

Why do we code our requests? We learn to. Maybe we’ve learned not to trust our receiver with a vulnerable request–the way they responded to such requests in the past have been painful. Or maybe it’s just habit, left over from accumulated painful experiences from our younger years. It could be part of your family’s culture, and uncoded requests seem harsh or demanding.

Try watching your communication. How coded is it? How do you feel when you imagine speaking in less coded requests? And try being vulnerable. Try to do even better than Satir’s, “I would like to see a movie with you.” Unpack it more. If you can say with honesty, “Hey, I really like you and I’d like to spend time with you tonight, watching a movie. What do you say?” then do it!

Doing therapy is all about “going meta,” which basically means taking a one-level-up perspective. In my  couples and family therapy program that usually means talking or thinking about the process couples or families are involved in (are they, for example, acting out a pursuer-distancer pattern?) versus the content of their conversations (the specific complaints, “He never takes out the trash,” “She’s always on my back,” etc). Talking about talking is “meta-talking.” Thinking about thinking is “meta-thinking.” This is an idea I had during a lecture: