05/18/2012 05:46 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

When Therapy Came Up Empty

There's always a first time. The first time a patient in pain is sitting in front of you and you come up empty, with nothing to offer.

Her name was Roberta, and her problem was an all-too-common one. She'd fallen head over heels for a guy at work. They'd started dating and were already talking about moving in together. Everything was fine, except for one small detail: Roberta had become completely obsessed with the idea that her boyfriend was cheating on her. She reported tearfully that she couldn't control herself. She was tracking his emails, monitoring his voicemail messages, even doing drive-bys at night to check the cars parked outside his apartment.

This wasn't the first time for Roberta. She had a pattern of obsessing about men betraying her, which, with the help of her former therapist, she'd traced back to her father's abandonment of the family when she was 4 years old.

After explaining all of this to me, she spoke the words that sent chills up my spine: "Don't waste my time telling me why I obsess. I already know. I need you to tell me how to stop."

That's when I realized I had nothing to offer her.

I asked my supervisors for advice. They were well-meaning, but they also came up short. Worse, they implied that there was something wrong with Roberta's request. She was "resisting," trying to control the therapeutic relationship. They warned me that if I gave in to her demand for a solution, she would become even more demanding. The father story was a mask for some other trauma. Take her back to childhood and you'll uncover it, they said. If all else fails, my chief supervisor said with a smile, then you've learned the lesson every young therapist has to learn sooner or later. Therapy is limited. We can only do so much. Don't feel bad about yourself.

The irony was, I didn't feel bad about myself. I felt bad that my profession was failing someone in pain. Roberta's request hadn't seemed unreasonable or demanding to me. She was paying me for a service, and I didn't like being unable to provide it. I was actually grateful she hadn't lost faith in me.

Casting about for an alternative, I attended a seminar given by Dr. Phil Stutz. I'd heard about Stutz: He had a reputation as something of a maverick who'd developed his own system. He didn't see patients as handicapped by their problems. Rather, he viewed their problems as opportunities and believed patients had the power to heal themselves if only they could tap into certain hidden forces. Stutz had developed a set of powerful but simple techniques, which he called "tools," to do precisely that.

What amazed me about the tools, and made them different from anything I'd learned in my training, was that they worked immediately in the present. While Stutz respected his patients' histories and the insights they could offer, he understood that their suffering took place in the here and now. They needed something powerful enough to bring relief in the present -- exactly what Roberta was begging me for.

I only learned one tool at Stutz's seminar. But I left with a confidence that I'd found a method that would revolutionize my psychotherapy practice. What I didn't anticipate was that it would also change my life. In the 25 years since then, Phil Stutz has become a close friend and colleague, and the tools a radically new way of doing therapy, empowering patients to change themselves by directly accessing unconscious forces. Most exciting to me, as a therapist, is that my patients not only find that they can solve their problems with the tools, they also discover themselves developing potential they never knew they had.

In the coming weeks, Phil and I will take you through the basis of his method in this blog (a more in-depth rendering of it is explained in our forthcoming book The Tools).

As for Roberta, I passed on to her the first tool I learned from Phil (it's called Active Love). With its help, she overcame her obsession only to realize that her boyfriend wasn't the right guy for her after all. Six months later, on vacation in Mexico, she met a lawyer from New York. They were married for 20 years, raised two boys, and after her husband died unexpectedly, she moved back to L.A. and trained as a counselor. Today, she has a practice of her own, where, of course, she teaches her patients how to use the tools.

Originally posted on Psychology Today.

For more by Barry Michels, click here.

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