Methinks Jay Haley Hit the Bull's Eye By Howard Rosenthal, EdD on 11/7/10 - 11:39 AM

My client began her session with an interesting saga. In an attempt to improve her health she began each day by ingesting a nutritional drink that was loaded with nearly 100 superfoods. Since I personally take enough vitamin and mineral supplements a day to capsize a small battleship, I was all ears. Unfortunately, my client lamented that the supplement seemed counter-productive. That is to say, instead of having unlimited energy, she was nearly falling asleep at the wheel on the way to work. The client was quite savvy when it came to nutrition and therefore hypothesized that the product was excellent, but it needed more protein.  In other words, the high carbohydrate formula was the problem.

Truth is always stranger than fiction and the very next week -- as if the supplement company had a bug or a webcam in my office -- they released the identical drink in a high protein low carb version. Problem solved? Well to use the oft-quoted phraseology of our times: not so much. The client reported that she was dragging through the morning just as bad as ever. Her dilemma was solved quite by accident when one day she discovered she was out of her superfood protein drink and thus she began the day with a banana and a slice of white devitalized bread and a low-tech multiple vitamin. (Sheer blasphemy, incidentally, for nutritional zealots like myself or my poor client.) The verdict: She had boundless energy and felt terrific. After that day she continued with the banana/bread regiment with excellent results.

Along these same lines another client was telling me about how he became very serious about his golf game.  The golf pro felt his swing was sound but he almost fell over laughing when he saw my client's antiquated clubs. The pro promised to set him up with some serious equipment. The irony, however, was that his his golf game suffered markedly when he began using the new high-tech, super high price tag, custom fit clubs. My client became somewhat obsessive and in the years that followed and he secured club recommendations from golf pro after golf pro and purchased set after set to no avail. Finally, one day, just as a joke, he pulled out his early 1970s aluminum shafted clubs and shot the best round he had in years.  He decided to stick with the zero tech clubs of yesteryears and his game continued to improve.

Like most therapists, I have literally heard hundreds of stories like this including:
• Men who gave their wives flowers or compliments based on the recommendation of some self-improvement expert, an Oprah approved bibliotherapeutic work, or a well-credentialed psychotherapist, and the relationship deteriorated.
• Parents who followed the behavior modification instructions to reinforce their child's behavior and saw the behavior stay the same or perhaps get worse.
• Clients who were told to wear orthotics in their shoes to take their comfort to a whole new level and now had pain in their feet or legs that never existed prior to wearing the devices and
• People who jogged extremely long distances every day to "do something good for themselves and to ward off old age" and now look considerably older than their peers (yes, there is even some scientific research that seems to be backing up this one) . . .  to name a few.

So what in the world is going on here? At least for me, the riddle was solved in an instant when I attended a lecture of Jay Haley's several years before he passed away. An audience participant asked Haley to spell out what caused most people's discord and Haley remarked, "The solution to the problem is the problem." I'll leave it up to historians of psychotherapy to discern whether Haley really came up with this on his own or whether he lifted the idea from the great Milton H. Erickson or perhaps Gregory Bateson.

In any event, the key point is that often, the very strategies that the client is using to make his or her life better are at the root of the problem. But I ask you: How often as therapists do we investigate this dynamic? In all probability, it is not nearly enough. We like it and get excited when clients seemingly do good things. Nevertheless, the message to take back to the therapy room is that something that appears positive is not always positive. The protein shake, the orthotics, and giving a spouse flowers could be the culprit. Most of us would never suggest that the client give up the protein shake, or perhaps stop complimenting a spouse. Instead, many therapists will gloss right over these behaviors and look elsewhere for the root of the problem. In essence, The solution to the problem -- even when it appears to be a good one -- can the problem. Jay Haley hit the bull's eye. Now it's your turn.

File under: Musings and Reflections