I am at The Little Bakery with my friend, Marlena, for one of our time-to-time lunches. Outside it is typical August weather, hot and steamy. I think of other times we have been here: cold and
icy; pouring down rain; looking out at exquisitely colored trees on a crisp, clear fall day. Today I’m glad to be inside, where it’s cool.
“I’ve been working with self-concept lately,” I tell her.
“You mean, like self-esteem?” she asks.”I could use more of that. On the other hand, Mark tells me – thank you Mark – that in certain areas I have too much of it. But I don’t listen to
“I won’t pick up on that,” I say.
“Not if you value my friendship,” she replies with a wry smile. “But what do you do? Tell people they’re okay? ‘I’m OK, you’re OK’?”
“If only that worked,” I say. “But with most people, if you tell them something positive that they don’t think they have, they will reject it. If you tell someone she is pretty and she thinks she is not, she may feel worse, even accuse you of lying.”
“Hmmm,” say Marlena — “Try me!”
“Anyhow –” I say after an uncomfortable pause — “I have been studying Steve Andreas’ book, Transforming Yourself: Becoming Who You Want to Be, and now I’m starting to use what he does in there with some of my clients.
“Steve tells about being at a therapists’ conference, where everyone was talking about self-esteem and self-concept. But when he asked, none of them could define either. This is his starting point: What is self-concept?”
“Okay,” says Marlena, “What is it?”
“Steve defines self-concept as a set of qualities, that you know you have, on a conscious and unconscious level. So I may think I’m intelligent, creative, a kind person, a good communicator, and resourceful – say. So self-esteem is having qualities that you that you value and approve of and not having qualities that you disapprove of.”
Marlena thinks about this for a few moments. “Yes, that makes sense. But with all that, there still might be things I wish I had that that I don’t have.”
“There’s a way of working with that. But first, the qualities you know you have and you like. What would be an example, for you?”
“Hmmm – Well, I am a good listener.”
“That’s a good one. We would start out by strengthening that, making it even more solid, but also more resilient, flexible, and open to feedback.”
“That sounds good.”
“So I would start out by asking you, ‘How do you know you’re a good listener?'”
“How do I know? Well, I listen to people, a lot. And they seem to respond; they are aware of me listening; most people find it comfortable to talk to me.”
“So in your memory you have a whole slew of times when you were listening to people, right?”
“Hmmm – I suppose so. Yes.”
“This is what Steve calls your ‘database’ – all the instances in your memory, conscious and unconscious, when you were being a good listener.
“So the next thing is how you organize all these instances – what is the structure. So think about all these instances, and notice some things. First of all, what form does each instance take? How do you remember it? Take one, to start with.”
“Okay, well, I was with my friend Fran the other day, and she was telling me about her daughter’s troubles with her roommate. And I’m just listening, watching her, nodding now and then – you know.”
“So you’re seeing and hearing it, kind of like a video?” I ask.
“Yes, that’s right. The whole conversation. I can see it and hear it.”
“Are you seeing it from inside yourself, through your own eyes? Or are you seeing yourself and Fran as if you’re a fly on the wall?”
“From inside, mostly – though I can see it from outside too, if I want.”
“That’s good, very good. And what you’re feeling is in there too?”
“Yes, thinking how I’m glad I don’t have to put up with that roommate!”
“Good. Examine a few other instances in your ‘good-listener database’. Are they like that too?”
Marlena thinks about it for a few moments. “Yes, I think so,” she says.
“Now I would ask about the structure of this database – how it is organized.”
‘Would ask?’ You are asking, aren’t you?” she says.
“Okay, yeah, just to show you how this works.”
“Hey, I’m just playing with you,” she says. ”Sure, I want to know how it works.”
“Ok, so for instance, are you aware of all these instances at once? Or are they sequential, one after the other?”
“Um — kind of all at once,” she says, “like a big collage. I mean great big, like ten feet high and 15 feet wide, slightly up and off to the left. They’re all there, in miniature, and I can go into any one of them, blow it up, and be there.”
“Good,” I say. “This structure is unique for each person, the way they represent and organize their sets of instances. For some it will be sequential, like a Rolodex. Or simultaneous, like yours. I worked with one woman who saw it as a tree, with the roots going down through her legs and into the ground, the trunk coming up her chest, and the branches coming up through her head and out. The instances were hung from the branches.
“So knowing that, the structure, we can do some things to ‘tune up’ that quality, to enhance it. For instance, I might ask you if there are instances in every period of your life, and have you fill in any sparse periods. I might ask if, in the instances, you can step into the person you are listening to, and see it from their perspective. I might ask about instances in the future – these may not be as detailed as those in the past, but it is good to be able to see yourself being a good listener in the future. And also about metaphoric instances in your database, ones that are symbolic of the quality itself, more abstract rather than being detailed representations. All of these things we will seek to add to and enhance, strengthening your sense of having this quality.”
“This is very interesting,” Marlena says. “I can see how this would work. Actually, I feel better already, about being a good listener.”
“Next, we would look for counterexamples – times, instances, where you felt you were not being a good listener. Some of them we might sort out, as actually being examples of something else.”
“Like that time I cut you off and left in a hurry, because I was about to be late for my doctor’s appointment,” she says.
“Exactly. There were two values in conflict there: you wanted to listen to me, but it was more important for you to be on time. So really that should be an instance in your “promptness” database.
“So some of these seeming counterexamples we would move to other categories. But then for the ones that remain, we incorporate them into the database, but carefully: one at a time and only after transforming them.”
“Right. First of all, making the picture a little different – darker, smaller, or with a border around it – so you don’t mistake it for one of the positive examples. And then, making it into an object lesson, say, that includes what you could have done or wish you had done. Putting some of these transformed counterexamples into your database actually strengthens the quality, making it more real, flexible, and open to feedback. So it doesn’t become a perfectionist, all-or-nothing thing.”
“So now, what about the qualities I’d like to have but I don’t?” Marlena says.
“Let’s just keep this theoretical, for now,” she says. “Not to get too personal. You’re my friend, after all, not my therapist.”
“Yes, good point,” I agree. “Sometimes I have this tendency to want to fix everybody.”
“Steve includes a transcript in the book working with a man, “Peter”, who didn’t believe he was lovable. In the course of the demonstration, Steve guides the Peter to construct a new database for this quality, from scratch. Towards the end, he asks Peter, ‘Now. Are you a lovable person?’ and Peter softly responds, ‘Yeah.’ This is a very strange feeling for Peter, ‘It’s sort of thinking about myself in a whole different way,’ he says.
“The transcript includes follow-up interviews with Peter, two weeks later, and his wife, a week after that, who says he has totally changed, in this regard.”
“Wow,” Marlena says. “That is impressive.”
“It is,” I say. “There’s a lot there – Steve worked on this for years. And I think it has huge implications for so many things. I’m just starting to do it with clients, and I’m thinking, ‘How can I use this with weight loss? Or stopping smoking? Or self-confidence, or, for that matter, sports performance? Or …'”
Marlena is looking at her watch. “This is fascinating – I’d love to stay and listen more,” she says, “but I am late for an appointment. Here is my share of the check, with tip.” She smiles and jumps up, leaving cash on the table, and rushes out into the heat.