Credit to Richard Bandler, most of the following I learned pretty much directly from him.
And if only all interventions were as fast as this one turned out to be…
Several years ago a man came to see me. He had been suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) for about half his life, in his case, about 17 years or so. When he was school, in the last year or so, he had developed some obsessive tendencies, nothing too overwhelming, as far as I could tell. However, the school got in touch with his parents and his parents booked an appointment with a top psychiatrist. There he sat with his parents, a nervous teenager, in the oak-panelled Harley Street consulting room of this psychiatrist and he was given the following verdict by the doctor…
‘I have spoken to your school, I have spoken to your parents and now I have had the chance to talk to you personally,’ he intoned, ‘ and I can say that without a shadow of a doubt, you have obsessive compulsive disorder…’
What chance did the man have…
So from that day forward, armed with the knowledge and certainty and that he had this problem, he became very good at OCD indeed. His obsessive behaviour had ‘morphed’ over the years, and he had finally settled into the habit of cleaning his kitchen for two or three hours before he went to work in the morning. And this was a kitchen always scrubbed so clean that open heart surgery would probably have been safe there anytime…
This is one of the most common ways people do OCD. For whatever reason, they have developed a huge overwhelming fear of contamination or disease, and that fear is so overwhelming it overrides any attempt at logical thinking. So a person who has developed this sort of thinking/feeling/behaviour pattern will find themselves seemingly driven to take some action to try to stop having the horrible feelings. This can be a big bad habit. And incidentally this has nothing to do with intelligence, in fact the guy who walked into my office that morning was a very successful lawyer…
‘What do you want?’
That’s what I asked him, after a minute or two chatting about his journey and the weather etc. I always like to get to the point.
Now if you are actually in this business you will know full well that no-one ever answers that question literally. They think they are answering you, but they aren’t. The answer you get will be either a description of their issue or a mass of information which is entirely opposite from the information you asked for.
They will tell you what they don’t want. Now this is totally reasonable from where the client is coming from. After all, they want you to understand why they are there, the nature of their issue, and if you let them, they will sometimes go into a long description of the history of their issue. I don’t usually let them, it doesn’t usually help, in my experience.
In fact I have to repeat the question, several times, before they can begin to understand what I am aiming at. And this all has to be done lightly, or it will begin to sound like a gestapo interview. And this is just the beginning…
‘I have OCD’
That’s what he said, plain and simple. So I was about to repeat the ‘so what do you want’ question, but I reconsidered. If someone is suffering from obsessive compulsive patterns they are often a bit tense, to say the least. But this guy, although quite tense, didn’t seem overly so, so I tried something else…
‘No, you don’t have OCD’
I said that to him and raised my eyebrows. He looked puzzled, understandably.
‘Yes I do,’ he insisted, ‘I have OCD, I am sure of it.’
‘So you have three letters of the alphabet,’ I said. It is important to note that the tone of the conversation was light-hearted, if it hadn’t been, I wouldn’t have been doing this.
‘You know what I mean,’ he continued, half laughing, ‘I have OCD, the abbreviation for obsessive compulsive disorder’.
‘No-one has OCD’, I said, flatly, and he began to look puzzled, though he was still smiling.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘you have a page on your website that says that you deal with people who have OCD, I’ve read it’. He had a point there. Mind you, if the page had said ‘you don’t have OCD please call now for help’, on-one would…
‘Listen,’ I said, ‘if you have OCD tell me where you keep it. In your pocket? In a cupboard in the kitchen next to the cleaning stuff? In a special place in the left hand side of your head or something?’
He was laughing now, ‘well obviously I don’t actually have OCD,’ he said. And then he stopped, and began to look totally bewildered and started swaying in his chair. If he hadn’t been sitting down I think he might have fallen over.
‘That’s right you don’t have OCD and you never did,’ I continued. ‘You can have a banana, you can have the complete works of Shakespeare, or you can have a nice holiday home. OCD isn’t something you can have, it’s obvious, now you think about it.
OCD is something a person DOES not something a person HAS
‘Obsessive compulsive disorder is something you have been doing not something you had, I told him, ‘a person can think ‘obsessively’ about something, a person can act ‘compulsively’ at times, but that’s it, you don’t have OCD and you never had OCD, do you see what I mean? Do you hear what I am saying?’
I stopped and let him process this for a couple of minutes. Eventually he looked up and in a slow-motion voice said,
‘Well I don’t think so,’ I continued, ‘unless you think that maybe you are haunted by the demon of OCD, and as it happens I do have a bell, a book and a candle in the room, and I find a little light exorcise can often be illuminating.’
And I stopped and waited, and it was like the dawn slowly rising in his face and this sparkly light came into his eyes (at least that’s how I remember it), and he grinned.
Sitting in the beans
‘So,’ he said, leaning back with his hands behind his head, radiating confidence, ‘nothing is making me do this, so nothing is stopping from going home now, pouring baked beans all over the kitchen floor, sitting in them, cleaning up a bit, and going down the pub for a drink.’
‘That’s right,’ I replied, ‘though you may need to change your trousers first…’
And he stood up to leave but I didn’t let him, at first. I pointed out that he had had just fifteen minutes of a two hour session and that there were more things that could be done to ‘help make these old obsessive things truly a thing of the past’. He said he was happy to pay for the two hours and I told him that wasn’t the point. He told me he REALLY wanted to go and do this, so I argued light-heartedly with him for a while as this was building the desire to go out there and play, and after fifteen more minutes he left the office with a spring in his step.
I didn’t speak to him again though I got two voicemails from him and an email several months later. The first voicemail went something like this
‘HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAA, IM SITTING IN THE BEANNNNNS, HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAAAAAAA’
I remember thinking that it was just as well he wasn’t leaving that voicemail for a psychiatrist.
In the second voicemail, a couple of days later, he explained that it had only taken him 22 minutes to clean the kitchen after the bean-fest, and that that morning it had only taken him 16.5 minutes. OK, a little bit exact but, hey, 16.5 minutes is better than 3 hours… Then a few months later an email telling me he was quite ok and that he was going to refer someone to me.
If only it was always this easy
This client was the exception rather than the rule, I wish I could help people this fast all time. Usually the above is just one piece from a range of interventions designed to help the client to stop being obsessive, to build more flexibility into their thinking. It can be an important piece though.
Denominalisation – an approach that can often pay dividends
I am aware that this may well be read by a whole variety of people, from NLP practitioners and trainers and hypnotherapists and other therapists, through to individuals ‘suffering from OCD’, or people who know people who have been doing OCD etc, so I am avoiding jargon as much as possible, though really there isn’t much jargon is this field.
A nominalisation is a verb that has been turned into a noun, or an action that has been turned into a ‘thing’. When you work to denominalise, you are working to change the noun back into a verb, the thing back into the action, so to speak.
For example, if someone comes to see me and they tell me they have problems with their relationship (noun) with their husband, I will say something like, ‘in what way have you been experiencing problems with the way you are have been relating (verb) to your husband’. Because, after all, you may well be able to help someone to change the way they have been doing something (relating) but how on earth can you change someone’s ‘relationship’ when such a ‘thing does not literally exist?’
On one level this may seem to be just playing with words, but in my experience it can be a useful game to play…
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