I once saw a cardiologist perform an ultrasound of a heart. This kind physician took the time to explain what he expected to see anatomically and functionally in each area of the heart. I remember thinking that I wish I could ultrasound people’s minds and compare them to a general prototype of a healthy mind. Though there would be much individual variability, we would expect each person to be able to feel safe when appropriate, to trust others, or to shift their mental and physical states when their reactions seem out of proportion to actual stressors. We would expect a healthy mind to read environmental cues accurately, and to understand the messages from one’s own physical sensations and emotions. I believe that most therapists carry such a template of healthy functioning in their minds, and use it to infer where clients need education, support, skills, EMDR processing, and other interventions.
As a Psychologist, I construct a “model” of each client’s mind from his or her description of their thoughts, feelings and behaviors. These pieces of information give me clues, much like the ultrasound, about the different “structures and functions” of their mind. I am also acutely aware of each client’s pace and depth of breathing, and non-verbal signs of tension. I compare my observations to the template of the behaviors and emotions I would expect to see in a healthy person. I share my observations and hypotheses with each client, who can then confirm or modify the treatment plan.
It turns out that most clients I see have plenty of areas of competence. Often, my first task is to reflect those strenghts back to each client. This can be an interesting experience for clients, as many people are quite unaware of some of their unique and valuable traits. Knowing your strengths can have a powerful impact on healing. When we see ourselves more accurately we can also face our weaknesses more easily.
Many of my clients also misperceive their weaknesses. Clients are aware that they are struggling, but many mis-attribute the causes of their struggles, and are not fully accurate about where their weaknesses lie. As we identify their strengths and weaknesses more objectively and accurately, clients can often see their own way out of their difficulties! I support them by teaching multiple skils to strengthen their competence. This usually leads clients to use their existing strengths more effectively.