A few years ago, I was working with a client who was early into his therapy and beginning to increase his awareness and question his attitude to others, his impulsivity and his pattern of pleasing people close to him. We began experimenting with approaches that might help him find an adult response when he felt challenged.
After a few weeks of working together he told me a story about him driving along and answering an incoming call from his son on his mobile phone. He didn’t want to miss the call, so picked up and with one hand on the wheel and the other on the phone, he had a long conversation with his son. He remembered feeling like he couldn’t disappoint his son and so became stuck talking to him. He recalled how he ludicrously negotiated sets of traffic lights and busy roundabouts and tricky junctions whilst not even mentioning that he was driving to his son. In the end he found himself in the outside lane of a dual carriageway driving too slowly as he fumbled with his phone when another driver undertook him and gave him the usual shaking a tin of beans hand gesture. He became angry and told his son he had to go, and he would ring him back later. He felt angry and his impulse was to chase after the driver and get him back by pulling alongside him and giving him the V’s.
In the moment he remembered how we had discussed having a mantra of ‘first thought wrong’ when he experienced impulsive reactions. He took a deep breath and asked himself to get grounded and think again.
The mantra had given him time to think –
‘I don’t like how the other driver behaved towards me but if I look beneath that then he was calling out my reckless behaviour. I was acting badly and putting others at risk for the sake of deciding not to answer the phone’.
He became calmer as his new thinking allowed him to see clearly his own side in creating an involvement with someone who was going to challenge him in a provocative way. He realised that as an adult he could decide not to get lost in the way he had been challenged. Next, he thought about his fear of disappointing anyone close to him and resolved to talk to his son and ask him what he would have thought and felt if he hadn’t answered his call.
When we are open to trying new ways of responding we can gain new insights and skills.