SHIFTING Perspective

By Steven T. Padgitt, Ph.D.

One of the primary consequences of effective psychotherapy is changing the way the client views not only the self, but also the world. This is necessary due to the development (conscious and unconscious) of erroneous beliefs during childhood and adolescence. The result of such unfortunate opinions may be maladaptive behavior, emotion, thoughts and decisions. One of the principle self defeating perceptual frames of reference seen in psychotherapy involves the primary emotion of fear. How we learn to deal with fearful stimuli in childhood, e.g. fear of rejection by others, determines how we will habitually deal with it during adolescence and adulthood. These learned patterns set the stage for how we perceive our surroundings, and in turn, how we respond.

Possible responses to perceived threat are numerous and vary from individual to individual, depending upon the person's learned response style. For example, while one individual responds to feelings of fear by becoming passive and withdrawing, another may respond to the same kind of emotional threat by becoming more aggressive. While individual response styles are at best productive, they may instead be maladaptive. It is the problematic style that results in emotional or even physical pain. Not only do the behaviors involved in intractable styles appear irresistible, but they tend to occur automatically. Furthermore, the individual's perception, while negative, may not be recognized as self defeating. Hence, out of the "naturalness" and the strength of the response a detrimental style may persist, even without conscious recognition.

The link with the past is important to recognize. What is automatically and unconsciously perceived as a threat in adulthood, may not be a current threat at all. Rather, a complex set of associative variables linking the past and present can easily be enough to stimulate a self defeating experience in the present. The beginnings of effective emotional, behavioral and cognitive change are often accomplished by examining these temporal links. Following such an examination, situation by situation, a new behavioral/emotional history can be deliberately developed from the present time and the frustrating and maladaptive perceptions can be replaced with a new and more productive style.

It is important to note that it is not for lack of effort that such changes are not made by people on their own. Rather, the inability to change such things, absent professional help, is due to being too embroiled in the phenomenon of the emotional defense strategy.

While not an easy task, facilitating perceptual shifts is an essential characteristic of effective psychotherapy. This means that one of the essential tasks of the therapist is to promote the recognition of what causes any maladaptive response, and to help the client see and respond to the world from a new perspective, e.g. through the eyes of the present rather than past.