My Abnormal Psychology teacher pooh poohed the idea of long term psychotherapy as something only rich people could indulge in. He saw cognitive behavioral therapy as the answer, because of its short duration and ease of insurance coverage. Often, a course of behavioral therapy will last only six to eight weeks, and focus on a single problem, without taking the time to delve into the history and long term problems of the client.
I disagree with him. I think that, for some issues, long term psychotherapy is the only real solution. But within that construct, or for people who don’t need long term help, I’d rather use a version of role modeling, rather than cognitive behavioral therapy, because there are some skills you can’t learn by talking or reading instructions. Dancing, for example. It’s a thousand times easier to stand behind another person doing a dance step and follow their lead than to try to learn the steps through words. And I think this applies to a lot of the behaviors we want to change; if they really are behavioral deficits, rather than deeper conflicts.
The learning becomes so much easier when someone stands in front of you and slowly shows you each step of how it’s done. The “slowly” part is important, because just watching someone zoom easily through a task does not make me feel like I can follow along and do the same.
There are so many skills that would be easier to learn this way, especially social skills, and hands on skills. I remember trying to make sense of a list of instructions in the biology lab in college and having no idea what to do, but if I could watch someone else do each task first, it made sense and my anxiety receded.
I saw a TV show once, where an older dog taught a younger dog that it was safe to step into the lake, by stepping into the lake himself. That moment resonated deeply with me, because just telling the dog, or me, to do something frightening doesn’t make it possible, but seeing a friend do it in front of me, or, better yet, having a friend do it with me, makes all the difference.
Too often behavioral therapy is not done this way. It’s more like the clicker training we suffered through with Cricket. Here I had this wriggly little puppy who wanted to explore and play and chew things, and the best guidance I could offer her was to sit on command. It made me feel like an ogre. What I really wanted was a better way to communicate with her. I wanted a class in sign language for dogs that would start to close the gap between the language she spoke with her brothers and sisters and the language she was hearing from me.
It didn’t help that I hated the sound of the clicker, and resented the over use injury to my thumb from having to press the damned thing over and over again. I didn’t mind giving her the treats, though, that part I could understand.
When Butterfly came home from the shelter, we didn’t use clicker training, or commands, to show her where to poop or how to climb the stairs, we gave her Cricket as a role model, and we gave her our love and attention. Cricket taught Butterfly all kinds of behaviors by doing them in front of her. She showed her that the food bowls weren’t filled with poison, by eating from them. She showed her that dogs pee outside instead of in the kitchen. Cricket taught Butterfly how to beg for food, and demand outings, and be a nuisance until she gets what she wants. Butterfly has tried to pick up other behaviors, like jumping up on Grandma, but her legs aren’t long enough or strong enough to do that.
And Butterfly has been doing her own version of long term therapy, showing me the things that scare her – like packing tape being ripped, or thunderstorms, or street noises – and she comes to me, and I hold her, and smooth her hair, and let her know it’s all right. It’s alright that she’s scared, and it’s alright that there are things she cannot do. It’s alright that she needs attention and comfort. It is all alright.