As part of my psychotherapist qualification, I recently worked with a client who struggled with severe anxiety. It was challenging, and it took several sessions for the client to open up about what was going on.
It was about a relationship. A working relationship.
Alice (name & background changed for confidentiality reasons) was leading a small team of consultants in a high-pressure corporate environment. Juggling the demanding requests of her clients and managing her team was tough. But her key struggle was the relationship she suffered through with a senior peer in a supporting function.
Alice described that person as an “aggressive dictator,” who was 10 years older and fighting “tooth and nail” over everything. This made it impossible for Alice to establish a collaborative relationship. She dreaded every encounter with the “dictator.” Several days before their next meeting, she could feel her stomach churn and she would endure sleepless nights.
The meetings were tense. Conversations were difficult… until at one point it came to a head. In front of the whole team, the smouldering conflict between the two leaders exploded. Both started throwing accusations. The “dictator” began to raise her voice and, with cutting, machine-gun like remarks, she systematically dismantled Alice. Feeling embarrassed, incapable, small and stupid, Alice shrank further and further to the point where she could not handle it. Close to tears, she dropped out of the video call. It was a disaster.
In our next session, we explored what happened. When we talked, Alice was still feeling deflated, helpless, and unsure how to move on.
Highly charged situations can overwhelm us. Feelings and emotions begin to run wild. At the same time, our own negative thoughts can fuel a downward spiral, leading to reactions (behaviours) that can further aggravate negative thoughts and emotions. It’s a recipe for an ever-escalating disaster.
But it does not have to be that way.
In the safe space of our therapeutic alliance, we leveraged the Thoughts-Feelings-Behaviour (TFB) worksheet developed by Aaron Beck as part of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). I gently asked Alice whether she could remember any thoughts, feelings or behaviours during that challenging situation. Step by step, we were able to put the picture together:
Once we had teased out the thoughts, feelings, behaviours and put them on paper, Alice slowly began to shake her head. She suddenly smiled. Still shaking her head, she said, “I am not safe? Of course, I am safe! I am in my home office, 70 miles away from the ‘dictator.’”
Then, in a calm but determined voice, she continued. ”Nobody has the right to threaten me. I am safe!” Saying this out loud began to shift her perception.
I asked Alice whether she could remember similarly charged situations in her past and she immediately replied: “This is exactly how my mum used to push me every day when I had to do my school-work!”
It sounded like Alice had fallen into an old pattern.
I introduced her to the concept of Transactional Analysis (TA), a simple, yet powerful tool explaining how we experience relationships. Developed by Eric Berne, TA describes that we tend to interact with each other from one of the following three ego states:
- Parent (critical/controlling or nurturing/structured),
- Adult (resourceful and in the here & now)
- Child (adapted/destructive or free/cooperative).
In Alice’s encounter, it became obvious there was a communication between the controlling parent (“dictator”) and an adaptive child (“Alice”). A key teaching of transactional analysis is that communications between adult and child can be stopped if one of the two individuals moves into the ego state of an “adult”, making communication channels cross as shown in the following picture.
What we had to work on was for Alice’s to try to switch into the adult ego state. If she could, she would be able to stay present, functional and with the facts, so she could work on solutions without getting carried away.
To be honest, it was not easy. But through further leveraging the TFB worksheet, Alice gradually saw the patterns. Most importantly, she started to feel “safer” in these encounters and gradually moved more in the adult-ego state. As she did, she began to see things her team did not do very well, things which had triggered the “dictator.” Step by step, she changed those and managed to stay calmer in meetings.
Miraculously, this quieted the problematic “dictator” and the relationship became functional. They never became best mates, but they could work together.
We all have difficult and charged interpersonal encounters. A key to dealing with them more effectively is to stay in the adult ego-state. To do that, it is helpful to defuse the inner whirlwind of thoughts, feelings and behaviours. That’s where the TFB worksheet comes in. It’s a wonderful tool.
I personally keep a printed copy on my desk and religiously work through triggers with my coach. I have seen it work miracles for myself, as well as many of my clients, as they take back control by bringing a distance to these highly charged thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
Reach out for a free copy of the worksheet if you like and try it out for yourself.