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Going Through Walls


How clean coaching helped a client to get through a particularly horrible time in her life


R booked an appointment for a telephone Clean Language (CL) session because she’d been feeling ‘horrible’ for over two months. Her husband’s cancer had returned after a three year gap, and she was finding it very difficult to cope emotionally, as well as carrying on ‘normal life’ working freelance full time. She had always had a tendency to assume she should be able to – and could - cope with everything, but this had resulted in “going through brick walls, leaving an imprint spreadeagled on the wall”, cartoon style. Recently, though, she’d crashed and written-off her car in the snowy weather (although not into a wall), and so had decided that she needed a different strategy. She reported that she didn’t seem to have any internal measurement to let her know when something was serious enough to be able to ‘not cope’, and she didn’t know what ‘not coping’ would be like.

A few days before the session, finding herself in tears and angry at the same time, with a strong feeling of not being able to cope any more, she’d gone to see her GP and had been prescribed Prozac. This lifted her mood with a ‘jolt’ but she now felt ‘wired’ because she couldn’t sleep. On the day of the session she hadn’t slept for four nights and had decided not to take the Prozac any more. She knew she wasn’t depressed (having suffered this in the past) but just wanted some help via pills or therapy to ‘get through the difficult patch’. Having tried the pills, she opted for CL as therapy. She had also realised that she was grieving (her husband’s cancer is incurable) and generalising her ‘there’s no hope’ feelings to the whole of her life. So she had decided to put the grief into a ‘too hard box’ and to shut the lid, retaining the ability to visit it when she feels the need, but without it overwhelming her in the day-to-day.

During the session

Going Through Walls

R started by telling me all of the above, and when I asked her what she would like to have happen she mentioned the crashing into walls metaphor again: “I want to do something different.” Plus she wanted a way of knowing when an event could no longer be considered ‘routine’ and therefore reasonably possible to deal with.

The metaphorical red brick wall was in front of her, stretching a long way – out of sight - to the left, but to the right there was nothing - just a blind spot. “I have no notion of what’s on the right.” The wall was about a foot away, too close for comfortable vision, and she couldn’t focus on it. It was also quite tall, higher than her. She said she didn’t want to look at the ‘nothing’ on the right immediately, but thought she would be able to later in the session.

Although this was clearly a very large brick wall, R reported that she didn’t really notice it when she habitually ‘went through walls’. “It is as though it’s invisible, and I only know about it when I feel the pain upon impact and it’s absorbed into my body.” This absorption was like being filled up with heavy, orangey-brown builders’ sand from her feet to her throat / mouth. She said she didn’t want to be a sandbag anymore.

Mercury Could Be Useful…

What would she like to have happen? R’s first response was: “I want to be a lady wearing a hat and picking flowers in a garden, a walled garden.” But almost instantly she realised this wasn’t satisfactory, being too flowery and not taking reality into account. She needed something more functional… and after a moment or two she remembered a recent metaphor she’d been working with: mercury. Mercury is fluid and strong enough to hold its shape, and can go around and between things. It’s silvery-grey, reflective and could be useful for measuring – like in a thermometer. Like a mirror, what’s outside is reflected in a round ball of mercury. It doesn’t bounce, and “that’s a comfortable place to be – I don’t want to always bounce back.” R decided that she would rather be filled with mercury than sand.

R next reflected that she had been strong all her life and reminisced a bit about past walls. She said she’d lost count of the number of walls she’d been through, and she was too old to go through any more. The sand had also been accumulating and this latest wall was the ‘last straw’. This had to be the final wall – and that was how she made sense of the car-crash she’d had – as a ‘sign’ to deal with this.

The Other Side of the Wall: A Unicorn Appears

R next took a look at what was on the other side of the wall – it was a really nice landscape, with mountains and shimmering lakes in the distance.

And what needed to happen for R to be in the new landscape the other side of the wall? She didn’t want to go through it or over it, and with it being so close she couldn’t get a realistic idea of its size or shape. The blind spot reminded her of a time in her life when her vision had suddenly seemed to have holes in it. This was bigger though – it was a black hole and she couldn’t see anything at all to her right – just ‘nothing’.

R tried on the idea of ‘being mercury’ to see if she would pick up anything when she looked at the wall as mercury. As she did this, the blind spot/hole became steamy / misty and was resolving into more of a form. This led her to think about alchemy – peering into the mist and trying to divine the future in an alchemical cauldron. She realised that the hole and the “too hard box” were two metaphors for the same thing, and “I don’t want to look into the future, I don’t want to peer in and know the answers.” She then started to be able to see a silvery white unicorn with a flowing mane, on the right.

The unicorn told her it was OK – he could look to the right and was guarding her vision – there was no need for her to worry. She had to trust him to look after the ‘too hard box’. She could do this, but was still concerned about how to get to the other side of the wall. “I need a sensible strategy for coping, and sandbags are not sensible. I need an internal measuring stick that measures external things inside me.”

Developing a Mental Measuring Stick

She had in mind that other people have mental measuring sticks that allow them to know whether things are too hard to cope with. “I don’t seem to have one. I need to have some kind of internal measure of ‘hardness’, to measure things against – it needs to be absolute. I need to be able to say ‘that’s really hard’ and not even think about jumping over it.”

R started by devising a measuring stick outside of her – to her front and left - a thermometer with a large scale and a red ‘danger zone’ at the top. It was like one of those games at the funfair where you hit a mallet and a ball goes up and strikes a bell at the top. There’d be a large clanging if the temperature shot up into the red zone, reminding her of the brick wall. This would be a visual warning.

Next, a Goliath person appeared beside the giant thermometer, and R realised she was not the only person there. There were lots of stick people, all the same size as her. The Goliath was not frightening, but more like the friendly giant from Harry Potter. He was pointing to the bottom of the thermometer at ‘point easy’ and R was recognising that when things got stressful, it was time to get off instead of waiting until ‘point difficult’ and for the clanger to hit her on the head.

Embodying the Measuring Stick

The new measuring stick / thermometer was perfectly functional, but R realised that an external stick would not really serve her purpose – if it was outside her, she would know it logically but would have to keep reminding herself about it. She needed to embody it, rather than have it ‘out there’. So she created a smaller replica as an internal measuring stick which contained the mercury, and worked out how to pay attention to it when the mercury is rising. She focussed her thoughts on a particular unpleasant/stressful situation (which she placed on her right hand) and brought that hand near to her stomach and noticed what happened. The first situation she tested sent the mercury in the thermometer right up from her feet to her head, and the bell clanged – this one was in the danger zone. R laughed… it really was just like the funfair thing, but inside her as a real physical sensation. She tried it another few times just to check it worked and she could still get the feeling inside.

And how would she remember to bring her hand up? R wanted reassurance that she wouldn’t forget. This was to come from the certainty that if she didn’t remember, she would hit another brick wall. “I have a tool now, and now I know I can measure. If I don’t use it, I have to take some responsibility for that. When I measure something and it is stressful, I know I need to look after myself. If I had a temperature of 100, I wouldn’t carry on. I would go to bed and call the doctor.”

The New Landscape

R took some time to get used to her new internal thermometer, then we checked – what had happened to the other metaphors? R was now sitting on top of the wall, which was a lot lower. She could see nice scenery and the unicorn was standing there in front of her – ready for her to jump down onto from the wall. It was sunny and there were a few clouds in the sky as well (‘to be realistic’). Her body was no longer filled with sand. She saw herself riding the unicorn over small jumps. There were other jumps dotted around the landscape, but none more than 4ft high (which was about the limit of what she could jump on a horse in real life), she said.

And if the mercury were to start to rise in the thermometer, she had cleverly arranged for a long flag to unfurl right in front of her with a picture of the original wall painted on it – as a reminder.

After the session

Three weeks after the session, R sent me this email:

Hi Marian

I wanted to thank you and let you know how much the recent CL session helped me, and how much I value it as a turning point after 2 months of horribleness in my life/head/self. I didn’t email you straight away because, although I felt much better immediately, I wanted to make sure the beneficial effects were lasting - and they have been.

One thing I was particularly struck by in the session was having a real internal experience that I felt in my body - when I moved my right hand near to my stomach, to ‘measure’ the event/thing in my hand against my thermometer-measuring thing inside me… Later, I tried it out with nice things as well as nasty/difficult things, and got a really nice warm feeling when I put the thought of my stepson soon coming to stay for the weekend into my hand and moved it near to me. I don’t think I’ve ever really noticed feeling things inside me before - good or bad, so that was an unexpected bonus from the session. Now I can do it just by imagining the thing (nice or nasty) on my hand and I get the appropriate good/bad feeling straight away in my stomach. This is a really good way of by-passing my head/rationality/old script which all say ‘oh its nothing’ - because now I’ve got ‘physical’ evidence inside me that whatever bad thing I’m thinking about ISN’T nothing!

I do think it’s amazing how you and CL, in 90 minutes, can do more than months of counselling (which I’m not keen on anyway) could achieve. And I’ve thought of another reason why I like CL - its because it is totally non-judgemental - i.e. by repeating back my own words to me, using my tone etc, you didn’t bring in any element of your reaction to anything I said - which counsellors etc always manage to do, even if they think they don’t - usually in their tone, eyebrow raising or in wrongly summarising/paraphrasing things. So I felt extremely comfortable all through the session, knowing that (whatever you might have been thinking) I didn’t have to see/hear/deal with your thoughts or reactions to anything I was saying!

I also realised at the end how much you had been echoing my voice tone… I hadn’t thought about my own tone at all until yours changed back to ‘normal you’ at the very end in the goodbye bit- and I realised with hindsight that you must have been exactly matching mine without my noticing, because it was obviously done very naturally and completely in rapport. At that point, and only by comparison to your ‘normal voice’, I realised mine must have been very flat and lacking in ‘affect’ as psychiatrists would say - which was a good reflection of how I had been feeling.

I’m pleased to say that I have been feeling consistently fine ever since that session - it didn’t just give me a lift on the day, but is still going. Although I wrote it all down straight away, I haven’t actually thought much about brick walls since - which is really nice, as I’d thought about nothing else for weeks whilst that metaphor was evolving inside me. Did I tell you that I had even turned on a tape in the car at a random place and it was the beginning of a song about ‘all I can see is a wall…’ ?! (this was a couple of days before our session). The universe was obviously trying to drum the ‘wall’ message into my head via every means possible, and I laughed so much that I cheered up considerably and felt very looked after by hidden/invisible sources.

I feel that not thinking about walls any more shows I’ve moved on from the whole set of issues & problems I was dealing & struggling with for 2 months - but I also know that they could come back if I let them, don’t look after myself or try to go through them again - so I’m not complacent or taking anything for granted. Just relieved they’re gone from my mind and my metaphor landscape. I can see them behind me, as a reminder,and that’s OK. Also, the struggle with the issue of brick walls had only been going a couple of months consciously, but I have spent a whole 40-something years going through walls without noticing it- so I do believe I have challenged and now changed a 4-decade pattern, using metaphor on my own firstly to develop my understanding ofthe issue, then your CL session as the final seeing-off of it.

Thinking about how I feel now (and have done ever since our session), I think I’m in the landscape beyond the wall - which was pleasant, open and varied (and did have some tiny horse-jumps in too - but nothing wall-like). I shall work on staying in that landscape and adding nice things to it - or noticing new things that are nice in it.

Finally, I think that CL session marked the end of a particular growth/development phase, and now I’m having a rest from challenges/developments for a bit. That in itself is an unusual thing for me to say - normally I like challenge and development, but I’m pleased to feel this particular episode is behind me (like the walls) and I’m now in a nice place where I can relax. (Relax is another unusual word/concept for me!)

So thank you very much for having facilitated all that for/with me.You are one of the nice things in my landscape! I really valued your help- as I’m sure you can tell from this long email.

Please feel free to use or quote things from that session or this feedback anonymously if you wish to in training, in writing or generally with others any time.

And after that…

A few weeks after that email, R told me that her husband’s latest cancer treatment hadn’t worked and he would be having the ‘full works chemotherapy’ for several months.

“I now feel a lot less ‘fine’ (but glad to have had a period of feeling fine in between ‘horrible’ and now) – but am much more able to ‘feel’ my emotions rather than ignore them in the interests of ‘coping’. I now feel that ‘coping’ and ‘not coping’ are not opposites/on-off, and don’t think in these terms any more since the CL session. I have good days and bad days – emotionally - but am much more aware of taking care of myself and reaching out for support from others, rather than being self-sufficient and thus going through walls without noticing. I no longer assume I will ‘cope’ in the old way (i.e. absorbing the pain by just going straight through the wall of the present difficulties).”

About Marian Way

Marian Way's avatar

A highly skilled facilitator and trainer, Marian, who founded Clean Learning in 2001, has developed and delivered training across the world. She is the author of Clean Approaches for Coaches, co-author, with James Lawley, of Insights in Space and co-author, with Caitlin Walker, of So you want to be… #DramaFree.

Marian is an expert Clean facilitator, an adept modeller, a programme writer and an inspirational trainer. She has a natural ability to model existing structures, find the connections between them and design new ways for people to learn. Marian was a leading innovator within the Weight Watchers organisation, which included developing the “points” strategy, a local idea that went on to become a global innovation. She is a director of both Clean Learning and Training Attention CIC, world leaders in clean applications for corporate, educational and community development. She designs our programmes and workbooks, leads workshops and teaches on all our courses. She’s trained people in Great Britain, Russia, Sweden, Germany, Australia, Japan and the USA. Marian is also a recognised Clean Assessor.

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