An Interview with Psychotherapist and Educator Melinda Bailey
This is part one of a two-part post on couples therapy.
What is it like to be on the other side of therapy, to be the therapist, not the client? The answer is as varied as individual practitioners.
To explore the other side, I decided to interview Dr. Melinda Bailey, a practicing psychotherapist and educator in a Marriage and Family Therapy degree program at a college in Madison, Wisconsin. I thought it would be enlightening to talk to a therapist whose curiosity and creativity about the human psyche had led her to extend her learning beyond her rigorous academic doctoral training.
One of Dr. Bailey’s teachers, Milton Erickson, refined the use of hypnosis as a viable intervention for psychological issues. As more research reveals the complex connections between mental and physical distress—for instance between the brain and the gut—medical psychologists use hypnosis to aid in the treatment of bowel disorders like IBS, migraines, and other physical afflictions. Like hypnosis, the therapeutic use of stories and storytelling engages the mind’s capacity to reflect and reframe habitual patterns of thought and belief and generates a sense of freedom from and mastery over difficult emotional states.
As a writer and student of Jungian psychology, I am particularly interested in Dr. Bailey’s experience using hypnotherapy and storytelling to help clients access deeply buried material otherwise inaccessible to the conscious mind.
Dr. Melinda Bailey: Based on my personal experience, I would say that many couples that I see seek therapy for what they describe as communication issues. This means that one or both of them feel that their relationship isn’t as close as it once was. They don’t talk together as much as they used to, or, if they do, the talk is about the logistics of everyday life, not their deeper wishes for life individually and together, not their needs. The warmth and spark have lessened or gone. Other couples feel that communication is the major issue because they have more conflict, argue and fight more often, and have fewer positive, caring, supportive interactions.
From the therapist’s point of view, these presenting issues may be an entry to deeper issues, Do I matter to you? Do you see me? Do you love me? Can I count on you to have my back? Sometimes just working to improve communication skills is enough to restore the ability to speak and be heard, feel safe, and be vulnerable.
In addition to communication issues, there are other specific issues that bring couples to therapy, like an affair, verbal or physical abuse, alcohol or drug use, sexual issues, stresses with children or former spouses, or family of origin. These specific problems, and others, also have specific interventions.
D.K.: Have those issues changed in the years you’ve been practicing/teaching?
M.B.: What has really changed most, in the 40+ years that I have been practicing is the willingness of couples to reach out for help. The stigma around therapy in general, for individuals, couples, and families is lessening. The ways that therapists try to understand the presenting complaints are a lot more complicated now as therapists try to take into account the impact on the couple of our multiple identities of race, ethnicity, gender identity, age, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, developmental or acquired disability, religion, indigenous group membership, and nationality.
D.K.: Can you describe how you became interested in therapeutic hypnosis and why?
M.B.: I became interested in therapeutic hypnosis early in my professional career. I trained at the University of Wisconsin Psychiatry Dept in Madison when Carl Whitaker was there. I was drawn to the early experiential model of Whitaker and came to believe that change happens with new experiences.
Milton Erickson was also doing exciting things with hypnosis during this time period, and he worked with hypnosis using storytelling and suggestions to initiate change. Erickson created change experiences with hypnosis, which focused on one’s internal world. The common denominator here is change through experience.
In those early days of learning hypnosis, I attended a workshop and after several days of didactic presentations, the workshop ended with a memorable story about the St. Louis Zoo. Over the years I have modified the story to fit my hometown and structured the story around the Vilas Zoo in Madison.
“In the early days of the Vilas Zoo, when it didn’t have much money or resources and was under construction, the first gift the zoo received was a large white polar bear. There wasn’t yet a permanent home for the bear so it was given a temporary home that was several hundred feet long and half that distance wide. The bear, in its new enclosure learned to pace back and forth… back and forth… When the bear’s final home was complete, the zookeeper and all the workers put their heads together to decide how to best introduce the bear to its new home. After much discussion, they decided it would be less disruptive to take down the temporary enclosure at night while the bear slept. One night, they quietly took down the temporary fence, and when the bear woke up the next morning, it began to pace back and forth…back and forth… as it had learned to do. The bear had yet to learn the truth of its situation, which was that it had a lot more room to move around in than it knew, a lot more space to explore, a lot more freedom than it knew about.”
I loved this story. I knew then that therapeutic storytelling was a vehicle to initiate change. I still tell that story to the students that I teach. To learn more about storytelling, I took a workshop in therapeutic storytelling, joined a local storytelling guild, and co-taught a class on storytelling.
The second part, “Using Storytellling and Hypnotherapy in Couples Therapy,” will follow next month.
This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”
If you found this post interesting, you may also want to read “Denial: Telling Ourselves Stories That Hide the Truth,” “Self-Sabotage: Which Parts of Ourselves Are We Fighting?” and “How Do We Know We Have Come of Age?”
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