Alfred Adler Institute of Northwestern Washngton

Fictions, Counter-Fictions,
& Magic in Psychotherapy

By Henry T. Stein, Ph.D.

(Appendix I From "Classical Adlerian Depth Psychotherapy: Theory & Practice: Volume II: Dissolving the Fictional Final Goal and the Counter-Fiction That Hides It.")

Why are clients so successful in using counter-fictions to cover up their hidden intentions in interpersonal relations? Could fooling people be much easier than we think? Recent research exploring neuroscience and magic has unearthed a number of provocative explanations. Many of these conclusions have been documented in a new book, Sleights of Mind, by Stephen L. Macnik, Susana Martinez Conde, and Sandra Blakeslee. These neuroscientists studied the techniques of magicians, then connected what they discovered to the physiology of perception and the psychology of anticipation.

As Adler points out in his unique contribution to personality theory, the hidden, unconscious, fictional final goal needs to be hidden from the bearer as well as the victims of this self-serving, social exploitation. The ease with which adults and children deceive others is mystifying, until we understand the common neurobiological susceptibility to being misled, not only by clever “sales tactics,” but also by our own perceptual limitations. An individual's conscious awareness of his real intentions might inhibit his momentum toward an intoxicating ideal. The subliminal attraction of complementary counter-fictions can be mistakenly interpreted as falling in love. A mutual awareness of these superficially appealing counter-fictions and the hidden, fictional final goals behind them, might cause two people to have second thoughts about engaging in an ongoing relationship.

In Sleights of Mind, the observations and theoretical conclusions of Macnik, Conde, and Blakeslee have many parallels to Adler's model of the personality, especially the idea that our brains constantly anticipate the future. When faced with ambiguity or uncertainty, clients fill in the blanks mentally with their preconceived ideas, expectations, and unconscious desires.

Cognitive tricks are at work in advertising strategy, business negotiations, and in all varieties of interpersonal relations. (p. 8)

While clients are not surprised to learn that advertising, business, and politics use cognitive tricks, they are less comfortable adknowledging that they use them socially against others and are victimized by others using tricks against them.

A highly evolved maze of circuits relies on approximations, guesses, predictions, and other shortcuts to literally construct what might be happening in the world at any given moment. (p. 15)

Private logic and the antithetical scheme of apperception provide efficient shortcuts that can bypass common sense and critical thinking.

By transferring attention, a tremendous amount of suggestive power can be loaded into one tiny, fake event. (p. 25)

We keep focusing on the tense parts; we think that is where the action is. (p. 30)

Frequently, the use of flattery or the misuse of negative feelings, emotions, or symptoms can divert another person's attention away from a hidden, disguised intention.

The brain is constantly making its own reality whether it receives actual reality-driven input from the senses or not. In the absence of sensory input, the brain's own world-making keeps on working. (p. 50)

This “filling in the blanks” is most apparent during sleep when dreams take up the slack between the present and the future. Clients are always in training, preparing themselves for an anticipated future.

Humans have the capacity for overt and covert attention. If a person focuses our attention in one direction, he may move in the opposite direction. (p.54)

A dog will look in the direction we point to. (p. 58)

This management of attention not only helps in selling a counter-fiction, but also helps to impress others with symptoms that exempt the client from responsibility for cooperative action. In other words, “I don't want you to concentrate on what I'm not doing; I want you to concentrate on my symptoms.” Or, in Adlerian terms, “... on my excuses.”

In a magic show we have the difficult task of peeling away all the layers of misdirection and figuring out the secret method. (p. 59)

The psychotherapist has to meet a similar challenge, penetrating the hidden lines of movement and avoidance underneath the mountain of interesting but often irrelevant information.

A magician's success is in diverting our attention away from the method and toward the magical effect. (p. 61)

We will naturally follow the larger, more salient movement. 'A big move, covers a small move.' (p. 61)

A client's success is in diverting our attention away from his life style; hidden, fictional final goal; and what he is avoiding. His symptoms can distract and preoccupy us.

Misdirection may be designed to make us complacent, bored, lazy, or not carefully attentive. (P. 64)

Repetition lulls the spectator into mind-numbing habituation. (p. 65)

A client may try to wear us down with a river of trivial details or repeated, minor variations of the same dynamics. The impact can be almost hypnotic unless we know what to look for and can guide him, through skillful questioning, to think about what will really help him overcome a difficulty.

Joint attention is when we share another person's experience by following his gaze and pointing gestures. It can make us susceptible to magic tricks by exploiting our impulse to pay attention to the same places and objects attended to by the people around us. (p. 67)

This dynamic illustrates one of the limitations of persistent, emotional empathy without the balance of critical judgment. Adler demonstrated a remarkable combination of profound empathy and healthy skepticism.

When our gaze stops on an object and does not move, activity in our visual neurons is suppressed. The object disappears! (p.70)

If therapists look merely at the “facts” in a case, but do not translate the story into psychological movement, they are literally blind to the significance of the information. Adler emphasized the importance of viewing all psychological factors as movements from a felt minus toward a felt plus, directed by a goal. Without this understanding, therapists may be misled into perceiving a diagnostically useless, static “snapshot,” instead of a revealing, dynamic “moving picture.”

With inattentional blindness, we fail to notice an object that is fully visible because our attention has been directed elsewhere. (p. 73)

For clients, failing to notice the significance of what is in front of them illustrates the powerfully distorting influence of an unconscious, fictional final goal. Almost like a “black hole” described in physics, the hidden, final goal can suck everything, including perception, into its powerful, gravitational center. They then see only what fits their goal and everything else becomes invisible. This analogy is most apparent when, as therapists, we observe a client in the midst of a psychotic delusion, and less obvious when we observe neurotic behavior.

Situational awareness is the deliberate perception of everything happening in the immediate space and time, the comprehension of its meaning, and the prediction of what may happen next. (p. 80)

Unlike any other theory, CADP permits therapists to reveal hidden intentions, uncover real meaning, and predict what will happen if the client's fictional goal remains intact. This prediction is facilitated by the assumption of a causal, future goal.

People believe hoaxes and rumors to be true despite all evidence to the contrary, including denials by their originators, if assertions of truth are repeated often enough. (p. 102)

Clients also believe their own world views to be accurate because they have accumulated repetitive evidence which they have provoked, selected, and remembered, ignoring or depreciating experiences that do not fit their narrow vision of reality. Their compulsion to prove they are “right” and others are “wrong” may cause substantial personal suffering.

Each time a memory is used, it has to be restored as a new memory in order to be accessed later. An old memory is either gone or inaccessible. (p. 103)

The earliest childhood memory of Jean Piaget was of nearly being kidnapped when he was 2. His nurse defended him, and a policeman chased the suspect. It never happened. His nurse made it up and the family repeated the story many times. (p. 104)

Memory illusions stem from our need to make sense of the world. We imagine an event and fill in the details as needed. (p. 104)

As creative inventions, earliest childhood memories provide one of the most fertile, projective sources for understanding a client's style of life. Adler discovered that one of his earliest memories could never have happened. The stability of an early memory depends on an unchanging, fictional final goal. Once the restrictive style of life and the compensatory, fictional final goal are dissolved in CADP, the early memories spontaneously change.

Our beliefs, (all our cognitions, also vision, hearing, and touch) are constructs of our learned predictions. Perception is not a process of passive absorption but of active construction. (p. 126)

The power of an underlying goal to influence almost every function of the body is a double-edged sword. For the client, that goal can result in personal misery and social damage, or personal happiness and wide-spread social improvement. If that goal merely attempts to provide personal, compensatory gain for some real or imagined deficiencies in a person's childhood, and it remains unconscious, unexamined and unchanged, it inevitably will provoke isolation and conflict.

However, if that goal is raised to consciousness, re-evaluated, and eventually dissolved in psychotherapy, the individual can literally become a new person, not chained to a child-like image of personal advantage, but liberated to an adult vision of mutual benefit. Once the rigid, egocentric, hidden goal is dissolved, the client can pursue a healthy direction, guided by an inspiring value. This new direction will then impact all aspects of his perception, as well as his thinking, feelings, and action. He experiences this change as a widening of all horizons.

According to Piaget, the capacity for empathy comes late in development. (p. 138)

For the client, this capacity also comes late in the process of psychotherapy. Usually, the underlying feeling of inferiority has to be diminished sufficiently for him to find enough courage to tackle what he previously believed to be impossible. That new feeling of authentic competence calms him down and softens his defenses. However, he still needs to let go of the intoxicating fantasy of personal superiority. This phase of therapy might require progressively challenging questions about the assumed benefits vs. the actual, negative consequences of pursuing the familiar, cherished, fictional final goal. A client can develop real empathy only if this inherently egocentric goal is dissolved. In some cases, if he is unwilling to let go of this goal, he never develops genuine empathy and stops therapy. Although he can act cooperatively on a superficial level, he may never give 100% of himself to anyone or anything.

Magicians want us to trust them so they pretend to be vulnerable. (p. 192)

Magicians' banter is often about the need for help (in sustaining the desired illusion). (p.192)

The client may put on a display of vulnerability or ineptitude in order to elicit sympathy, comfort, or as an excuse to avoid responsible action. The display of pseudo-weakness can also be an effective counter-fiction that lowers the guard of other people, prior to exploiting or attacking them.

The road to success is practice, practice, practice, and more practice. (p. 194)

If we practice a complex motor skill daily for years, our motor maps increase in size. (p. 197)

Accomplished magicians don't need to pay attention to their moves during a trick because the moves become second nature. (p.199)

If we have something to hide from someone else, we must not think about it in their presence or our voice, gaze, or movements might give us away. (p. 199)

The repeated patterns in the style of life become second nature. Because these patterns are usually not conscious, the client feels less responsibility for the consequences. New actions in a positive direction require conscious deliberation and effort. Self-pampering clients do not like expending the energy necessary to struggle with a difficulty.

There are no new tricks. Nearly all the illusions we see in magic shows were invented in the nineteenth century or earlier by showmen in Europe, Asia, and America. Modern magicians have been updating them ever since. (p. 205).

Most of the neurotic tricks we see in clients have probably been around for generations. Many could simply be learned by imitating family members. Good magic as entertainment, or bad magic as social manipulation, never get dated.

The magician makes us experience the impossible by disrupting normal cause and effect relationships. (p. 214)

The client is frequently able to bypass common sense and social criticism by claiming exemption from responsibility and consequences because of symptoms.

Illusions are not mistakes; they are integral to perception; they are adaptive shortcuts our brain makes to speed up or reduce processing. (p. 222)

To counteract mistaken shortcuts in our own perception, we, as therapists, need to slow down, pay close attention to what the client hands us moment to moment, feel the impact, and question the purpose of his actions and emotions. Question, question, question everything. Guessing is the key to eventual insight.

Not only are we influenced by our biases, expectations, and assumptions, we also actively suppress critical information. (p. 227)

The client is stuck in self-justifying patterns. (In Adler's phrase, “He is stuck in his self-created stall.”) Unless we provide benevolent, precise, critical input, he will probably continue to go round and round in vicious circles. We help him get “unstuck” by holding up an accurate mirror of his true intentions.

If we make mistakes, we must set them aside and keep moving forward. (p. 231)

Sound advice: A client needs to try something different, rather than repeat the same mistake endlessly in different scales, settings, and intensities.

Good magic used for entertainment can be an enjoyable experience for the audience: delightful, amusing, and pleasantly mystifying. However, personal and interpersonal deception can make one person feel clever, but usually results in others' feeling used, manipulated, or defeated. This is bad magic.

Classical Adlerian Depth Psychotherapy can help a client navigate more effectively in life, by opening his eyes to the psychologically magnetic fields of the fictional final goal and counter- fiction. These “black holes” cause many of the personal and interpersonal miseries of life.

Classical Adlerian Depth Psychotherapy - Volume II
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