Academic journal article Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy

The WILFY(TM) Method: Unlearning Lessons from the Past

Academic journal article Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy

The WILFY(TM) Method: Unlearning Lessons from the Past

Article excerpt

This article describes an application of the Anthetic Dialogue method for eliciting and challenging dysfunctional beliefs. The application addresses dysfunctional beliefs that have resulted from past learning, especially that which occurred in childhood.

Cognitive-behavioral therapists are divided on the issue of the importance of childhood events in understanding present functioning. Although Ellis grants from time to time the possibility that childhood learnings might play some part in creating irrational beliefs (e.g., Ellis, 1979a, 1979b) he mostly opposes this position, stating that he once thought that irrational beliefs stemmed primarily from childhood learning but now believes himself to have been incorrect (Ellis, 1979b). He now refers to the perspective of seeing childhood learning as the basis of irrational beliefs as an "overemphasis on dramatic incidents from the past" (Ellis, 1979b, pp. 10 f.).

Walen, DiGiuseppe, & Wessler (1980) warn against encouraging clients to "discover the roots of their pathology" in the past, adding that "the basic hypothesis that one can search for past events, recall them accurately, and use these recollections to rearrange the personality is incorrect" (p. 19). However, Walen et al. (1980) appear to contradict themselves by stating that past events do indeed have an impact on present functioning provided one continues to reindoctrinate oneself with beliefs associated with those events.

Beck & Freeman (1990), on the other hand, assert the importance of childhood learning in the formation of dysfunctional beliefs. For example, writing that the narcissistic personality disorder stems from dysfunctional schemas, they declare, "The early foundation of these schemas is developed by direct and indirect messages from parents, siblings, and significant others . . . ." (p. 238).

These authors note that dysfunctional thinking rooted in childhood learning is often not amenable to modification by standard cognitive-behavioral techniques. They recommend a treatment approach in which childhood experiences can be relived; for example, through role-playing, reverse role-playing, and imagery of significant interactions from the past (Beck & Freeman, 1990). The rationale for this approach is based on the concept of state-dependent learning. The authors contend that re-experiencing episodes in which early learning occurred is vital for two reasons. First, this method elicits hot schemas (emotion-laden cognitive structures). During the re-experiencing of such schemas, affect is mobilized and the client is able to gain emotional insight. Second, during the re-experiencing, the client is able to discriminate the past from the present, recognizing that he/she is no longer the child in the statedependent learning experience. The client may then reality-test the validity of childhood learning. The authors do not present a structured method which might be used by the clinician in working with dysfunctional learning originating in childhood.

In the present article, a structured approach for eliciting and challenging such learning is described. The approach is based on the Anthetic Dialogue method; i.e., speaking to a figure from the past imagined as sitting in an empty chair.

An adaptation of the gestalt empty chair method, Anthetic Dialogue has been found useful in eliciting and challenging messages from the inner critic (Elliott, 1992). It can also be used for an imaginary dialogue with persons from the client's past (e.g., a parent, sibling, or teacher).


The term WILFY is an acronym for the phrase "What I Learned From You." The phrase is used to elicit dysfunctional learning from the client's past. Following this, the client identifies the negative consequences which have resulted from accepting the early learning as a rule for living. The client can then make constructive behavioral changes.

As with Anthetic Dialogue with the inner critic, the client is asked if she or he has done empty chair work before, especially whether he or she has worked with persons imagined as sitting in the empty chair. …

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