Magazine article Addiction Professional

'Don't Look Back': Help Your Clients Focus on the Future

Magazine article Addiction Professional

'Don't Look Back': Help Your Clients Focus on the Future

Article excerpt

One of the most common roadblocks to recovery involves being stuck in the past: old patterns of behavior; old, unhelpful attitudes; old memories that continue to shape current behavior. Clients may be looking backward to identify the underlying causes of their problems. They may have the feeling that if they relive their past mistakes in their minds, they can find out what went wrong.

But in The New Language of Change, Stephen Friedman argues that learning to be the person you want to be is quite different--and often less time-consuming--than learning why you are the way you are (Friedman, 1993). Motivation to change is often built by discussion of future options, while talk of past failures can be discouraging.

The turning point in recovery is often a shift in focus from the past to the future, and there are several ways counselors can help make this happen:

1. Collaborate on positive rather than negative goals. The best goals involve doing something new rather than not doing something that has been a problem. So a goal of establishing and nurturing new relationships makes more sense than a goal of discontinuing old relationships. Instead of focusing on the loss of old relationships, the client has the opportunity to focus on the gain of new relationships.

Focusing on the doing--instead of the not doing--is important for several reasons. Trying not to do something keeps the focus on the problem instead of possible solutions. If you are putting all your efforts into staying away from past people, places and things, it's hard to focus additional efforts on developing new ones.


Another problem with negative goals is that you never get to have an unqualified success. Even with a great goal such as lifelong abstinence (not drinking or drugging), success can not be claimed until after you are dead! And even the slightest mistake seems to set you back to square one.

2. Build motivation and self-efficacy with "miracle questions" (Miller & Berg, 1995). Fear and uncertainty about a new lifestyle are often the biggest obstacles to abandonment of an old lifestyle. The more clear, realistic and detailed a future is described, the more likely it is that your clients will change.

Miracle questions ask clients to imagine their lives without their presenting problem. Follow-up questions focus on the details of how things will be different, rather than on why things are the way they are. For example, you might ask, "When you're done with therapy and your goals have been achieved, what will your life look like?" Ask for details on the difference this will make in your client's everyday life.

Here is a miracle question suggested in the book Solutions Step by Step:

"Suppose when you go to sleep tonight (pause), a miracle happens and the problems that brought you here are solved (pause). But since you are asleep you can't know this miracle happened until you wake up tomorrow. What will be different tomorrow that will let you know that this miracle has happened and the problem is solved?" (Berg & Reuss, 1998, p. 30)

The authors report that careful follow-up questions can help the client describe changes in thoughts, feelings and ways of dealing with life's stressors. They recommend asking, "What else? …

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