When safe experiments falter

Light not shining on us

One theme on offer in this website is how to learn from both small victories and small defeats.

Small victories can be built on – as long as I just notice them.

Small defeats make me falter; too little light may be shone on the obstacles in front of me and I trip over in the semi-dark.

Then there are some of the really tricky obstacles on the scenic route. What are they and how might they be addressed? It’s about time to examine some of these intransigent obstacles. Too often they hover just outside our reach and get passed over as just too much to handle.

Here are a few of these larger obstacles:

The impasse: often hiding a discount of ourselves and/or other people

The impasse is a difficult, yet not uncommon feature emerging in therapy. The impasse is a position or situation from which there appears to be no escape; we sense deadlock in our own mind and/or in a relationship with another person.

It seems there is no way out; stuck in a cul-de-sac on our scenic route.

The impasse does not have to be a permanent feature of our lives. We can still explore what it means and, more importantly, find out what it is protecting. There are some things about which we ‘dare not speak its name‘. There are times when we pretend not to see such obstacles in order to avoid over them.

Such natural – if unhelpful – responses are labelled discounts in my world. Discounting is the human tendency to minimise some aspect to ourselves, other people or the world in which we live.

However much we bob and weave – this does not mean the obstacles do not exist!

Who is right and who is wrong?

The problem can get more complex when one person thinks they see it, and another does not. Who is ‘right’? Who is telling the ‘truth’? This feature highlights the value of the Johari Window as it makes plain that there are things you do not know, things I do not know and things that neither of us know!

The dilemma any therapist has with the discount feature is: who says what needs to be ‘known’; what is a really the ‘discount’? More importantly, what is being discounted? Speculating on this can make good therapists reluctant to offer interpretations to a client.

Then there are times when even a good therapist becomes part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. I have done this a good few times – out of the best of intentions. This feature can arise when a therapist gets caught up with processes outside the consulting room. This is particularly feasible when powerful forces in the home spill over into the consulting room.

The therapeutic relationship can become a mirror – reflecting back those processes at work in the client’s world. It becomes a mirror, rather than a relationship fostering change.

The outcome, sadly, can be that nothing changes. Safe experiments may need to be put to one side, in favour of other ways of being. Note: being, not doing. It may help to re-visit Pam Levin’s perspective on the life stages relevant to being and doing.

All this sounds rather bleak. What’s to be done if I feel trapped? The good news is that there are relatively simple experiments to start on – such as:

  • ‘just noticing’ what is going on, and
  • making the unstated, stated.
  • acting decisively so hurt is not prolonged.

The safe experiment of ‘just noticing’ can be a preliminary to giving or getting feedback from ourselves and others; being open to what they see or sense.

There is a page on Blind Spots you may wish to consider as well.

Three examples of discounting to consider are:


Looping is a repetitive process – reflected in our conversations, internal dialogue and our actions. Simple duplications and repetitions can sustain the status quo and help side-step any resolution.

So this non-resolution is an example of the ‘impasse‘ – that state of not changing – of being stuck. This experience can be discomforting for all and is most likely to have negative impact.

Let me say more about the management of this unhelpful looping (there is a helpful version of looping I will mention later on!). An unhelpful loop creates a link between my anxiety and my negative thoughts and my self-talk. The vicious circle is complete when the Subjective Units of Discomfort (SUDs) cascade, shooting up to keep me on high alert.

This loop leads one unhappy experience to build on another and it magnifies the problem in front of our very eyes. The focus of our loop becomes central to our vision – and any ‘solution’ seemingly out of reach. This feature can be observed in people with drug-related problems. The bottle, tablet container, syringe or the whereabouts of our drug dealer becomes central to our attention.

When the obstacle is big enough, it stops light getting in – as an a total eclipse of the Sun stops light getting to our Earth. That’s why I chose the illustration at the top of this page.

An early safe experiment that can still help

The Body Scan safe experiment can demonstrate how these negative feedback loop impacts on our body – with physical reactions such as breathing rapidly, sweating and clenching fists.

A typical response in negative looping is avoidance, perhaps the most common human response to threat and change. That feature can be just noticed in a body scan when the sensation of ‘butterflies’ in the stomach may show growing anxiety swamping us.

Avoidance can help in the immediate crisis – so we can flee to a safe place – but it can make anxiety worse in the long term. It is even possible for a fake safe place to emerge. To illustrate this, do an experiment: compare my page on the construction of a safe place, along with some prior experience you have had of fleeing to the familiar, rather than seeking specific change in your life. Can you find an experience where a response you made was familiar, but unhelpful?

In this situation, our hurt is sustained rather than soothed. Such ‘familiarity’ manifests in roundabout ways; in blaming others, dumping our anxieties outside ourselves, on to other people, places or things. It’s “nothing to do with me, guv” or “if it wasn’t for you, everything’d be fine“.

Over time, a belief can emerge: that I’m helpless to deal with my problems. In time, no positive experiences seem available to create future success. This feature is well illustrated by Martin Seligman’s book on Learned Helplessness.

Seligman and Steven Maier conducted research in the 1960’s delivering electric shocks to dogs. Learning they could not escape the shock, the dogs stopped reacting and would not even escape when it became possible to avoid the shock by jumping over a barrier.

One good thing that came out of these cruel experiments was Seligman’s development of the concept of learned optimism. He developed strategies for humans to explain events and foster a positive internal dialogue in order to break out of their cycle of helplessness.

Some more optimistic thoughts

All that said, looping can help the therapy process – especially outside the therapy room. Many therapy issues arise from habits learned over many years. If you want to change a habit, that is not going to happen just for the asking.

Practise and repetition of something a little bit different is essential. This process of looping can be positive if it changes unwanted habits. Repetition can help bring it about!

I mention this process as it is similar to Pam Levin’s healing Cycles of Power. Her looping cycles move us forward; they does not stick us in the one place. Her account shows how reinforcing a pattern of behaviour can see us through hte known phases of human growth and development.

So looping can encourage more positive repetition but it needs to be my own changed behaviour; not done at the behest of some-one else. If I default to an old, familar ‘loop’ from my history, then those ‘old’ habits will keep getting me into trouble!

Safe experimenting with looping

  • Just notice the habit is there – it exists. Become aware of a Level One discount at the level of existence. That way, the current behaviour can be described and seen as significant; worthy of change.
  • Begin to Think-Judge-Act your way to alternative actions.
  • Change your circumstances by identifying a habit you want to alter in order to decide on HOW to alter it. This may help see the significance of the behaviour and, beyond that, some actions or safe experiments to make a difference. That is moving from a Level Two discount towards Level Three.
  • Consider the different actions you might practise. most often, this is helped by pen-and-paper. Notes help me to identify and record the change possibilities in front of me. This moves a Third Level discount towards the more practical Fourth Level.
  • Intentionally do things to replace the habit. You can’t just eliminate a habit and it is difficult to stop a behaviour. It is best to literally and psychologically replace it with a positive habit. Starting a new behaviour is not so tricky.
  • This now takes you back into action and places your actions well into the Level Four discount. At this level, you and I are limited only by our personal abilities to find ways to change and to make it so. For example:
  • Learn and practise relaxation techniques . Stress left unmanaged may make a habit worse by getting mr travelling back up the escalator towards Level One, unless our work includes the management of relapsing.
  • Managing relapse without catastrophising: Please bear in mind the issue here is not abolishing a relapse; it will happen. The issue is how you and I will respond to any relapse.

A second complex obstacle that can be powerful is:


The picture, here, comes from Psychology Spot. It’s worth a visit as it offers a fascinating example of the double bind from Karl Popper. I have mentioned this 20th century philosopher on this website before.

The Double Bind pre-occupied experienced therapists as diverse as the American Milton Erikson and R.D Laing, the radical sixties Scottish psychiatrist – a practitioner willing to expose the impact of power differentials in families.

Often attributed to Gregory Bateson, a UK-based Anthropologist, the Double Bind highlights the paradox of “imposed spontaneity”. For example, I may ask my partner for some affectionate spontaneity. The very request, in that form, makes it impossible for her to achieve my request. It invites the response, when my partner does have a go, of “that’s no good; you are only doing this because I asked you“.

The request eliminates the possibility of spontaneity pretty much forever. Furthermore, I will feel less loved when the spontaneity does not arrive!

Laing noticed this feature in families: a mother reproaches the child for apathy and being passive by saying: “cheer up a bit, don’t be so dull”. As Psychology Spot says: in this case, there are only two possible solutions, both equally unsatisfactory. I’ve added a two more features:

  1. the child remains passive, so that the mother will feel cheated,
  2. the child modifies his behaviour to satisfy his mother but since it is not his natural attitude, his conformity can be seen as a sign of passivity.
  3. Even if the son wants to ‘cheer up’, mother may become impatient when the son has insufficient time to practice the unfamiliar art of ‘cheering up’. In this example, the person is being asked to be something else. However, the request or instruction, often comes with silent pressure to conform to the undisclosed ‘rule’.
  4. At this point the locus of control is hidden and confused. So who is controlling whom, and how are they going about it?

If this makes sense, can you reflect on a double bind that can arise in therapy, when the message on offer is: Be Yourself!?

In the work situation, who has not come across the boss who encourages us to take the lead, or use our initiative, only to be criticised for using the ‘wrong’ one!

The conditions for Double Bind to occur

Here are some conditions that sustain the double bind:

  • contradictory demands are made between two or more people.
  • an established relationship, with a power imbalance, is there – one in which an emotional message is evident, e.g you are neglectful, you are no good. Such messages undermine our self-esteem.
  • the exchange of communications has a negative consequence such as a punishment or a withdrawal of attention and affection.
  • the “victim” and “persecutor” cannot escape from the situation. All that is generated is bewilderment.

Illness, for instance, can provide an important ingredient to the Double Bind impasse. How do you leave some-one who is so ill that they need your help – practical as well as emotional? Below, I offer the example of Jack Frost, the TV Detective.

Any chance of an escape or of finding something-just-a-little bit different?

The general aim of an safe experiment faced with this double bind is to keep your eye on the large picture. I will now go on to reflect on examples that might help here.

Experiments already published on Your Nudge

Standing back and observing.

Make the blind spot open to yourself and others to see, hear or feel.

Using Special Time to set up different rules for communication so the lose-lose can become a work-in-progress toward win-win.

One useful thing to bear in mind is that any one involved in a double bind is not aware of their own behaviour, and their own part in sustaining the outcome.

The conventional view of ‘the nudge’ suffers from this ‘truth’. I cannot do safe experiments for you and I cannot tell you which ones will work.

Empower yourself to make a decision. This assumes you just notice a decision needs to be made and when it needs to be made, or might be made. In particular, it helps to know that avoiding action is, itself, a decision!

The worst thing is being stuck in a place of confusion, while not recognising the source of the confusion. It is one thing for me to be undecided, about which path I want to choose, and quite another thing when I am not even aware of the contradiction at play. 

The safe experiment that promotes awareness of that contradiction can move us around an obstacle on our scenic route.

A therapist can only be around as you find out about possibilities and live with the consequences.

Does this website go anyway toward exposing the modern tendency to generate a series of self-contradictory instructions, without us even realising it?

As you consult this website, look out for those self-contradictory instructions. I will be unaware – not may be unware – but I will be unaware of my part in it. This because but I do not know it!

One way you can help is to point it out, when you just notice it!

A third complex obstacle are SYMBIOSES

Possibly a rather intimidating word taken from communications theory within Transactional Analysis (TA). If you want to find out more about ‘ego states’, please do your own research. One useful external lead – there are a few on this website – is from Bob Cooke, known to me from previous connections in TA.

.…. or https://ta-course.com/ego-states/, if you want a training course approach

Please keep in mind that the first level accredited training in Transactional Analysis is termed a ‘101’.

This diagram, included elsewhere, may help us get some handle on ego states:

Some ‘types’ of communication

The two symbioses illustrated here are:

1. The Complementary Symbiosis

That can be seen at the top left. True, it’s just one communication – from one ego state in Person A to the same ego state in Person B – but what happens when these continue over time?

The ‘symbiotic’ element only emerges when one or two turn into one or two thousand or one or two million. A ‘symbiosis’ is a pattern of behaviour that develops between two people (let’s stick with two for the present time!).

Like the Double Bind, the form of communications evolve over the years until we are not conscious of the pattern we are following.

With the complementary symbiosis, things go along swimmingly. There is a match that is perpetuated over the years. You will see this in the relationship between Howard and Hilda, a married couple, who appear in Ever Decreasing Circles (a comedy sit-com also starring Richard Briars and Penelope Wilton).

Howard and Hilda wear matching sweaters, and they look after one another determinedly, in their own way. I’d like to see the person who successfully comes between Howard and Hilda. Most of us know of couples “where fools rush in where wise men fear to tread”. Richard Briars has a go from time-to-time!

Even so, there are limitations: what if the relationship is malign, restricting or even a form of ‘gas lighting’. What if Hilda or Howard suddenly decided to wear different sweaters, what would happen then?

Some, only some, abusive relationships have elements of ‘complimentarity’ about them. Those relationships can create a Double Bind for BOTH parties.

and then there is the ……

2. Competitive Symbiosis

The competitive symbiosis can be seen in all the other mini-illustrations, but the ‘Ulterior’ communication will be the focus of my attention here.

Why? It highlights the key point I have made already: that unconscious exchanges can be the most powerful and, sadly, the most destructive. Ulterior transactions illustrate the highest levels of discounting.

Look at the T1’s in the Discount Matrix found on this page.

When we do not know something, do we have a blind spot or are we simply misunderstood by everyone else? Our natural reaction is to say “no, I am not” or “I see no ships“, when challenged about our own short-comings.

The problem here, as i have said, is whose to say what constitutes the highest level of discount? Is it me; after all I am a professional. Is it some-one’s partner who is observing events? Do we have to put it to Parliament, or seek the wisdom of a High Court judge?

Who has the right to decide or judge?

At this point, then, the problem is philosophical, not psychological. At this point we are arguing about whether something exists or not. That can end up with us trying to count the number of angels on the head of a pin!

A philosopher, as I see it, is there to study the meaning of language. The practitioner psychologist, in my view, can only be there with others; to help them find their own meaning in their lives and to assess the responsibility they have for the actions they take.

The conclusion?

Some things that could be done, if you still have the will to do so, might be:

  1. Explore your boundaries between yourself and others around you.
  2. Develop the wisdom to know just how far to go with advice and instruction.
  3. To accept what you have and commit to it.
  4. Get out for a moment, or for a longer moment or forever. Withdraw. Take Time Out.
  5. Learn the hard way about what is do-able or not do-able.
  6. Stay with the suffering as the lesser of two evils.
  7. Seek solace and spiritual renewal

If you’d like an example of how such obstacles can conspire together – who remembers David Jason as Frost? Early on in the series his wife dies and he finds caring for her – beforehand – a difficult experience. He is having an affair and is unable to take it further because of the guilt he feels.

Both parties avoid change when the consequences are too harsh to consider.

Frost is in a Double Bind; he does his ‘duty’ – that social exchange from Parent Ego state, to her vulnerable Child Ego State. Both are held in their place, unable to negotiate a new set of roles.

The Ulterior transactions focus on his thwarted needs – fighting his guilt and sexual needs. For her part, although we do not see her directly, she is likely to feel dependency and fear over the prospect of her death.

It is not easy to have our needs met – in the face of real threats!

Some further leads to consider

What makes up a scenic route?

Parts of the scenic route

Assessing progress

Deciding on an endings plan

The Ripple Effect