Thursday, 15 September 2011

Therapy Thursday: The Glorious SIBAM Model

Last week's piece about holistic practice was a handy prelude to this, my favourite counselling model. Most counselling orientations could be grouped into three categories, depending on what they target: Thoughts, Emotions, or Behaviours. This model expands our repertoire to five:

S – Somatic (Body Sensations)
I – Images
B – Behaviour (Actions)
A – Affect (Emotions)
M – Meaning making (Mind, thoughts, cognition)

These are the lenses through which we gather, interpret, process, react to, and store information about our world.

They are all incredibly useful.

The trouble is, many of us rely way too heavily on one or maybe two, and pretty much ignore the others. This is an unbalanced and inefficient way to live. And when problems come along, the default modality will only get us so far. So we meet mind-oriented people, for example, who believe that if they just think long and hard enough, they will figure out solutions to all their problems. They can go round and round in circles forever, spinning their wheels, getting nowhere. In fact, the root of all their problems might just be that they bury, ignore and mistrust their emotions; or that they endlessly procrastinate and never do anything; or that they are completely out of touch with what's going on in their body; or that they seem to have no imagination; or all the above. To be whole, we need to learn to use all five.

Going Deeper

Using the SIBAM model with clients, I ask them to explore all the modalities, especially the ones they rarely use. Much valuable information can be found there. I encourage them to flow from one area to the other. The five feed one another, inter-relating in an organic and glorious manner, allowing any area of enquiry to deepen and expand. For example, a person might be talking about something that is very painful to them, and will linger on the emotions until they become overwhelmed and saturated. This can be re-traumatizing and not very helpful. So before they go too far, I might ask them to pay careful attention to what is going on in their body. The key is to slow things right down and really focus. Often, they will describe some kind of unpleasant sensation in their stomach. Through various questions, I'll help them to become much more acutely aware of the exact nature of this sensation, and as awareness grows, the sensation will tend to move and change. Two principles are operating in this kind of work: Shift Happens; and the Psyche has a natural tendency to mend itself. If we slowly track the body sensation, something might shift in a way that allows a small piece of trauma, stored in the body perhaps for years, to be released. Or there might be a shift to another modality. The client may be spontaneously struck by an image, whose meaning is potent and healing though not necessarily reducible to words. Or they might be moved to do something. They might then go from either of those places to the mind, attempting to make sense of their experience. And on it goes. The information that emerges keeps getting richer and richer. The psyche mends itself bit by bit. Shift happens.

I encourage clients to take control and ownership of this process. They can choose where they want to go next. And so can you. 

The Witness

The SIBAM model is usually depicted as a pentagon, a five-pointed star. At the very centre of the star is the Witness. Whatever modality we may be working in, it is always possible to take a step backwards and observe what is going on. For example, most of us tend to ruminate, getting caught in a thought-loop, working ourselves up, usually to anger, frustration, self-sabotage, or deep sorrow. Next time this happens to you, I invite you to detach from the process, and watch it happening. This creates tremendous freedom, because instead of being carried away by the tide of thoughts, you can choose to make it stop, pull it in a different direction, laugh at yourself, use the thoughts constructively, or shift to a different modality altogether, perhaps by focusing on your body sensations instead. The sting of the runaway thoughts is removed, because it is impossible to be in both places at the same time: the part of you that is observing is not the part that is thinking. When you're experiencing emotional pain, try to step back and witness your own emotional processes. Immediately, you have the power not to get caught up in those emotions. This is even true of physical pain. In Vipassana meditation, practitioners sit for many hours in the same position. On top of boredom, creeping doubt and wandering thoughts, they have to deal with excruciating pain, but are taught to witness that pain instead of identifying with it. Acknowledging that there is a sensation, the Witness can choose not to subscribe to our tendency to label sensations good and bad, and can observe the sensation dispassionately, without judgement.

Cultivating the Witness is the way to freedom, the key to mindfulness, and a gateway to the spiritual life. This is where the spiritual and existential collide, as we are asked and enabled to take control of and accept responsibility for every aspect of our experience.

I hope you have found this short explanation helpful. If so, please pass it on.

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