Friday, January 05, 2007

Brief Therapy: Therapy for the Mentally Well

It is commonly assumed that the role of the psychologist is to help people with their problems. Lodged in the backs of our minds is the image of the patient on the couch, talking with a Freudian analyst. In reality, applied psychology has come a long way from its beginnings as a "talking cure". Indeed, many of the newer approaches, which have been extensively studied and validated through research, do not emphasize talking at all.

Nonetheless, old assumptions die hard. People assume that you need to have "a problem" in order to see a psychologist. In fact, insurance companies will not reimburse visits to psychologists and psychiatrists unless they are provided with a "diagnosis" of the problems being "treated". Little wonder that the stereotype persists that there's something wrong with you if you need to see a "shrink".

The reality is that the good psychologist is not a shrink, but instead expands people's minds and horizons. The goal is not to treat problems, but to make changes. Psychology is about making changes in life. Sometimes these are changes in relationships; other times, they are changes in the ways we think, feel, or act. To benefit from psychology doesn't require that you have a problem. It does require a desire to make changes.

A group of methods known as brief therapies are extremely promising, because they accelerate the process of change. I refer to the brief therapies as therapies for the mentally well. There are individuals who have chronic mental health problems. They are not the ones for whom brief work is appropriate: lifelong, severe problems often require ongoing assistance, including medication help. The mentally well, however, are not beset with such problems. They are simply interested in making changes. Sometimes those changes are simply to expand their strengths: to become even better at what they do.

A trader who made 2 million dollars last year--and more the year before that--recently insisted on meeting with me before New Year's Day to identify areas for improvement and set goals--and a path for meeting those goals--for 2007. His goal was to enhance his performance, not rid himself of personal demons. That is an excellent use of therapy for the mentally well.

So how do you know if you can benefit from such brief work? Here's a guide:

Behavior is patterned. How we think, feel, and act have a pattern to them, and that patterning is what makes us who we are. The sum total of our patterns is our personality.

Sometimes our patterns interfere with our goals in life. They prevent us from being who we want to be or accomplishing what we want to accomplish.

Perhaps there are times when you say to yourself, "I don't know why I keep [fill in the blank]. I wish I would stop."

You could fill in the blank with any of the following--and more:

"losing my temper"
"going into slumps"
"winding up in bad relationships"
"overeating"
"beating myself up"
"making stupid trades"
"procrastinating"
"pushing people away"
"worrying"
"choking under pressure"

In each of these situations, we're recognizing that there is some pattern of behavior that is not fully in our control. The pattern has ossified: it's hardened into a habit. If you can identify a pattern that is getting in your way, you can benefit from short-term applications of psychology.

Brief therapy is about changing the patterns that no longer serve us well. The second step in such therapy for the mentally well is to ask yourself: What is the one pattern that is most holding me back from my goals, from being who I want to be?

So what's the first step? To know what our goals are. To know who you want to be. Many people never travel the right path, because they never formulate their destination.

So that's where we'll begin in the next post in this series: Figuring out where you want to go in life. Then we'll take a look at what might be holding you back.

But first things first. Solving a problem will not give you a goal. Furiously climbing the ladder of success won't help you if it's leaning against the wrong structure.

Brief therapy doesn't start with problems. It starts with goals--and a vision for the future. Without such vision, we're walking blind through life. The therapy for the mentally well begins with the recognition that it's time to open our eyes and develop our vision.


Related readings:

Brief Therapy and Becoming Your Own Trading Coach - Part One, Part Two, Part Three

TraderFeed Posts on Psychology From 2006 - Part One, Part Two, Part Three

Evaluating Problems That Interfere With Trading

Excerpt From My Book on Trading Performance

Excerpt From My Book on Trading Psychology

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Brett,

While this is a financial trading forum I really appreciate your psychology insights. I've found that my parents generation(70+) is much less inclined to try therapy and they end up getting stuck in old patterns. Like trading, holding on to an old pattern that continues to fail is not good. I think the best thing any trader can do to improve is realize they don't know it all.

Cheers,
Marc

Brett Steenbarger, Ph.D. said...

Thanks, Marc. My goal is to help traders learn how to recognize and shift their own patterns--skills that then can be applied real time to trading situations. I hope the upcoming posts on the topic help to illustrate how that can be accomplished. I appreciate the feedback--

Brett

The Market Speculator said...

Brett,
I'm going to play along with your series of brief therapy series. My goal is, simply, to become a better trader. Outside of family, that is my passion. I'm looking forward to figuring out what's holding me back.

Brett Steenbarger, Ph.D. said...

Hi Market Speculator,

Thanks for your interest. In working on improving trading performance, the key is to figure out whether the improvement is going to come from better methods (entries, exits, money mgt, etc) or from better implementation of existing methods (which can get into the psychology of performance). That's why I try to address both facets in the blog.

Brett