Thursday, June 12, 2008

From Problem Patterns to Solutions: Brief Therapy for Traders

An experienced trader writes to me:

"I am having a good year trading but today marks the THIRD TIME this year that I've made a critical error which goes against my whole philosophy of trading.

I am a trend trader. That is how I make very consistent gains regardless of what the market is doing...I was buying a stock at levels where I believed it would bounce...of course the stock didn't bounce so I added more at lower levels and more even lower...

I got out of the trade on a rally, but it cost me the next two weeks of average profits...

I knew it was stupid when I was doing it, yet I continued to compound the problem. I didn't necessarily want to be right and make money on the trade, just minimize the losses (by buying more at lower levels)...

What I am not comfortable with is WHY I engaged in such risky behavior...what is the root, how do I find it, eradicate it?...The other two times were similar trades with similar results."

This is a very typical scenario that I help traders with. In this post, I'll walk you through how I view such problems and what I typically recommend.

The framework that I operate from, broadly speaking, is one that is known as brief therapy. These short-term approaches accelerate cognitive, emotional, and behavioral change by emphasizing hands-on skills building and the creation of powerful, new experiences that change how we view things.

Brief therapy is not appropriate for all people and situations, particularly those with chronic (longstanding) emotional problems that significantly interfere with areas of life functioning. Fortunately I know my writer and can vouch for the fact that he does not suffer from any significant emotional disorders.

So what is the key to his problem? What one feature stands out in his presentation? Take a moment and look over his words. What most strikes you about the difficulty?

One such key is that this has happened before in very similar ways. That tells us that it is likely a cyclical problem. Something initiates the pattern (sets it off); something keeps it going (even though he knows it is "stupid"); and something later kicks in to get him out of the pattern.

Most cyclical patterns are there for a reason: they serve a function. The trader's intense desire to find the problem and "eradicate" it is probably part of the problem pattern itself--much as the desire to eradicate insomnia can keep a person awake all night or the desire to eradicate fat can lead a bulimic person to binge eat.

In short, fighting the pattern is a mistake. The challenge is to understand the function of the pattern and then rehearse a different way of satisfying this function. Instead of viewing the problem pattern as maladaptive, the brief therapist views it as a form of problem solving that no longer works for the individual.

Let's take a simple example: Bill grew up with a mother that was anxious and overbearing. Conflicts at home were very unpleasant, so Bill learned to avoid conflict by minimizing communication with his mother whenever she sounded upset. This worked well throughout his childhood. Now Bill is married to Susan, who at times feels overwhelmed at work and reaches out to Bill. Much to Susan's dismay, Bill withdraws at those times and fails to offer support. She feels as though he doesn't care about what she's going through. Bill feels guilty about not being there for Susan and tries to make it up to her, only to fall short the next time she is worried or frustrated.

One might imagine Bill saying the same thing as our trader: "This is the THIRD TIME I've let my wife down...I know it's stupid when I'm pulling away from her, but I continue to compound the problem." It's a cyclical problem that represents a past, overlearned response to a stressful situation.

So how do we help Bill? We don't try to "eradicate" the problem--that hasn't worked. Rather, we get him to *talk* with Susan when he's feeling uncomfortable with her emotions. Step by step, we coach him through such a conversation, opening up about his thoughts and fears instead of pulling away. For example, we teach him to say to himself, "I'm not really uncomfortable with Susan; this is my old fear of my mother cropping up again. How can I tell Susan about that?"

As it turns out, just about anything Bill says to Susan in the situation about his experience will be helpful, because it will disrupt the old pattern and show her that he truly is listening, that he really cares. That sets the stage for the two of them to develop new patterns. Instead of trying to eradicate and bury his feelings, we use them as an opportunity for Bill to connect with Susan.

So back to our trader. He has a cyclical pattern in which he adds to losing trades, eventually taking outsized losers. This is frustrating to him (note the all-caps when he describes the THIRD TIME he's experienced the problem this year), and it is something he wants to get rid of. But what is the function of the pattern? Our trader perceptively notes it himself: "I didn't necessarily want to be right and make money on the trade, just minimize losses." So there it is: our trader is trying to avoid loss by averaging down. This is his way of fighting against failure, falling short.

In a subsequent communication, the trader revealed to me, "Each of these bigger losses occured after a period of very good trading. I didn't feel cocky, but my actions were. I cannot increase my relative risk tolerance after a period of success." This is a very good observation. The problem pattern is NOT triggered by a losing trade. It is triggered by success! After a winning period, our trader becomes emotionally attached to winning: he wants to eradicate losses. This has him resisting taking normal losses at his stop points and instead averaging down to minimize the loss. It's not that he's trying for a home run trade: he doesn't want to stop winning.

So there's the trap. Once the trader hits a winning streak, he wants to keep winning. This makes even normal losses feel threatening. So what can he do? Ironically, the answer is to purposely engage in guided imagery exercises before the trading day starts in which he mentally rehearses honoring his stop levels and taking normal losses. These exercises would be doubled following winning trading days. Just as we had Bill talk with Susan about his discomfort, we encourage our trader to openly confront his need to keep winning. Fighting the pattern hasn't worked; by facing the problem head on, he can keep a level head even when he's in his best winning streak.

I don't know our trader very well, but my guess is that there's more to his drive and desire for success. Perhaps he's *needing* to win instead of passionately *wanting* to win. There's an important difference. Once we're in the "need-to-win" mindset, losses become threatening and we try to avoid them by doing "stupid" things. By rehearsing an "ok to lose" mindset, we interrupt the need pattern and set the stage for initiating new patterns of trading well.

I enjoy trading and I find markets endlessly fascinating. But it's working with people and helping them make changes in their lives that really makes my day. Once we stop viewing patterns as "problems" to "eradicate" and simply discover fresh ways to meet the needs underneath those patterns, we eliminate many of our blocks to success and happiness. And isn't that what coaching is all about?


Therapy for the Mentally Well

Using Brief Therapy to Become Your Own Coach

The First Steps of Brief Therapy

Brief Therapy With a Solution Focus