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Review of "The Therapeutic "Aha!""

By Courtney Armstrong
W. W. Norton, 2015
Review by Beth Cholette, Ph.D. on Mar 15th 2016
The Therapeutic

As a clinical psychologist who has worked in a college counseling center for over twenty years, I've definitely seen my share of "stuck" clients.  Although therapy is not necessarily meant as a quick fix, solutions-focused models of treatment have been shown to be efficacious, and thus I was curious as to whether The Therapeutic "Aha!": 10 Strategies for Getting Your Clients Unstuck might be beneficial as well. 

Author Courtney Armstrong, a masters-level licensed professional counselor, describes a significant amount of research supporting her methods, which are based on Jon Connolly's Rapid Resolution TherapyTM.  In particular, she reviews the importance of engaging the emotional brain as a means not only to strengthen the therapeutic alliance but also to foster true change.  In terms of a specific therapy strategy, Armstrong refers to what she calls "Align, Lift, and Lead."  Aligning and lifting are similar to traditional therapy interventions involving acknowledging and affirming; by leading the client, the therapist provides a slight nudge in the direction of what is possible for the client, making statements such as "as the result of us working together, I'm seeing you..."  The goal of this is to help provide the client with insight, possibility, and hope.

Another major focus of this book is on healing of traumatic or emotional memories.  Here Armstrong applies what she calls her RECON method, an acronym for five-step plan which involves the following:  1) Recall the current undesired state of mind briefly, 2) Explore for a similar associated memory from the past, 3) Create a calm, pleasant experience to elicit the desired response, 4) Observationally describe the troubling memory, and 5) Neutralize the negative emotions with the contrasting positive state to update the original learning.  This process necessitates engaging the client in identifying symbolic visualization, with the prompt being "let's create a symbol of your mind working that way [in the desired, more positive manner], something in nature or an animal in the wild--what comes to mind?"  Of course, in every case example Armstrong uses in the book, the client immediately comes up with something--"a sunset" "a beautiful white horse."  These uber-compliant cases are not truly valid illustrations of "stuck" clients; it would have been much more helpful had Armstrong included clients who resisted these interventions or who simply were uncertain how to respond.

Still, while the RECON technique itself may have some limitations, Armstrong includes a number of strategies that can easily be employed independently.  She talked in detail about use of metaphor--certainly not a new concept in psychotherapy, but one for which she offers specific guidelines in becoming a "spirited storyteller."  Along those same lines, play and humor form a large part of Armstrong's work, and she discusses how to use these methods in dealing with difficult issues such as trauma and anger.  Finally, Armstrong offers ideas for incorporating alternative modalities such as music, movement, and poetry.  Her idea of creating a mood-modifying playlist so resonated with me that I found myself recommending it to two separate clients just yesterday.  On the other hand, I'm not sure I'm ready to encourage traumatized clients to virtual punch me, another strategy that Armstrong has used in her sessions.

In summary, whether or not one fully embraces Armstrong's approach, The Therapeutic "Aha!" provides a wealth of options for inspiring therapists to think outside of the proverbial box.  By being open to bringing new ideas into the practice of psychotherapy, we avoid becoming stuck ourselves, which can only serve to benefit our clients.


© 2016 Beth Cholette


Beth Cholette, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who provides psychotherapy to college students.