Learning to Drive Left: Breaking Out of Our Therapeutic Comfort Zone


How We Can Solve Our Most Challenging Cases

The desire to keep growing and improve our skills is a good part of what brought many of us into this demanding profession.  But once we’ve acquired some experience and achieved a certain level of competence, we may begin to fall into a routine, just repeating ourselves over and over again. After all, getting to the next level—transcending our own current performance—often requires us to leave our normal comfort zone, not something many of us relish doing. Nevertheless, getting to that next level of mastery doesn’t just improve our performance—it can make us feel renewed as human beings.

Let me give you an example from my after-hours life as a pick-up basketball player.  I’ve been playing basketball for clBasketballose to 50 years now—thousands of hours dribbling, running up and down basketball courts, working on my jump shot, pushing and shoving complete strangers. For a 63 year-old considerably beyond the usual age for a viable basketball career, I’m not a bad player. But over the last few years, I noticed that I was just repeating my old tricks, doing the same things I know how to do, over and over again. I still loved basketball, but there was getting to be a certain sameness about my game. I felt stale.

Last year at this time, I got inspired watching the Dallas Mavericks, one of the oldest teams in the NBA with a roster of geriatric 30-somethings, win the league championship. I was drawn to try for my own basketball breakthrough and see if I could get out of my benign rut.  I found myself a coach—a 25-year-old named Andrew who loved basketball even more than I do and seemed to have studied everything there is to know about the game. Since then, he’s become my basketball guru and taskmaster. Every week, I have a session with Andrew, who keeps pushing me to expand my game, after which I take notes and practice what I’ve learned. Andrew’s very nice, but very tough. Instead of telling me how great I am at stuff I already know how to do well, he relentlessly points out the limits of my game, and then shows me how I can improve.

A few weeks ago, for example, after observing how predictable my offensive repertoire was, he announced, “You always drive right, never left. You gotta expand your game.”  As a right-handed person, I naturally tend to dribble with my right hand, make jump shots to my right, pass to my right, and so on. So he started pushing me to focus on dribbling with my left hand, driving to my left, and hitting left-hand lay-ups. It felt unnatural, awkward, hard to do, but I practiced the moves he showed me again and again and again. One day, after a couple of weeks of this, I found myself playing one-on-one with a familiar rival who had the annoying habit of beating me. I was determined that, regardless of how awkward it felt, I’d make myself drive left. Quite familiar with my right-wing basketball tendencies, my opponent kept overplaying me to move to my right. Instead, I kept hitting left-handed lay-up after lay-up and won easily. But not only did I feel the fleeting joy of victory, I had that incomparable sense of suddenly discovering a new self, not bounded by my old limitations. It was thrilling.

As therapists, we all face situations and cases that tap into our particular limitations, make us feel frustrated and incompetent. We all tend to get into our ruts, avoid certain kinds of clients, or feel off-balance and uncomfortable in the face of clinical challenges that press our particular buttons. And in a sense, the presenters in our upcoming webcast series The 6 Biggest Challenges Therapists Face are like Andrew. They recognize what keeps us limited in our effectiveness and how routinized our practices can become. But, like Andrew, they have highly practical suggestions—offered in the context of very vivid case examples—for helping us get beyond our limitations.

Without Andrew, I’d still be avoiding what I didn’t feel fully competent doing. But he’s opened up a whole new range of choices for me on the basketball court. I hope you discover some new choices for yourself in our new webcast series and up the level of skill and excitement of your “game” in your consulting room. 

06.08.2012   Posted In: NETWORKER EXCHANGE   By Rich Simon
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  • Not available avatar Larry Drell, MD 06.08.2012 11:18
    Rich, I love your story. It is a perfect metaphor. I have been in practice for 40 years doing an interpersonal type of psychotherapy. I have just started working quite seriously with hypnosis after attending several workshops at the Networker.

    Learning a new way of looking at problems, trying new approaches and interactions has been illuminating and exciting. I look forward to the new series. Thanks.
    Larry Drell, MD
    Washington DC
  • Not available avatar Lorna Hecht-Zablow, MFT 06.08.2012 12:11
    Rich, you've hired a basketball coach to help you to expand your skill set. Likewise, having a clinical coach is an excellent way to promote personal growth and clinical competence. Coaching is an intrinsic part of the study and practice of Bowen Family Systems Theory. Monthly coaching helps my best self to show up in my personal life and my therapy office.
  • Not available avatar jimz 06.08.2012 12:44
    ...very powerful..thanks Rich.
  • Not available avatar anne w., 06.08.2012 13:46
    wow, rich, your energy is awesome! you never cease to surprise me. i totally agree with you as to how we constantly need to keep learning (thank you a million for all the psychotherapy networker's webinars), and also challenge ourselves (not to wait for our clients to challenge us... it's just that sport metaphors don't appeal to me too well.
    best regards,
  • Not available avatar Ken Hardy 06.08.2012 14:14
    Hey Rich, you are my hero! How is your footwork on the low block? My next challenge is to improve the footwork....to be Kobesque! Keep going left baby! Ken
  • Not available avatar Sneha Nikam 06.08.2012 14:41
    Dear Rich Sir, Thank you for sharing this. Since few months or a year back from when I got accessed to Webinar sessions, I have special regards and respect for you. All my best wishes with you. Take Care.

    Mumbai (India).
  • Not available avatar Tom Nolan 06.08.2012 16:52
    I admire your tenacity and willingness to nudge and push your personal and professional "edge". As a family systems therapist for about 30 years I've also pushed at the edges of my comfort zone by doing more hypnosis, taking a drawing and art class, and will be starting Tai chi classes. It's scary at times and humbling, but so exciting. I feel more empowered and impassioned not only professionally but in my life as a whole. Thank you for sharing. This blog about personal growth could really catch on and stimulate others!
  • Not available avatar Bruce Cowper-Smith 06.08.2012 17:19
    Rich, as much as I generally agree with you, I now see things a little differently, and would welcome some healthy debate. If the average therapist has about a 75% success rate, why should we push to get that much better? When do we feel we are good enough? Does it really make sense to challenge ourselves to try to work with increasingly difficult clients who sometimes are higher risk and lower reward? This is especially important in the context of professional associations that want to make an example of anyone trying something new. Personally, my creativity took a back seat after a client I was trying very hard to stay engaged with made a professional complaint. Now I'm not inclined to try so hard. If I need a good challenge, I can try something new on the squash court, or in my woodworking shop. The risks are lower there.
  • Not available avatar Joseph Maizlish 06.08.2012 23:48
    Whether a new enterprise or a new approach in an old enterprise, your story is about growth. Our clients need to grow beyond their comfort (or discomfort) zones; part, perhaps a large part, of our help to them can be to show them by the example of our spirit (rather than by description in words) the benefit of accepting the challenge of growth.
  • Not available avatar Joy Clarke 06.09.2012 02:40
    Stetching into left moves, and broadening ME in the world and in my work, YES! Learning how to practice in a new closed and careful cultural context will be helped by my simply doing things differently, and doing different things! It's a stretch in my heart and confidence, I've resisted it hard for 3 years. Then the gifts of confidence and learning and fun of these amazing webinars, plus the feeling of being connected to the wider world of thought and work, and I feel right on the cutting edge and a gift to my new community here. I'm even not so terrified of a whole new left turn into becoming the Mme Maruti Ama Bishkopi of the Free State. Wow. THANKS!
  • Not available avatar Edie 06.10.2012 19:27
    i loved the story. Way to go. The best to you in all of your endeavors. Sincerely, Edie
  • Not available avatar Elizabeth 06.11.2012 19:07
    Rich, from Australia, thanks for sharing yourself. Authenticity is the thing that draws me in and the Networker helps me feel connected and inspired. Expressive dance is my thing and I am continually challenging myself (at 65) to move and be in different ways, which flows into my work.

  • Not available avatar Kelly 06.11.2012 20:21
    Great article! I'm new in the field, and trying to absorb everything, including your blog content and design! Fantastic information! Thanks....

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