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Making Sense Of The Quicksand Trap Part 2 - Another Key Reframe For Coaches & Therapists

This article continues the theme of my last article, where I introduduced the Human Performance Curve (HPC) as a tool for helping clients make sense of stress situations, and especially of the "quicksand trap", which is a metaphor for when they make things worse by trying too hard in some sense, or try to suppress or escape from the experience of anxiety or stress. The point is that the HPC suggests a way forward, which is to develop the skill of letting go or reducing arousal.

But that's easier said than done for many clients: it sounds like they're being asked to give up and put up. How can we express the challenge in more positive terms?

Today's article focuses on another reframe that builds on the quicksand-trap metaphor. I call it the dual intelligence model, but the simple idea at the heart of it, is that there are different parts of the mind that have different abilities and ways of doing things.

There are many things we can do but we can't necessarily consciously decide to do them whenever we feel like it. Examples are the ability to fall asleep, creative and artistic abilities, and to some extent sporting abilities. Many practical self-control challenges fit this pattern. The conscious mind's attempts to draw on these capacities can back-fire, creating quicksand-trap situations.

In the dual intelligence model the two parts are firstly the thinking mind or cognitive intelligence, and secondly the body or somatic intelligence.

dual intelligence model

The two intelligences are different and complementary ways of knowing and understanding, and also doing. Let's take eating as a context for explaining how they work. All of us make decisions every day about what to eat and when. The thinking mind contributes to the process, for example by knowing that fresh vegetables are good for you since they contain vitamins and minerals etc., and that too much sugar is unhealthy. The body intelligence by contrast, knows when you're hungry, and when you've eaten just enough that you don't need any more. That's a qualitatively different way of knowing.

There are of course many ways to make similar splits. Head and heart, or reason and emotion, or conscious and unconscious, are all examples. In my model thinking intelligence is akin to the conscious mind which achieves outcomes by exerting the will. The body intelligence is automatic, more like sub-conscious processing (rather than the Freudian unconscious).

The body intelligence communicates messages to the conscious thinking mind in the form of feelings and sensations. It can also receive messages – but not necessarily in the form of language. If a client thinks to himself, “I need to relax or [something terrible] will happen”, then the message conveyed is one of threat and danger, and NOT that it's ok to relax. The result is the opposite of what's wanted – a little quicksand trap.

Ideally the two intelligences should work together. Making healthy eating choices, for example, requires both. That's why I've drawn the two circles overlapping in the above figure. It means two-way communication. Things go wrong when messages aren't picked up, or messages are interpreted wrongly, or the wrong messages are given inadvertently, or when one part (the thinking mind) tries to over-appropriate control – i.e. it tries to take on something best left to the automatic body intelligence, such as getting to sleep.

The model reframes the challenge of learning stress resilience skills as this: how do we access the resourcefulness of the body intelligence, which in a sense already knows how to relax etc., if not by will-power?

Weight Management as an Illustration

Let's consider how these processes can show up in the challenge of weight management.

  • Not heeding messages – overweight people often eat in a state of stress and guilt – they don't savour the pleasurable feelings of eating and don't notice when they've had enough.
  • Misinterpreting messages – unpleasant feelings are taken as triggers to eat, when they might be emotional messages rather than hunger. The result is comfort eating.
  • Thinking mind over-extending – you decide you know what's best for the body and over-rule hunger, but the urge to eat doesn't necessarily go quietly ...
  • Negative attitude to the body - I remember one client who described her body as something she dragged around with her all day. With a negative attitude such as this, you're not going to access all the resourcefulness of the body, not least because it's getting the wrong messages.

Conclusion

The dual intelligence model gives clients a new way to think about what's going on in their quicksand situations. They need to access the resources of a different part of their mind, that is (presently) outside of their limited conscious control. My online training course gives several ways to work with this new challenge.

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