Categories:Anne's Blog
Anne Hooper

The message the older generation is passing down is that you are never too old to stop learning.  Keeping an open-mind and allowing that mind to remain flexible is vital.  But the way anything keeps flexible is through exercise.  In the case of the brain it means either grappling with something new or repeating earlier concepts to find new methods of application.

One of the difficulties older people encounter is that they suffer short-term memory problems.  Clinical observation has shown however that repetition and list-making can substitute for what would earlier have been held effortlessly in the brain.  Intelligence does not diminish, unless there has been damage to the brain through illness.  Writers and artists working through till their 90s find that, provided they pace themselves more slowly, and work through their themes more thoroughly, they continue to meet their self-imposed targets of excellency.

But solving problems can be hard at any age.  Learning some of the time-honoured counselling methods of dealing with difficult situations is of value to all students of behaviour.  Often the real problem lies in understanding exactly what it is that lies at the root of a tricky situation.  Laddering is a counselling game.


Laddering is a method of asking a series of questions, each one starting with “Why is it important to you that?” until finally the person answering can go no further with replies.  The last reply is the underlying reason for whatever the difficulty is and, taken to its logical extent, usually ends up as one of two prepositions.  The first is that ‘hell is other people’ and the second is that ‘hell is being on your own’.


Q.   Why do you read all the time?

A.   Because it means I keep abreast of new literature.

Q.   Why is it important that you keep abreast of new literature?

A.   Because, if I don’t, it means that I might be seen as unintelligent.

Q.   Why is it important that you are not seen as unintelligent?

A.  So that I won’t feel ashamed.

Q.   Why is it important that you should not feel ashamed?

A.   So that I can feel as good as the other members of my family.

Q.   Why is it important to feel as good as the other members of the family?

A.  So that they wouldn’t label me as dumb and ignore me.

And so it goes on.  The bottom line here is that ‘hell is other people’ – in this particular case the original family.  This respondent brings the same anxiety, suffered long ago in childhood, to aspects of adult life.  Rather than obsessively read, the respondent would be wise to think of developing many other aspects of independence so that it doesn’t matter quite so much what their internal ‘original family’ thinks.  Obsessive reading has been a defence reaction to something that happened decades earlier.  If on the other hand the premise had turned out to be ‘hell is being on your one’ the respondent would have been wise to develop internal strengths in order to savour solitude.


Solutions to difficulties are not easily apparent.  Many clients expect the counsellor will provide a solution but a good counsellor will refrain from doing so since any solution that is not specifically chosen by the client will not be of value.  Part of learning to mature, is learning to think out difficulties and taking responsibility for subsequent actions yourself.  But how do you know what is the right direction to go in?

It both helps and hinders to know that there may be several ‘right’ directions and that, in the end, what is ‘right’ is actually what feels right at the time.

1.     Spend some open-ended time, preferably during an afternoon, thinking about the choices.

2.     Write the choices down, each one on a separate sheet of paper.

3.     Then taking it in turns, free-associate around each choice.  For example, free-associations that might go with  “I want to travel around the world’ might be  freedom, lack of responsibility, new directions, creativity, new opportunities, fresh start, fresh contacts’.  For ‘I should stay at home and look after my recently widowed mother’ there may be the following: trapped, doing my duty, long-term commitment, staying in one place, depression, no new friends.  It becomes clear on reading these two that the central problem has been polarised.  The choice, so far, appears to be between the energetic one and the depressed one.

4.      Deliberately engineer a compromise scenario which includes some kind of payoff.  In this case the solution might be to refrain from travelling immediately and to spend an agreed amount of time in settling the widowed mother, but also to give both self and the mother a time-contract.  “In six months time I will be going to Australia for a while.”If there are more than two options, free association is a good method of whittling the options down till there are only two left.

1.      If the choice is still not apparent after an hour or so spent on the exercise then consciously put the whole thing out of your mind and sleep on it.  One of the interesting things about sought solutions is that they often pop into the mind the next day as if the brain has unconsciously been deliberating them for you.


Feeling hurt is devastating and most of us manage to devise brilliant defence systems, usually in childhood, that allow us to override the awful emotions of hurt and move on to something more pleasurable.  Denial is one defence; saying (and believing) it is someone else’s fault is another.  Great rescuers though these may be, there are times when such methods are inappropriate.  These are the times when if you want to rescue an important  relationship you must look at your behaviour.   But just how is it done?


  1. Wait before going into defence.  Literally take a deep breath.
  2. Identify the hurt feeling.  Own up to it.
  3. Ask where it has come from?  Is this a situation that has happened in the past?  Does it hail from childhood?
  4. Explain the hurt feeling to the partner/friend and that it is a defence system.
  5. Develop ways to change your behaviour, with the partner if possible, that help you overcome those defunct hurts.

Example:  Mr A feels outraged when he hears a voice mail message to his wife, from a strange male, that sounds over-intimate.  His jealousy rushes to the fore and his instinct is to act in blind rage.  But this is a problem she and he have been wrestling with for a while.  Mr A takes a deep breath and waits (1).

Next he asks himself why he is feeling so strongly when his wife has given him no cause for anxiety.  What are the real feelings he is getting?(2)  He identifies these as being: shut out, terribly rejected.  Where could that have come from in the past?(3)  He answers this by remembering how his mother always favoured his baby sister and how this hurt.  When he described his thought process to his wife,(4) she reacts warmly, offering him loving reassurance and the information that the caller was her new colleague from work.

Bearing in mind that his trigger point is insecurity, he asked his wife to request her colleague to sound more business-like when calling.  Her reaction was that she could not control a colleague’s behaviour but she could acquire her own voice mail system so that her husband wouldn’t be forced to listen to her messages.(5)  By agreeing to take some kind of action, she reassured her husband who instantly felt he had been listened to and taken seriously.  His jealous fits lessened.