My most recent viewing obsession is Lucifer. It’s a series (1-3 on Prime; 4-5 on Netflix).
In it the central character (exquisitely portrayed by Tom Ellis) is the Devil. If you’ve seen the show you’ll know that Lucifer has an impressive party-trick: he asks people what they want, what they really want, and they tell him. He then grants them favours to help them achieve what they desire.
When Lucifer Morningstar asks this question, the person he asks, no matter how fed-up, angry or disconnected they were before, immediately drops all defenses and simply tells him. As well as coming in handy for his crime-solving antics (yes, the Devil is solving crime with his LAPD partner, I said it was silly) this let’s him learn more about humanity, and how he can help people/himself. (Why? We’ll come back to that in a bit.)
At the heart of this show are some deep truths about being human. It explores themes of heaven and hell, sin and desire, pain and pleasure, anger, joy and love … yet at the same time it is silly and playful. I heard Tom Ellis say, in a recent radio interview, “we have a lot of fun, the show doesn’t take itself too seriously”. The characters to wander through our complex humanity: holding lightly the most painful/joyful of human experiences.
Anyway. This morning, while walking the dog, I was not thinking about Lucifer. I was thinking about Steve Hayes. Well, his book “A Liberated Mind.” Having just read the end before getting up this morning, something about the final story came to mind. In it, a dedicated professional asks a distressed man “what do you want?”. The circumstances of the story are truly awful. Yet in that sensitively-asked question, a space was opened. In that space the man was able to chose how he responded to the unfolding events. The way he responded allowed him to connect with what he wanted, his family, and to face his death with their love and support.
In reflecting on this deeply moving and inspiring story, I was a bit surprised when an image popped into my thoughts: Lucifer Morningstar, asking, with a Devilish smile – “so tell me, what is it you truly desire?”
It’s the same question.
The question at the heart of ACT, the question that I ask people every day: “what is it you want?”
ACT is a bit different from a lot of other therapies. In other approaches we often focus a lot on the person’s problems, distress and diagnosis. But I’ve learned that we get further in helping people if we can ask: “what is it that you truly, deep in your heart, want your life to be about?” – i.e. “what do you want?”.
It seems obvious, but having worked in mental health services I can assure you, it is frequently left out. It’s there, but it’s left out. Because to ask that question – I mean to really ask that question in a way that people can really answer it – is far more than just using the words.
How? How do we do that? What’s the secret to Lucifer’s supernatural party-trick.
There is no trick.
Fully focus on the person and the present moment, and simply ask.
It’s about being fully present in that moment, dropping attachments to own desires (e.g. for the person to feel better, calm down ..), slowing down and creating a space so that they can join you, safe enough to actually tell you what they want. It’s also about really committing to a value of helping or supporting them – as opposed to filling in a therapy admission form, getting a socially appropriate response or a response you know you can offer practical help with. There has to be the freedom for the person to answer, truly, what they want. And they can’t do that if it feels like they need to please you, give the “right” answer or prevent their pain from washing over on you.
Of course, there are times when the person can’t answer. There are times the questioner, is not able to make that space for another person – therapists are human too.
But, when we do, it can be the most powerful way to help people.