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Nick Bonner

Interview

By Will Sutherland

Key Points:

  • The importance of promoting client-autonomy
  • Utilising imagery and experiential techniques through Schema Therapy
  • The solitary nature of being a psychologist

Nick is a general psychologist at The Three Seas Psychology in Richmond and Northcote. He works primarily with Schema Therapy and CBT and is working towards integrating EMDR into his practice. Nick also enjoys playing basketball and supports the Utah Jazz in the NBA.

Will Sutherland (Interviewer)
Thanks again for agreeing to do this. We haven’t pre-prepared for this interview, I think that’s good.

Nick Bonner (Psychologist)
Yeah, going in cold and not so staged.

WS
Okay, so the first question is, what are the sort of values that are important to you in your practice of psychology?

NB

I think probably the real core value is trying to promote client autonomy. So, allowing clients to have the flexibility to redirect things if things aren’t working for them. Also, trying to be very attuned to their own unique needs when it comes to therapy. I try to roll with it even if there’s a part of me that might not agree with something. If that’s somewhere they want to go, I’ll try to just indulge that and let them guide the journey a little bit.

So, I’d say promoting client autonomy is probably key. Then I think the other would be trying to be as authentic as possible about your experience with them. So, if you feel moved by something they’re saying, let them know. Try to cultivate a relationship with some level of self-disclosure.

WS

Do you think that ties into motivational interviewing and trying to discover their reasons for being there, too?

NB

Yeah, I think it does tie in with the kind of motivational interviewing approach, although I don’t tend to use it that frequently these days. Sometimes if you feel stuck as a therapist, I think it’s good just to sit back and drop all your therapy modes. Instead try to closely attend to what the client thinks is happening for them. And share your own experience of what you think’s happening with them.

WS

Could you talk about the development of different techniques over time in your practice?

NB

Yeah. So, I think the first love was always schema therapy. At uni, I remember the point when we started to come to schema therapy. That just felt like a real lightbulb, eye opening moment. I always felt a bit uncomfortable about purely working with thought alone. I always thought that that was a bit reductionist and overly sort of simplistic. And I think the schema therapy model made a hell of a lot more sense to me. It was a lot more holistic. It acknowledges the role that early life experience plays in clients later presenting issues. It’s just more of an integrative kind of therapy.

The techniques that really appeal to me are probably more of the experiential techniques within schema therapy. I find they’re the ones that are often quite powerful for clients at driving change. So, I might use the Empty Chair Technique that schema has borrowed from Gestalt therapy, or imagery rescripting, which deals with these adverse early life experiences. They’re probably the techniques that have always been fascinating.

WS

And that probably also comes across to the client as well, that this is a technique that you’re passionate about. That probably brings that energy into the room as well.

NB

Yeah, definitely. I think clients can grasp it. They’ll say ‘I know these thoughts I’m having aren’t true. I don’t believe them but, I can’t help but feel that they’re true.’ Schema helps them understand that it’s these early life experiences and these memories that are still part of the problem for them. And they need to have a different experience from what they once had. I think they grasp that quite well. Often, they find the imagery and rescripting techniques quite helpful and powerful. When purely cognitive based therapy hasn’t been enough.

WS

Obviously, most jobs in the world, you’ve got co-workers working with you in the same room. Do you find that challenging being the only one in the working position, when practicing?

NB

100%. Yeah. I think that’s one of the big challenges for any kind of health related, private practice. How do you attain support when needed? I think that’s particularly challenging after a difficult session. Luckily, I’m quite an introverted person. So, I probably can cope with that quite well. But I imagine if I was even 30% more extroverted, I’d probably really struggle with it. And there are still times where I might struggle with that a little bit. But I think that’s where the importance of supervision comes in. Even just little chats with people out in the hallway can help. Those little things matter. But it’s definitely a challenge.

WS

I heard this story about Bono from U2, that after they had been on tour for months, the first week or two after Bono’s wife has to keep telling him to get down off the dinner table, metaphorically. Because he’s still acting like he’s in front of thousands of people. Is there an equivalent for yourself in that? Are there times when you have to shift out of, I guess, the Psychologist Mindset when you’re talking with friends or even with your family?

NB

I’ve never really had a problem with that. I’ve always felt like none of your friends want you to be their psychologist and I don’t want to be theirs. So I feel like I’m pretty good with that boundary. There might be times when you’re, you know, something’s happening with a friend where you might sort of start indulging in some formulation. I actually find at the end of a workday I tend to want to listen to something that’s just completely unrelated to psychology. You know, so just podcasts on the way home.

WS

What led to your interest in working with childhood trauma and treating children and adolescents?

NB

Well, I don’t regularly treat kids and adolescents anymore. So, I’m probably much more interested in working with adults these days. But having said that, I think early childhood experiences are just so profoundly impactful. If you can understand that then you get a much better grasp of the client that’s in front of you. And it helps reduce any kind of judgement that you might have about the client. I think that’s one of the good things about psychology in general, is it helps make you a far less judgmental person. Because you have a much greater sense of empathy about how our clients had to learn to cope and adapt with the challenges in their daily life experience in their family or in their schooling life or whatnot. So yeah, I just think that more and more I’ve been attracted to therapy approaches that put childhood experience at the absolute core of the focus. I’m not sure if that answers the question. I just feel like, if you don’t understand that early childhood experience, I just don’t think you’re as well equipped to help a client with their presenting issues in the present. So it’s extremely important.

WS

What’s the strangest metaphor or example you’ve given to a client that you probably would never find in a psychology textbook, but has been effective?

NB

Yeah, that’s a good question. I’m probably not particularly novel about creating metaphors. I love it when a client develops their own metaphor and describes their experience. And I tend to just roll with that. And I find that that’s often really useful. Not only is it useful for helping understand their experience, but also as part of the change process. So, if you’re working with a metaphor that’s quite visual then it’s easier to get them to reimagine that. If you were in a more positive place, how might the actual metaphor change? How differently would it look? Yeah, I love it when clients come up with their own metaphors, but I’m probably not particularly creative at coming up with my own. But it’s a good question. For some reason, I always tend to just default to the ocean because I feel like it represents how varied life can be. How you might think that you’re on smooth seas and all of a sudden it changes or there’s something really horrible like a tsunami.

WS

Yeah. It’s a pretty universal image as well.

NB

Yeah, I think you can often adapt, like the conditions in the ocean to something that they utilise. I don’t I have anything particularly creative ones. I wish I was more creative.

WS

It sounds like a lot of the techniques that you use take people away from the purely thinking about something and potentially overthinking about it. Do you think that’d be a fair statement?

NB

Absolutely. Yeah, I think the core focus is what childhood needs weren’t sufficiently met for you. And how do we go about getting them met now. So that that can also mean reimagining their experience in their youth in a direction that’s far healthier for them. It also means looking at their relationships today, looking at the patterns of their behaviour and thinking is this helping you get that need met. Or is it counterproductive? I think that experience, from a behavioural focus, is particularly powerful. It not only means that clients can think in healthy ways, but they might actually believe it as well. So you might know that you’re not alone in the world but you might feel immensely lonely. These techniques help you actually feel like you’re connected and you’re bonded and not alone. That’s why they’re so damn integral as a successful change variable.

WS

What is your greatest achievement in basketball?

NB

I’m known in my team for being scared to take a shot. Perhaps that has something to do with my own schemas. And I’m a pretty cautious person temperamentally. So, for me, just to take the final shot in a game is, personally, a big achievement. I’d rather be trying to create a better shot for someone rather than to take it myself. And I’m not a particularly strong shooter, anyway. The other standout memory was being 15 and hitting a baseline fadeaway to win the game. Then probably the other one would be just as a kid when you throw up those full court shots. A bit of a tick tock moment, though we didn’t have that back then.

WS

Do you think there’s any room for basketball metaphors in schema or in psychology in general?

NB

The only time I’ve used anything to do with basketball and therapy would be more as a way of trying to bond with the client. So, we know that the therapeutic alliance is just integral to the change that you get in therapy. I think it’s sometimes underappreciated that the bonding part is actually really, really important. So when a client first walks in the door I want to think about ‘how close do I feel with this client?’ and ‘what could be some way of getting closer?’ So, if there’s any overlapping interests, maybe at the very end of the session I might have a very brief sort of touch point with the client about their interest just to basically say ‘hey, I’m interested in getting closer to you.’ That sense of bond is really important to allow them to feel vulnerable. Having said that, you have to be mindful about how much of your own personal life you share with the client. So, if you find yourself talking too much about yourself in the session, that’s a huge red flag and you should definitely be pulling back from that. I think with the right intentions and when you follow through it’s okay to share a little bit of yourself with the client.

WS

And as you mentioned before, it might be something to do at the end of the session. Do you think especially if it’s been a challenging session or you’ve had to challenge them a lot during the session, it’s kind of a nice way to come back to the connection before leaving?

NB

Yeah. 100%. I think that’s a pretty valid point. Letting go of some of the difficult stuff and being back in the present with them, with something that connects.

WS

I think we’ve also revealed the fact that what I want more than anything else is a basketball metaphor for psychotherapy.

NB

Maybe by the end of this discussion we can come up with something.

WS

I was thinking maybe Cross-Court Violation. Like going back on old habits is a violation, or something.

NB

Yeah, I’m think people often use sporting metaphors in the business world more than anywhere else. It’s hard to know how you could apply it. Actually, one that’s just come to me that I do use is when I’m talking about a client’s internal critical voice. I might say, look, it’s like you’ve got a bad coach, stuck in your head, you know? Then I might use the example of a good coach. I might actually draw upon personal experiences of less optimum coaches, and really helpful coaches. I’ll try and show the difference and how a good coach can still drive you. But they do so in a way that really gets the best out of you and still allows you to feel safe and accept who you are. So that’s probably the closest.

WS

I feel like that’s such an easily accessible image, that you wouldn’t have to think too hard to invoke. So, again, coming back to that notion of finding an alternative to purely cognitive and a cognitive spiral towards imagery.

NB

Totally. It’s the tone of the coach’s voice and it’s how the coach makes you feel. It’s not just the content, it’s the whole experience of this coach. If you can be aware of when the bad coach is there in their mind and separate from that, or try to cultivate this other good coach, it will get you where you need to go a lot better. Being stressed and afraid from the bad coach will never help you perform as well. So, that’s pretty easy to understand.

WS

Do you think as well, with that metaphor, a good coach could still be quite direct and direct tough love without being critical. So, I guess the question is, is it also that it allows for not such black and white thinking of this as a good thought or a bad thought?

NB

Absolutely. That there’s room to use less punitive, less demanding language. Instead using a more compassionate kind of tone when talking about those things. And certainly breaking it down from any black and white kind of rigidity, into a much more nuanced, grey, balanced place, which is always healthier.

WS
And the final question is, how does it feel to be on the receiving end of questions in this room for a change.

NB

Yeah, I think it’s going well. I mean, I’m not particularly used to talking about myself. Maybe that’s why we become therapists. Even in my intimate friendships, I’m not generally the one to start talking about my own experiences. So, if I’m honest, there’s a slight discomfort about that. But in another way, it’s quite refreshing.

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