Friday, September 21, 2012

The theory of contracts - Part 2

It is proposed that the best contract is where the client makes a statement to self about a change they want in their behaviour, thinking and/or feeling. This is how the counsellor wants the client to view it in her mind.

The reason why this is seen as the best is that it involves no other people which is why I have a problem with Eric Berne’s definition of a contract.

Berne - A contract is an explicit bilateral commitment to a well defined course of action.

The logic behind my proposal rests on the assumption that very few people will lie to themselves. There is no point. It’s like cheating in a game of solitaire. There is no point. Why would someone say to self, “I will finish my assignment by Tuesday” when they know they have no intention of doing so. There is no use making the contract in the first place.

Monkey baby

If however there is another person involved in making the contract then there may be a reason to lie, even unconsciously. If there is no other person involved then this cannot happen. Hence the statement that the best contract is one where the client perceives them self making a contract with self and no one else.

The worst contract one can make, is where the client perceives the contract as a promise. This is for a number of reasons. A promise is where a person is manipulated into behaving in a particular way by the use of guilt. For example on the way to christmas lunch mother may ask the children to promise they wont make rude noises in front of grandma. The children want to make rude noises in front of grandma because its fun. If they agree to the promise they have moved into the Conforming Child ego state (CC). A promise is made by the Conforming Child ego state. If the child subsequently breaks the promise then he will feel guilty because he has made a promise to mummy and knows she will feel disappointed or hurt because he broke the promise.

Water throw 
He promised not to do it. It is inevitable there will be a switch into RC at some point.

On thing you do not want to do is create a situation where the client is manipulated in behaving a certain way so as not to disappoint or hurt the feelings of the counsellor. If this does happen then the therapeutic relationship could be seen to be quite dysfunctional and the long term therapeutic outcomes are going to be poor. In addition, if a person is in CC then it is highly likely they will at some point in the future switch to Rebellious Child (RC) and break the promise. If the client perceives the contract to be a promise to the counsellor then they will eventually break the contract simply because they will have an urge to switch into RC in relation to the counsellor. 

As I discuss in my book, Working with suicidal individuals this is especially important when a client is making a no suicide contract. One thing you do not want is for the client to perceive the no suicide contract as a promise to the counsellor. If someone is in CC for a period of time then it is very likely they will sooner or later move to RC. You do not want this to happen with a no suicide contract where the person moves into RC and breaks the contract simply as a means to rebel against the contract/promise.

This is one problem I have with the Berne definition of a contract. It relates to his use of the word commitment. What is a commitment? My computer definition states:

the state or quality of being dedicated to a cause, activity
a pledge or undertaking
an engagement or obligation that restricts freedom of action

If you are presenting to a client that a contract is a commitment it would not be too hard for them to start perceiving it to be ‘promise’ like. Of course it does not matter what the actual definition of the word commitment is, all that matters is how the client perceives the contract in his own mind. If he is told it is a commitment then he could more easily begin to see it as having promise like qualities.

Powerful lady

Thus we have a reason why it is more productive to view the contract as a statement by the client to self, as it does not involve another party and all the dynamics just described can be avoided. This of course is easier said than done but if the counsellor consistently presents to the client that a contract is a statement they make to self it is harder for them to see it as having promise like qualities.

The bilateral aspect of contracting
Whilst it is suggested that contracting is best to stated by the client to the client Berne’s point about it being bilateral is also true. In Part 1 of this I presented the contract transaction and that did involve the counsellor so it is bilateral in that way. Also as has been pointed out by Bill Holloway the counsellor is also going to make his assessment as to the validity of the contract. That is, the counsellor will not work with a client to achieve the contract unless he thinks the contract is OK. 

Recently I worked with a man who complained of procrastination. He reported that when he got home from work instead of putting in an an hour or two of work he would tend to procrastinate and do non work activities. He presented a contract to stop procrastinating in this way. Upon further discussion I discovered he was already working a 50 hour week and he wanted to work an extra 5 to 10 hours per week when he got home from work. I thought this was a not OK contract that simply allowed him to live out his work hard driver in his life script so I refused to work with him on it. 

In this way it could be argued that contracting is not simply a client making a statement to self.



  1. Tony – this is all very interesting but your statement that very few people lie to themselves caught my attention. I lie to myself all the time, or maybe I’m confused about the difference between making a promise to myself and lying to myself. And you’re absolutely right – there’s no point to it but I keep doing it. When people repeat positive affirmations about things they want to change, isn’t that (at least in the present time when they say them) lying to themselves? I break promises to myself all the time, but rarely break promises I make to others.

  2. My therapist calls things like this "Agreements".

    ie. If I want to stop taking my medication, I need to talk about it with him first.

    And if I happen to not follow through with my part, we talk about the circumstances around it and move on.

  3. If that works out for you my friend I am glad and I suppose it highlights how different therapists can use contracts in different ways which can only be a good thing.

    As I say in the post my concern with such an agreement is that you can simply move into RC and not tell him you have stopped taking medication or modified what you are taking and he is none the wiser.

    As the counsellor I would seek to remove myself from such an agreement and ask you if you wanted to make a contract with yourself to let me know if you change your medication. This means you cannot move into RC in relation to me and the agreement. If you said you didn't want to make the contract then it would not be made.

    Hope you and Ziggy are OK


  4. Hi. Yup we are both doing alright. :)

    I cannot help but tell the truth or admit to things I have done. I can't lie. The few times I remember doing so I end up feeling incredible guilt and get super upset until I do end up admitting to it.

    Your approach is interesting. I wouldn't make that contract with myself. If you asked me and I said no and that was that, I would not feel cared about at all. And obviously if I have things my way, my world self-destructs.

    Thanks for the reply. :)

  5. Thats a good response Annalynn, Maybe we are getting to what this is underneath some of this - that is, feeling cared about and some self destruction.

    So there are some contracts I would suggest to you, and I would ask you if you cared about iggy.


  6. I do get asked that every so often! Haha.
    I do care about my Iggy. I can't imagine not having my little buddy. It did take me a while but now I have had her for over 2 years.
    She got out of a friend's house a month or so ago and ran straight to my house. Luckily I didn't know she was missing until I got a call that someone, after 10 minutes of trying to catch her, finally got her.

  7. It does indeed sound like you care for little Iggy!

    Maybe you could contract to put your own Child ego state next to Iggy and see if you care about her as well