I’d Built Myself A Prison

by Michael Mallows

Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) is a methodology that can have profound and lasting effects on thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Individually or in groups, people can tap into their resources and respond more effectively in challenging situations.

The techniques of EFT are perhaps best known for the tapping sequences or algorithms that originated with Dr Roger Callahan’s Thought Form Therapy, which evolved from research into the efficacy of Kinesiology, NLP and acupuncture. The method involves tapping on various meridian points, and also uses key phrases, directed eye-movements, humming and voice. The tapping apparently creates new neural pathways and increases synaptic connections. The humming resonates through the whole body and, along with the breathing techniques, increases a state of calm. The humming is also a useful indicator of doubts about the prospect or possibility of personal change. These doubts are often symptoms of limiting beliefs that need to be resolved and EFT can help with the process.

Callahan’s work has been modified and developed by Gary Craig and, not surprisingly, there are many inspiring case studies on the Internet.

EFT is an extraordinarily powerful addition to my repertoire, and I use it with anybody of any age who will benefit from a self-help technique that gives them the awareness and the ability to alter their own state.  This could be when they are anxious or angry, for example, or when they need to be at their most relaxed and resourceful, say when sitting a test or attending a job interview.

With adolescents, for instance, when teaching them how they can stay grounded and ‘cool’ if they are being taunted or targeted by bullies, or tormented by teachers. EFT helps them to stay focused and functionally intelligent rather than explode, and hurt others, or implode and self harm.

Insecure people, rendered fretful or fearful, by compulsively reacting to external triggers, often try to hide their anxieties behind a fearsome persona, which all too often gets conflated with identity. When the superficial is mistaken for the profound, people can be labelled and ‘treated’ for their behaviour - for the symptoms - rather than the fundamental problem. The side effects can be mistaken for new problems, as the underlying problem gets worse.


When 15-year-old Jay arrived with his parents, I proffered my hand to him first. Jay, like most (English) people had a Pavlovian response to a handshake invitation. He glanced from under the peak of his cap as he took my hand, and mumbled something in response to my greeting. We had made physical, visual and auditory contact and, at least for the moment that he was startled out of his shell when his curiosity was stirred, I had established executive control of the process.    (Jay's story is continued below)  

Power Plays

A power struggle ensues or is reaffirmed from the moment two or more people start to interact in a conflict situation. When families arrive with the battle lines drawn, the counsellor need to be alert, even wary of being invited or inveigled, conned or coerced into joining the fray. If the counsellor’s or therapist’s own issues are stirred or restimulated, the therapeutic process may be inhibited or impaired. Teachers or parents can be reactive rather than creative and proactive if they have unresolved past, present self-doubts, or anxieties for the future.

In a heartbeat, a battle can be fought and lost along with self-esteem and effectiveness.

If the therapist is not gently nudging, directing or guiding the process, counsellor and client may feel that nothing much is happening. Nothing much happens in a lot of therapy sessions where the client rehearses and rehashes the problem. Perhaps s/he’ll introduce new characters (by changing partners) or paint new scenery (by moving house), but the fundamental problem remains intact, replaying itself in the relationship between therapist and client / parent and child / teacher and student / manager and subordinate.

Many people in positions of power and authority are oblivious to, or sceptical about research and development regarding the workings of the body / mind / brain connections.

New models and methods are making incredible differences at work and at play, from kindergarten to college, in residential units, penal institutions, health centres, psychiatric and student referral units, universities, sports and music colleges and elsewhere.

Despite the evidence available, anecdotally, in print and on film, video and the internet, many teachers, doctors, therapists, parents, teachers, social workers and others whose work and aspirations involve the development of others, cling fiercely to the system that gives them position and power.

We exclude, reject, alienate, incarcerate, prescribe, proscribe and generally treat children, and others who do not conform, with aggression and contempt – and we blame them for their failure – and they blame us.

If convention and convenience prevail over compassion and commitment, if expediency is given more value than excellence, if profit matters more than people, how can we nurture the best in others and ourselves?

EFT can help us both!

Children and adolescents do not want to be in control or to run the show. It frightens them and it frightens the people around them.

Irrational fears and unwarranted of habitual anxieties can be reduced and eradicated with the judicious use of EFT.

EFT principles can enhance the mood of a group, classroom or team. They can also transcend archaic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving and transform the lives of people who have long been trapped by limiting beliefs.

Jay (continued)

In the counselling room, I asked Jay’s parents to tell me just one thing they each celebrate about Jay, then to leave us for 50 minutes.

“I guess it feels weird to sit with a stranger, and you probably don’t want to be here!” I said to Jay.

Jay’s graphic shrug spoke volumes, which I interpreted as; ‘I’m not giving in that easily, even if what you say it true!’

“I know that a lot of adopted people of your age have no problems with adoption and don’t want to talk about it, especially to strangers.”

Jay’s shrug was a little less rigid this time, and he glanced at me again – it seemed to be going well.

“It may even make you a bit anxious or resentful, because your parents may have made you come here.”

A glance, but no shrug. This was a key moment, would Jay close down, back off or come out fighting?

“Do you think there is a problem about adoption?”

“No!” An emphatic, almost an aggressive tone.

Jay clearly had issues around adoption – not surprising for a 15 year old. Was he unaware or was he unwilling to share – or both?

“Why do you think your parents brought you here?”

“Dunno! I’ve never had any problems about adoption, you can ask my parents, and I’ve always been able to talk about it.”

Jay’s tone and demeanour indicated a willingness to engage, but his wariness meant I needed to tread carefully for a purposeful – and brief – relationship.

From a number of key statements that I subsequently elicited from Jay, I decided to use EFT on just one: “Even when I’m frustrated and angry, I’m still a caring person.”

Culturally and conceptually the two halves of this sentence seem to clash; they don’t really ‘make sense’ together. And yet, this feeling of being torn in two can increase feelings of isolation and separation and lead to despair. The despair may be treated as the main problem when it is ‘only’ a symptom.

I explained to Jay that the caring part of his nature still existed even with the undesirable and unacceptable behaviours because he was not his behaviours! He ‘got the point’ and, as with so many people, his face became a little less tense and a weight seemed to lift from his shoulders.

I then instructed Jay to make the whole statement as I tapped on five points on his face, and on his hand – the whole statement for each point.

Between each statement I ensured that he thought about what the statement really meant and coached him to breathe deeply.

I also said, “And allow yourself to know that you can, in time, know that it’s true- NOW.”

Afterwards, “How do you feel differently?”

“I don’t know.”

“What would you feel if you did know?”

“I don’t know, it feels really weird!”

“Is it a nice or a not nice weird?”

Jay reflected for a few moments, “It’s overwhelming…”

“And in what way does it overwhelm you, Jay?”

“It’s like a natural high, and I’ve never felt anything like it before.”

“And when you feel that natural high, what kind of high is that?”

“It’s because I believe that I could believe it about myself!”

We continued working for about 90 minutes in all, having alerted Jay’s parents to the possibility of a long wait. Jay also talked a little about how the need to be a unique individual conflicted with the possible risks (ridicule) and costs (loneliness) of resisting peer group pressure. We explored the tension between the need for intelligent and stimulating companionship, the need for ‘space’ and the yearning for independence.

I did some other work with Jay, including some sub-modality changes and some anchoring of resourceful states (both NLP techniques). I also quoted Cavafy’s poem “I was so busy building walls to keep the world out, that it was too late by the time I realised I had built myself a prison!” as a metaphorical description of Jay’s predicament. Using the Clean Language techniques of Penny Tompkins and James Lawley1, J was able to begin dismantling the walls, brick by brick, allowing light to shine in and to consider that he might, in time, step outside the barriers he’d set up against the world.

Jay’s homework was to look in a mirror three times a day, and to repeat the statement as he tapped on each point.

At our next session, a month later, Jay told me that he had done his homework for the first two weeks, and then didn’t think he needed to continue because he believed it – he is a caring person!

Jay had been able to express more of his concern for others by telling them when he didn’t want company or was feeling sad. At school and at home he had not flown into a rage, and he also felt calmer and in control of his internal state most of the time. He was also, to his surprise, enjoying schoolwork, and recognising that teachers who nagged were actually expressing their belief in Jay’s potential, thus they didn’t wind him up quite as much.

We’d worked hard and come a long way in a short while. Jay was relaxed and seemed more solid (he still had his hat on), making more direct eye contact and even a few light-hearted comments. Behind the wall he was a witty, articulate, charming individual.

When we linked back with his parents, Jay’s first words were, “I want to come back to see Michael again!”

[1]  Metaphors in Mind.  James Lawley and Penny Tompkins. The Developing  Press          ISBN 0-9538751-0-5