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A Provocative Journey: How PET Was Born

By Steve Wells

When I was studying counselling at university in one class the lecturer played us an audio of Frank Farrelly, creator of Provocative Therapy, working with an 18-year old suicidal client. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Instead of being sympathetic towards this poor young girl, Frank seemed to be mocking her and exaggerating her problems, encouraging her to continue and even to make things worse. What was surprising however, was that the more he did this, the more she started arguing for the opposite; she was getting better while he was seemingly encouraging her to get worse. And she was laughing! And so were we, listening to it, even while we cringed at the verbal content.

I knew back then there was a lot more going on in that PT session than I could understand, I just didn’t know what it was that allowed Frank to succeed even though he seemed to be violating every rule in the therapeutic playbook. It took me many years to realise just how crucial the unseen elements of PT are in producing that result. Not just non-verbals, not just “the way it is said” but the entire acceptance and love “transmission” side of this that isn’t readily apparent to all but a few observers when first they confront this approach. More often they, like I did then, get caught up in concern at the language used, without realising there is much more going on beneath the surface. Even when the client states that they “felt deeply cared for and understood” we, the observers, had trouble believing that!

A couple of years after that first fleeting exposure to Provocative Therapy I was visiting friends in Perth, having been posted to the country where I was working as a school psychologist, when my friend mentioned he was going to a workshop with “Mr. Frank Farrelly”. In that moment, I knew I had to go and learn more about this intriguing approach.

A couple of months later I travelled back to Perth to attend Frank’s 1986 workshop, and I was again astounded as I watched him working with people and saying the darndest and most ridiculous things; humorously encouraging them to stay the same, cautioning them against changing, exaggerating their problems to make them seem ten thousand times worse, even pronouncing them and their situation as “hopeless”. And all the while they were laughing, and objecting, arguing for change and brightening up and literally coming to life. Throughout the first day Frank worked with volunteer clients and the observers in the audience kept bringing up all sorts of objections about how  he was “treating” these poor clients. And in every case the clients defended Frank and said they felt he was the first person who really understood them at a deep level, and they felt very respected, understood, even loved by him!

I had to experience this first hand, so I volunteered to work with Frank in front of the group. I wish I could find words to fully describe what happened next. All I can say is that for the first time in my life I felt deeply and profoundly understood, cared for, and loved. I knew within seconds there was nothing that Frank would not or could not know about me, so it was pointless resisting. And it was funny! Frank was literally making fun of me, making fun of my problem, and making fun of my life, and we were both sitting there together, like the closest of friends, laughing at the absurdity of it all.

Of course, he wasn’t really making fun of me, just my silly constricting and painful beliefs about me, and he wasn’t making fun of my problems and my life, just my ridiculous expectations and limiting perceptions about them. And as he showed this all to me – reflected it back to me – in a weird technicolour show, I suddenly saw how crazy it all was. No wonder I was feeling so bad if I was believing such rubbish!

Yet Frank wasn’t telling me to let anything go, he was actually encouraging me to stay the same. But as he did so, he was really getting me to see the consequences of my beliefs, and helping me to feel those consequences.

As he said, “In Provocative Therapy I take the illusions, the belief systems, the assumptions of clients and I feel that I am juggling them and I say in effect to them: Which one do you want to be real?” … And if you maintain this view of yourself, of other people, of the structures within which you live, I know what you will get… more of the same!” 

I now know that the key to changing attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours is for us to feel the consequences, not to just think about feeling them, to actually experience the feeling. Then you’ll move in the direction you want automatically. That’s what PT helps you to do, to feel those consequences, and it does that by encouraging and exaggerating them (As a cartoonist wrote once, ‘exaggeration brings truth into sharp focus’). And the humour and heart-connection is the “spoonful of sugar which helps the medicine go down”.

After that workshop I became a voracious consumer of Provocative Therapy. I started trying it out with my clients and had some spectacular successes and some equally spectacular failures. In the beginning, even though I could readily identify my client’s ridiculous beliefs I was too “dead pan” and some of my sessions fell flat as a result. And I lacked confidence. I needed to work more on myself. Which I did by attending numerous Provocative Therapy workshops, travelling to the US to study with Frank, and connecting with others who were learning and using Provocative Therapy.

At an intensive workshop with Frank in Wollongong in 1990 I met Dr David  Lake and we became instant friends. Here was a guy who had a weird sense of humour similar to mine and a love of the provocative approach, and who had been studying and learning it just as voraciously as I had (David had met Frank in 1986 just as I had, and attended every workshop since in Sydney). We very soon started a wonderful collaboration and firm friendship that would last to this day. David helped me to learn some of the elements of PT that were hidden from me, and which I couldn’t get from Frank himself. A huge part of that is the acceptance, as well as ways of using PT which are more gentle and subtle, yet equally profound.

We soon met other fanatics and became members of a unique fraternity of brilliant, funny, open-hearted people all over the world; a Provocative Family with Frank as our great patriarch.

Then, in late 1997, I was introduced to Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) through a colleague who’d brought Gary Craig’s videotapes back to Australia. I was astounded to watch Gary achieving results with war veterans suffering PTSD in the Veterans Administration Hospital. I was working with Vietnam Veterans at the time and the results he was getting were beyond anything I’d seen. I was keen to give it a try.

I first tried EFT with my wife Louise, on her needle fears associated with having a blood test the next day. She was able, after only a few minutes of tapping, to have that blood test without experiencing any of her previous fear! Next, I tentatively suggested to a client that we try some tapping for an experience with her 16 year old son which caused her to turn up at my office white faced and shaking like a leaf. This boy had cut a cake with a cake knife wiped the blade off on her arm, and threatened to stab her with it. Since that incident, she’d been living in fear, unable to sleep, literally a prisoner in her own home.

I still remember that session clearly. We started tapping while focusing on the incident and at one incredible moment I saw the problem literally leave her body. From a white-as-a-ghost shaking, shivering, fear-filled woman emerged a calm, composed lady, who looked about 10 years younger, with a big grin on her face. “Boy, that one worked, didn’t it!” she said excitedly, referring to the index finger point which she’d been tapping on at the moment she experienced the shift. “Yes, it sure looked like it!”, I replied, and followed up by asking how she felt now when she thought of the incident the other night. “I don’t know” she said, searching for her problem, “It just doesn’t seem to bother me as much”.

I was gobsmacked. I’d rarely seen such a rapid shift in such a short period of time, it really was like a quantum leap (which helped me understand why Roger Callahan, creator of the tapping approach that preceded EFT, reached for quantum theory to try to understand this process). We did a bit more tapping on other aspects and I sent her on her way. When she returned a week later she was like a different person. She’d confronted her son and gained his cooperation, apologising to him for how she had contributed to the problem whilst also assertively demanding he change. And he had!

After a few equally stunning experiences like this I rang David Lake and introduced him to EFT over the phone. Standing in his garden at Newport tapping on the points he could feel the effects instantly. We both launched into studying the videos, made contact with Gary Craig and not long after that winged our way to the USA to study with Gary. At that first workshop David overcame his lifelong public speaking phobia in a wonderful 38-minute session with Gary that I’ll never forget. Back in Australia David joined me in Melbourne to present a workshop to 40 people, and, after introducing himself without fear, exclaimed “I can’t believe it, I don’t feel any of it!”. Our 16-year collaboration as joint workshop presenters was born at that moment.

Back then, however, it seemed like we were faced with an awful choice between one approach or the other. For me, I was so taken by the results of EFT that I thought I would have to give up Provocative Therapy. I literally had the thought that since the results of EFT were so good, I needed to use it instead of PT. And so for a while I did EFT like many people do, as a fairly straight-forward, mechanical process. And David did the same.

Ultimately however, having both been infected with the provocative virus, we couldn’t help ourselves. Every now and then, we’d each add a provocative element into a session. And when we did, the results just accelerated. We both simultaneously came to the same conclusion, which was verified in our excited case discussions: Instead of the techniques being mutually exclusive as we’d thought, they actually fit like hand in glove. The results weren’t a little bit better when they were combined, they were massively better!

We found we could really leverage and accelerate the results we could get from using a combination instead of either approach alone. EFT seemed to work best on negatives, and skilful provocation  gave almost instant access to these. Not only that, using provocative patterns we found we could get to core issues much more easily and then release them quickly and elegantly using tapping and PT’s humour and heart connection.

Along the way, we also started to vary how we did EFT, ultimately developing a more streamlined and user-friendly version of tapping which we called Simple Energy Techniques (SET). Almost all of the innovations in SET came from our direct clinical experience with clients and from testing variations. For example, the concept of continual tapping which is one of the cornerstones of SET came from David’s extensive experience in working with clients suffering traumatic stress and PTSD where he discovered that more tapping in a session led to better results.

Soon, the combination of SET tapping with the provocative language patterns we first learned in PT, the special open-hearted connection, the liberating laughter and humour became the core of what we now call PET – Provocative Energy Techniques. And we’ve never looked back!

I’d love to give you more of a sense of what PET can do for you, how it can boost your results with clients and lighten up your life too, and would prefer to tailor this to you.

Please let me know your feedback, what you’d like to know about PET, and the biggest  challenges you have with your clients, I’ll aim to address as many of these as I can in my next post, and how PET can help.

In the meantime, you can find out some more about PET here

Ultimately, PET needs to be experienced to be understood.

If you want to experience PET, consider joining my new PET Online program, or attending an upcoming live workshop that incorporates PET in France or Italy.

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