Allan Abbass: “At first doing ISTDP felt unnatural”

At the end of the summer, on the 26-28th of August, Allan Abbass invites you to his 9th Swedish ISTDP Immersion course. We did an interview with him about the ISTDP trial therapy, and his development as a therapist.

Allan at Stockholm Immersion 2019
Allan Abbass at the 8th Swedish Immersion in late summer 2019

How does it feel to do yet another Immersion in Sweden? 
I am very much looking forward to providing another ISTDP immersion to all of the Swedish colleagues and in collaboration with the Swedish ISTDP trainers.

The theme of this year’s Immersion is the initial session, the trial therapy. How come you put so much emphasis on this part of the treatment? 
The trial therapy is in itself a treatment but also is the basis on which further treatment sessions are built. This first session is the most important part of the treatment. When this process goes well and helps the therapist to understand the patient, and the patient to understand the process, it strongly predicts a good treatment outcome.

How do you prepare for a trial therapy? Do you plan ahead in any way on what you want to aim for? 
The main preparation for the trial therapy is being knowledgeable on ISTDP psychodiagnosis and treatment processes for different groups of patients. This requires the full ISTDP training including immersions, video review of cases and so on.

As for a specific case, as a general principle I do not want to have too much knowledge about the patient ahead of time. I want to develop my own understanding of the patient and their problems.

The way I currently work is that people are referred and I look at the referral information in case there are some reasons I need more information prior to a trial therapy. Then the patient goes on a long waitlist so that by the time I see the person I don’t recall much of those details I looked at before. This way it is a fresh look at the patient and his problems

How has your understanding of the trial therapy evolved over the years? What are some of the key things you have learned? 
One of the key things that I’ve come to learn is the issue of how much conscious alliance is required versus how much the process relies on mobilizing the unconscious therapeutic alliance. This balance is different depending on the patient category. For moderate resistant patients, conscious therapeutic alliance is already present so there is no need to spend time building this. For much more complicated patients (eg. fragile patients) more time is required to build a conscious alliance coupled with some focus on unconscious processes and signaling to the patient that the unconscious will be known at some point. It is very important toward developing hope that the more disturbed patients know that their unconscious will eventually become known.

The other issue is how important psychodiagnosis is. In the early years of my work I was often not clear about the psychodiagnosis and that lead to dropouts and misalliances as well as limited treatment effects in some of those cases. With improved psychodiagnostic skills, dropouts and misalliance are less frequent.

What did Davanloo have to say about your trial therapies, if anything?
When I was in supervision with Davanloo we typically would study the trial therapy sessions. Of course that feedback varied greatly from patient to patient. Full range of feedback varied from him overly challenging me about things I had done or had not done, all the way up to saying that the treatment trial was great teaching material. It was great to get his feedback and to make adjustments in those cases where I was missing the understanding of the patient’s problems or was not having properly timed interventions.

You’ve said that doing block therapy requires a lot of knowledge about how to proceed through the different stages of therapy, and that it might not be suitable for beginning therapists. In what way does this apply to trial therapy? Should the structure and goals of the trial therapy be different for different levels of trainee development? 
One thing that varies with therapist experience is how much time it takes for trial therapy. When I started this work in 1990, I would leave the whole afternoon open for a trial therapy starting at 13.00 and sometimes would go into the early evening. When I was in training with Davanloo at McGill University in Montreal, the trial therapies would be all day long on the Monday from 08.30-17.00. He would come out and teach in between segments. Suffice it to say these were not quick trial therapies. As part of my work there, it was my job to analyze videos and produce reports as part of the research. It was quite helpful to take the time to do that.

Over time my trial therapies have shortened substantially. Now I just leave two hours, and if I need another segment of two hours I will go ahead and plan that.

For the new therapist, I do recommend leaving enough time for you to establish a conscious therapeutic alliance, gather history, do the psychodiagnosis, and see if it is possible to mobilize the unconscious therapeutic alliance in the trial. You also need time to recap, review the process, close it up and plan forward.

What do you think other treatment models could adapt from the concept of the trial therapy?
There’s no question that the information from the metapsychology of ISTDP is useful in any psychological assessment. Capacity to recognize unconscious emotional processes as well as unconscious anxiety and unconscious behavioral defenses can aid any psychotherapist doing assessment or treatment regardless of the model.

This is simply because attachment occurs in every psychotherapy model and every assessment interview. When attachment related feelings are activated, anxiety and defenses occur within the unconscious of the patient and have quite an effect on the interactional process. At the same time attachment-related feelings can activate in the psychologist and have a dramatic effect on the interactional process from this perspective.

The ISTDP framework allows the therapist to be conscious of what he is doing for his sake and the sake of the patient.

Throughout the years you’ve shown some great trial therapies at your Immersions in Stockholm. I assume these are some of your best work. How does an average or below average trial play out for you?
There are a range of responses to the trial therapy. On average there are symptom reductions and interpersonal gains based on some hundreds of trial therapies we have studied. When the trial is less effective or not effective, there are a combination of causes.

These include misreading of the front of the system, inadequate work on defenses, inadequate anxiety reduction which make the process uncomfortable for the patients. In these cases, the patient is too anxious or the process is too flat. Patient factors include heavily syntonic defense systems, conscious obstacles to engagement that the person does not share with therapist and medical factors which interrupt the process. The likelihood of these difficulties reduces after doing 100 or more trial therapies or after 2000 hours of therapy and case reviews.

Do you find you have specific patterns where you consistently find yourself being less effective during the trial therapy? Or did you have such patterns before?
In the early work I was doing, there were certain patient styles, including those with significant repression who would disappear from the treatment process and slip into a passive regressive position. With those individuals early in my training I was tending to withdraw rather than to move in and clarify and challenge these defenses. To overcome this pattern it was important for me to self-review videos and try to determine the emotions that were being triggered in me during these processes. Such video self-review is a great tool to help us access our own emotional processes in the patient interactions.

What are you currently working on improving as a therapist right now?
The area I am currently working on is that with those patients who have severe personality dysfunction including dissociative identity and psychotic disorders. There are multiple moving challenges with these patient populations.

How are you proceeding on improving your work with this patient group?
I’m using the same process I’ve used with each other patient category. Namely the review of videos, reading about these cases, feedback from the patients, trial and evaluation of different interventions at different points in time and on some occasions peer input. I’m convinced that there are some severely ill patient populations that none of us should be working in isolation with. We should all have an opportunity to review cases with someone on an as needed basis.

We’ve previously talked about the different phases in your development as a therapist. There was an early phase in the nineties, a therapist style which you’ve described as “applying a technique”, and over the years a transition to a second phase, which you’ve described as “living the technique”. Can you say something more about the development of your therapeutic style?
When I first started to learn this method, I considered myself to be a warm person who liked people and liked to talk to people and learn about them. As a beginning ISTDP therapist, I had to incorporate certain observation skills and procedural skills on top of my personality. At first it felt unnatural in some ways and felt less “warm”. The process felt mechanical. I think I lost some therapeutic efficacy in some ways in the early stages.

This mostly affected the patients who were more resistant or fragile. I found that this did not affect working with more lower resistance patients from the beginning because I was more comfortable and natural in those settings and did not need to use challenge as a therapeutic technique. Working with those low resistance patients mobilized less emotions and anxiety and defense in me as well. As my own underlying feelings started to be mobilized and could be experienced, it was vastly easier to sit and experience the feelings the patient had without resorting to mechanical techniques or other defenses.

As I got comfortable with more resistant patients and fragile patients, it became more and more natural to engage the person with my natural self. In the interviews I will show in the Immersion you will see two older ones and four newer ones that will give you an idea of these changes over time.

Really, some of the keys to becoming a successful therapist include being comfortable, having access to our own feelings and coupled with this, having technical knowledge of timing of interventions.

Anything else you’d like to add ahead of the event? 
I am looking forward to working with you. It looks like this immersion will be held online. That being the case you’ll have the privacy of your own house, as long as your kids and pets aren’t interrupting you too much, to have a personal experience while studying this trial therapy process. All the best to you in your work.

The 9th Swedish Immersion is held online at the end of the summer, 26-28th of August.

If you enjoyed this Allan Abbass interview, you might be interested in our other interviews. For more thoughts about ISTDP training, you can check out the interviews with Patricia Coughlin and Jon Frederickson. We also did a short piece with Allan last fall, which you can find here. You can find all of our english content by following this link. Below you’ll find our latest interviews: