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Creating Change in Our Lives by “Noticing the Exception”

“Noticing the exception” is a tool therapists use to increase their client’s awareness of the disconnect between the clients’ behavior/thoughts/feelings that don't fit the typical pattern of behavior/thoughts/feeling the client describes themselves engaging in or struggling with. For example, if a client in therapy says, “I always struggle with anxiety with public speaking,” a therapist could ask about whether there was a time this was not true. “Was there ever a time when you weren’t anxious, or were less anxious than usual?” the therapist might say. The client could then consider whether there were times when anxiety was not as present. Therapist and client could then mindfully consider what factors made that time or times the exception.

In our longings for change, we can often think about the destination we want to get to, and it can feel so far from where we are now. “Noticing the exception” helps us to mine the experiences where we have felt closer to our desired goal. It helps us to bridge the great divide between HERE and THERE, start and finish. This information can be used to our advantage as we work toward change.

Going back to the previous example, if the client remembers an example of feeling less anxious what could have been the thing that created this exception? Was it related to what they were wearing that day? Could it have been the time of day? Was it something they ate or drank? the venue? the audience? the subject matter? Was it the amount of preparation time (or lack thereof) that contributed to less anxiety in that one exception? Any of these variables could be considered a jumping off point. This variable can encourage the self-confidence to say “I HAVE” and “I CAN” do the thing I want to do (even if it’s only once, or in a limited way). It can be a positive starting place from which to progressively build into more challenging experiences over time.

If you’d like to practice using the tool of “noticing the exception” in your own life, consider these steps:

  1. Think about an area of life where you feel stuck, whether in thoughts, feelings or behavior;

  2. Try and remember one time (the exception) where you thought/felt/acted in a way that is closer to your goal of how you’d like to be thinking/feeling/acting;

  3. With an attitude of curiosity and non-judgement, consider what factors (internal and external) might have contributed to that exception;

  4. Lastly, think about how you might intentionally bring those factors into play again.

You might use the knowledge of this experience as a starting point. Moving in small steps toward more challenging experiences can eventually move you closer to your end goal.


Amanda Jacobson, LMHC, is a licensed therapist in clinical practice since 2013. She has experience working in both inpatient and outpatient settings, with group and individual therapy and she has a passion for working with people recovering from addictions, as well as codependency, depression, anxiety, trauma, relationship challenges and major life transitions. She earned her master’s degree from Boston University.

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