Can You Rewire Your Brain to Change Bad Habits, Thoughts, and Feelings?
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In revisiting this episode, Carol became aware of the unconscious emotional learning, or implicit schema, that resulted from that experience: sexuality has no boundaries within a family. What that meant to her emotional brain in her present family life was that enjoying sex with her husband would make her similar to her mother and mortify her own daughter through a violation of sexual boundaries. That expectation had been making avoidance of sex urgently necessary.
Carol’s implicit schema certainly had formed as a result of an insecure attachment bond with her mother, but it couldn’t be decisively contradicted and disconfirmed through a relationship with a trusted female therapist, as strict attachment theory would dictate. Instead, our colleague approached emotional contradiction through another route. When Carol left the session, she carried an index card on which the therapist had written her new, now explicit awareness: “I hate to admit it, but experiencing sexual pleasure with my husband makes me more like my mother. So, even though it’s hurting my marriage, I’ll continue to avoid sexual contact, because it’s better to sacrifice pleasure and intimacy than to risk doing to my daughter what my mother did to me.” Carol was now facing and feeling the previously unconscious emotional schema that was driving her dread of being sexual. It’s this emotional learning or schema that would now be the target for erasure.
Her homework was simply to read this card every day. Doing this would integrate her new awareness of her problematic learning into everyday consciousness, laying the foundation for a mismatch experience. In her next session, she told her therapist that something had shifted, because the sentences on the card—which had been deadly serious to her before—had begun to seem “almost silly.” With delight in her self-discovery, she said she’d realized that her sexuality was her own, not her mother’s. That lucid realization was the contradiction of the target learning, and it created the mismatch needed for unlocking synapses.
Each time Carol had read her card, she’d encountered that contradiction and juxtaposition, and then over the next several minutes, this intriguing disconfirmation drew her attention repeatedly. This repetition brought about the new learning that rewrote and replaced her schema about family sexuality, making the schema feel no longer emotionally real. We’ve guided this process and seen it unfold in sessions hundreds of times, but often it happens with a life of its own between sessions, as it did for Carol.
She called this shift a “freeing experience” and said that it had already improved her relationship with her husband. Her description of “almost silly” and her positive readiness to engage sexually with her husband were clear markers that a nullification of the past problematic learning had taken place in her brain.
The Juxtaposition Experience
The moment of viscerally felt contradiction is what we call the juxtaposition experience in Coherence Therapy. Regina’s case illustrates yet another way to reach that pivotal moment. A married mother of three and full-time professional, Regina had frequent bouts of panic during or right after social interactions, even with people she genuinely liked and knew well. She worried this meant she was “crazy.”
Discovery work with her revealed that her anxiety began with a perception that someone had become even mildly displeased with her. That perception triggered an implicit expectation that a brutal rejection would follow.
Probing for attachment roots, her therapist asked gently, “When you were little, was it scary for you when someone became displeased?”
Regina nodded and became teary while describing her mother’s sudden harshness and the way she’d yell at her, for example, for “making a mess” when she’d find Regina on the floor, drawing with her crayons on a piece of paper. Her mother often negatively compared her to the neighbor’s daughter, verbally abused her by calling her “a piece of crap,” and made overt threats of abandonment. In addition, these denigrations sometimes took place in front of visiting relatives, which was deeply humiliating and terrifying for Regina. In essence, she lived in perpetual fear of “making my mom start to hate me again.”