Can You Rewire Your Brain to Change Bad Habits, Thoughts, and Feelings?
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Over the next few minutes, the therapist continued to call Regina’s attention to that juxtaposition—the repetitions that serve as new learning that rewrites the target learning: “Both kinds of love feel so real, but they’re so different. Can you feel both at once? Good. What’s that like for you, seeing so clearly that both kinds of love exist, and that you’re actually experiencing both?”
Guided in this way to apply mindful awareness to the juxtaposition experience, Regina sat silently, thinking and blinking, and then said, “I never thought of it like this before.”
“Yes, it’s very new,” the therapist said, then guided another repetition by asking, “And as you look back and forth at your Mom and Uncle Theo, what happens?”
After another silence, Regina answered, “It’s strange, but my Mom looks smaller.” This was a first marker of a transformational shift in her mental model of her mother. She added, “And it’s like what’s wrong is over there in her, not here in me,” which was another marker of change, indicating the beginning of dissolution.
Knowing that such fundamental shifts often have immediate, challenging ripple effects, the therapist now asked, “Is it entirely comfortable to know that the problem is in Mom and not in you? Or is there something uneasy about that?”
Regina replied, “It feels scary because then I can’t have any control over it. If it’s in me, I have a chance of controlling it. But if the reason she blows up at me is that she’s messed up, then I can’t possibly control it.” Then she added, “But I’m feeling relief, too, because if she’s the problem, then maybe there’s nothing seriously wrong with me after all. And maybe I won’t be rejected forever by anyone who gets to know me.”
Although further work was needed to explore the “scary” loss of the illusion of control, this emergence from a lifetime of self-invalidation into a recognition of her own intactness and worth was a completely unprecedented shift for Regina. The main breakthrough had occurred.
Ready for Unlearning
The cases of Carol and Regina illustrate how different techniques can be used to facilitate the brain’s core process of profound unlearning. That’s why this process can be fulfilled within many different systems of experiential therapy. The particular usefulness of our Coherence Therapy approach is that its steps match those of the reconsolidation process: first, evoke into direct experience the emotional learnings underlying the client’s unwanted patterns. Then find a vivid knowledge or experience that contradicts those learnings. Finally, combine those two into a juxtaposition experience and repeat it several times.
Using Coherence Therapy to dispel a hair-trigger temper was the challenge with Raoul, a 36-year-old carpenter who installed fine maple and oak cabinets in expensive kitchens. He came to his first appointment, despite his considerable bias against therapy, to deal with frequent flare-ups of anger that baffled and demoralized him. In a variety of situations, he found himself bursting with rage, shouting at his wife, his two young children, or his best friend—sometimes even at other tradespeople on a job or the occasional hapless sales clerk. At times, he had to storm out of a room to prevent himself from hitting someone. He wasn’t sure why he kept blowing up and he wondered aloud during his first session whether he needed medication for some sort of “brain glitch.”
The discovery work began by engaging Raoul in looking closely at several recent explosive interactions, and he readily came to a new awareness: his anger flared when he thought that the other person had broken an agreement between them, even if only in some minor way. A few seconds after this recognition, another realization came, revealing why broken agreements were such a hot button. Five years earlier, he’d started a business with another talented carpenter. Together they’d installed Raoul’s treasured tools in a rented cabinet shop and set out to build custom kitchens, agreeing to split the profits down the middle. After a promising start, the partner became disorganized and careless. First, a few tools went missing from the shop. The partner promised to return them as soon as he finished a side project in his garage workshop, but didn’t. Then the partner withdrew some funds from their business bank account. Afterward, he didn’t show up for a time-sensitive remodeling job several mornings in a row, blaming his absences on a family crisis.