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Can You Rewire Your Brain to Change Bad Habits, Thoughts, and Feelings?

Advances in psychology offer hope.

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One morning, Raoul drove up to the shop and discovered that it had been stripped completely of tools, including a set of fine Japanese wood chisels he’d inherited from his father. The partner was gone, as was all the money remaining in their bank account. In a state of deep shock, anger, and sorrow, Raoul was forced to declare the business bankrupt, let go of a long-treasured dream, and start over as a hired hand for general contractors.

Raoul’s shock at his business partner’s betrayal had engraved rigid emotional responses in the neural pathways and synapses of his brain’s implicit memory networks. Whenever an interpersonal interaction seemed reminiscent of the betrayal, a web of neurocellular pathways would become activated, instantly launching an urgent, self-protective response—anger.

To find out why Raoul’s dominant response was anger—rather than depression or a sense of vulnerability, for example—the therapist engaged in further discovery work using the experiential technique of symptom deprivation. If the cause of Raoul’s anger was in some sense an emotional necessity, then being without the anger would cause discomfort, and deeply exploring that discomfort would put Raoul directly in touch with a hidden problem that he was solving with anger. Guiding him to revisit a situation in which his anger had flared because of a perceived breach of agreement, the therapist said, “See what it feels like if anger doesn’t come. Just notice what you start to experience instead.”

Through several rounds of symptom deprivation, Raoul experienced three distressing dilemmas that he’d been avoiding with anger, and he verbalized them with the therapist’s help:

“Without my anger, I feel powerless and defenseless against being deceived again, so I need my anger.”

“Without my anger, I feel such intense grief and heartbreak over what I’ve lost that I might be swept away by it and unable to function, so I need my anger.”

“Without my anger, I feel he totally got away with it and there’s no accountability or justice in the world. Letting go of my anger would be letting go of my demand for accountability and justice—and that’s totally unacceptable to me.”

Addressing the first response, the therapist asked Raoul to say more about how vulnerable he felt to being deceived again.

“I didn’t see it coming, so how am I going to see it coming next time?” Raoul asked. The therapist responded, “I can understand that sense of vulnerability, but I’m also wondering whether there’s been something in your life that makes it extra uncomfortable to feel vulnerable, so that it’s better to get angry instead. Can we look at that?”

Raoul revealed that in his family of origin, a man who was worthy of respect never felt powerless and defenseless. Men were always supposed to know what to do, be strong for everyone else, and show no fear or pain. “That’s how I grew up. That’s my culture.” Being perceived as falling short in these qualities was shameful and had real consequences, like being excluded from important social circles and networking possibilities.

The therapist then helped Raoul dig deeper, resulting in this statement: “I can’t risk feeling this vulnerability because it’ll make me be seen by everyone as weak. I’ll be stuck forever in shame and excluded forever from things that are important to me.”

The therapist wrote this on an index card and asked Raoul to read the card every day between sessions. In his next session a week later, he reported an inner shift: “I’d look at a neighbor or at friends we were having dinner with, and think, ‘Really? This person would judge and exclude me like that? I don’t think so!’” Raoul was describing juxtaposition experiences that arose in daily life as a natural result of holding the schema consciously.

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