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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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The therapist asked him to again say aloud the sentence on the card, and now it was flat and void of emotional resonance. His emotional schema had been dissolved. With the old social punishments no longer expected, his sense of vulnerability was greatly reduced, and the need to avoid it was no longer urgent. So his anger was no longer needed and the sentence was obsolete.

The therapist then addressed Raoul’s second statement: “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.”

His expectation of being overwhelmed by his feelings was the target emotional learning here. The best contradictory experience would be seeing for himself that it wasn’t so. To make it safe enough for Raoul to begin to feel his grief directly and realize that it wasn’t overwhelming, the therapist said, “Ungrieved grief causes people all kinds of trouble. Here in my office, with me guiding you, would you be willing to allow a minute or two of feeling just a small degree of the sensation of the heartbreak that you’re carrying around? I can coach you on how to open the valve a little, just for a minute. And then you’ll see that the valve closes, without the overwhelming feelings you’ve been anticipating.”

Raoul was wary but willing to try, so the therapist said, “Say these few words out loud: What I lost really hurts.”

He thought about that for a few seconds, and then said he wanted to change the words to “What was stolen from me really hurts.” Raoul then said those words.

After a few seconds, the therapist asked, “Do you feel anything in your body with that?” Raoul put his hand on his solar plexus and said, “Yes, it feels hot and tight right here.”

“OK,” said the therapist, “let your hand lightly hold or massage that place for a few seconds, and then we’re done with it for now and we’ll focus on other things.”

Gradually, over several sessions, Raoul opened to the full, direct experience of his grief, and each time, he saw that the waves of grief and pain, even the most intense feelings, lasted only a few minutes at most. To ensure that juxtaposition experiences were occurring, at certain points the therapist briefly guided him to connect with his old expectation of being overwhelmed. Toward the end of this process, the therapist asked, “How much is left of thinking you’ll be wiped out by the grief you feel? What percent?”

“Close to zero,” Raoul confirmed. Beyond allowing his grief process to unfold, this approach had transformed his knowledge of his own capacity to feel emotion.

Raoul’s third statement was “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.” His business partner had stolen his money, as well as his hopes and dreams, and Raoul was struggling to keep alive his implicit model of the world as being good and just, and relying on his angry demand for accountability to accomplish that. In essence, resorting to anger was his passionate campaign to preserve a sense that there’s good in the world.

The therapist asked Raoul if he felt any connection between this campaign and what he’d previously described about the total honesty and goodness of his family. His childhood, he’d said, was sheltered from bad experiences and scoundrels, leaving him unprepared for such encounters. To help him access that theme emotionally, the therapist said, “To you as a boy, the world of people seemed to be all goodness, and then, at 31, you had a powerful, traumatic encounter with badness. I can imagine that might be challenging to come to terms with. Could we take a look at what’s going on inside about that?”

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