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The Secret to Breaking Out of Our Most Destructive Habits

All of us occasionally become the angry, unpleasant, depressed, reactive people we don’t want to be. So what happens in the brain that scatters all our good intentions?

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With honesty and sincere emotion, he mournfully recalled his childhood feelings of fear, guilt, shame, and helplessness. More importantly, he became aware that Mattie, then pregnant with their second child, was not a symbol of his failure, but his beloved wife, with a right to her own thoughts, feelings, and desires. He left therapy a new man, confident that he could use the fruits of our work, along with the safety plans learned in his domestic violence class, to give Mattie the kind of relationship she wanted and deserved.

When Patrick called for a follow-up appointment five months after our therapy had terminated, I looked forward to seeing him again, but when I stepped into my waiting room and saw Mattie, one feature of her appearance shocked me: fading but still ugly bruises on her cheeks and around one eye. Patrick had beaten her up and was now sitting in jail. When I invited her in, she described the stress they were under with their new baby and the threat of downsizing at Patrick’s job. “He really has changed,” she added. “Therapy really did him good. He’s a much nicer guy . . . most of the time.” This beaten young woman was trying to reassure  me.

Once the jolt of this dramatic treatment failure wore off, I began to focus on the question of what I’d missed in my work with Patrick and other clients that could account for the shockingly short-lived impact of our therapy. I’d always counted on the big bang of therapeutically induced emotional catharsis to create the kind of instantaneous “learning experience” that would result in a life lived differently. What I’d forgotten was that true learning doesn’t come in a sudden breakthrough: it takes most people years of trial, error, practice, reinforcement of some behaviors, and active discouragement of others to become civilized adult human beings. True, I dimly recalled some bare basics: we build internal inhibitions against certain behaviors by making mistakes (our mothers say no to chocolate milk, we scream in protest, our mothers get mad, and we feel ashamed) and by observing external constraints (your classmate sasses the teacher and gets time in detention with extra homework). But beyond these Stone Age truths, I was completely out of touch with the latest research in learning theory.

So I began holing up in libraries in those pre-Internet days, reading about how we learn and how we recall emotionally laden material. It soon became apparent that, for starters, my practice of Christmas Carol therapy didn’t account for what researchers call state-dependent and context-dependent learning and recall. Information learned in one mental state and social context is most likely to be recalled when in the same emotional state and social context, but unlikely to be recalled in other states and contexts. What we learn in a warm, accepting environment like therapy can hardly be accessible in aroused states and perceived hostile environments. To put it differently, Mr. Hyde probably won’t recall what Dr. Jekyll learned in therapy.

So Patrick, when resentful at Mattie, could recall every little thing she’d said or done to offend him since their honeymoon, but wouldn’t remember any of those things when he felt sweet and loving. By the end of treatment, he could clearly see issues with Mattie without blame, resentment, or entitlement; however, it was a different story at home. Mattie’s frowning at anything at all could get him aroused and ready for aggression, with little or no conscious awareness.


I began to realize that  Christmas Carol therapy, dependent on deep, emotional exploration of clients’ past hurts and their connection to current behaviors, followed by a fireworks display of catharsis, might actually be making the problem worse by creating a special context of learning that was unlikely to be recalled at home under the stress of high emotional arousal.

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