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.”
When her therapist asked Regina to compare a recent instance of perceiving a negative social response from someone with an old memory of seeing Mom become displeased, she said the experiences felt the same. At this point, the therapist guided Regina to visualize her mother and become explicitly aware of the implicit terms of attachment she’d learned from her—the specific rules of the conditionality of love. The therapist went on to help Regina verbalize her emotional learning in the following way: “The slightest imperfection makes me completely disgusting and unlovable, so Mom wants to get rid of me and have some other girl instead, and I’m really scared that she might actually get rid of me. I’m acceptable and lovable only if I do everything perfectly. Everyone I ever know will reject me whenever some imperfection becomes visible, and I’m always dreading that and feel panic each time I think it’s happening.”
Regina had clearly generalized her mother’s terms of attachment to all other people, which drove her anxiety and panic, so her specific expectation that “everyone I know will reject me whenever some imperfection becomes visible” became the target for dissolution through the erasure sequence of memory reconsolidation. The next step was to find a contradictory felt experience that was vivid and powerful enough to disconfirm and dissolve that target learning. To pursue that, the therapist asked, “Do you have a grandparent, an aunt, or uncle who’s special to you?”
Regina nodded. Her uncle Theo was extremely special, she said. The therapist then guided her to picture him by saying, “Feel the warmth of your love for him and just notice where in your body you feel it.” After a while, the therapist continued, “Go ahead and say to him what you believe from Mom. Try telling him, ‘You love me only because I seem perfect, and you’d stop loving me if I let any of my imperfections show.’”