Letting Go of Hate: How to help clients change unconscious responses
By Steve Andreas
Most people come to therapy for help with emotional or behavioral responses that aren’t under their conscious control: destructive habits, troublesome emotional moods, outbursts, addictions, and so forth. These responses are generated by processes that clients are mostly unaware of—which is clear when they say things like “I don’t know what makes me do (or feel) that.” Although effective approaches to such responses usually involve a change in the unconscious process that generates them, most therapy focuses on the client’s conscious mind by developing insight, expressing feelings, discussing the past, talking about neurological explanations, and other attempts at cognitive understanding. Many a well-intentioned therapist has suggested to a client to “just let go” of hate, as if it were a heavy load that he or she could simply drop to the ground and walk away from. But as we all know, hate isn’t a tangible object: it’s an internal feeling, which arises as a spontaneous response to internal images, thoughts, or other triggers.
Simply telling a client to let go of it—without showing them how to do it—is a conscious instruction that will only result in frustration, compounding the presenting problem. Now the client has the same troublesome feeling of hate, plus an added layer of self-criticism and blame for continuing to “hold onto it.” And since the client is failing to achieve the desired outcome, the therapist may also feel stuck and discouraged, and think that the client is “resistant,” adding yet another layer of complication. Therapy this isn’t!
Luckily, the boundary between what’s unconscious and conscious is quite permeable. With appropriate questioning, it’s possible to elicit the unconscious process that causes the trouble, which typically has a fairly simple structure involving images, sounds, and thoughts in a particular configuration. Once this structure is identified, the therapist can guide a client through a specific process to quickly transform it.
When Sally Met Craig
When Sally, in her mid-30s, called me for a phone session, she said that for the last four years she’d hated a man named Craig, who lived in her small, rural town, and she wanted to have a more comfortable response to him. At the time, this is all she told me, and it was all I needed to know, but later she relayed more about how she’d initially met Craig at a public event. He was about 20 years older, recently divorced, and came across as an intelligent, worldly, family man. Right away, he’d started complimenting her, acting interested in her life, joking a lot, watching her intensely.
A few months later, Sally found herself working in the same office with him. Given her first impressions, she was happy about this, but she quickly realized he was part of a group of people in the company who were using shady business tactics. He also aligned himself with all the men in the company, dismissing anything a woman added to a conversation.
“When he noticed I was becoming friends with one of the more powerful women in the company, he started to act cold toward me, often as if I wasn’t in the room,” Sally told me. “At one point, I stood up for her at a meeting, and he flew into a rage, accusing me of all these crazy things that caught me so off guard I couldn’t say anything. His attitude toward me after this continued to be mistrustful, aggressive, and threatening.”
Craig’s presence was so stressful for Sally that she quit, and the company soon dissolved because of how he and this group of people were running it. Afterward, whenever she’d run into him in public, he’d act as if they were best friends. “How are you doing? It’s so good to see you!” he’d say in a loud voice.
Although she tried to avoid him, there were inevitably times when their paths crossed. Whenever she saw him, even from a distance, she felt tightness in her chest, intense anger, and disgust that put her almost on the verge of tears. As much as she wanted to have a more comfortable response to him, she couldn’t control the strong and automatic feelings of hate that were triggered by his presence.