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Helping A Combat Vet Face His Vulnerability - Page 3

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Now, he didn’t know how to get off autopilot. When I asked what autopilot was like, he said, “Just get the job done. Wake up and take whatever comes—being sad or angry gets in the way of doing the job.” I was so touched by his directness and honesty. We talked about the courage it takes to go to war, and the courage it takes to talk about what happened while at war. We agreed about how adaptive—how necessary—it was for him to shut down his fears and worries to be able to do his job and complete his mission in a war zone. He said he knew this cognitively, but never thought about it emotionally or relationally. Now, I continued, shutting down in this new “home zone” wasn’t nearly as effective. He chuckled at this. “You can say that again!” he said, smiling ruefully at his wife.

Throughout this conversation with Josh, Jennifer was more settled than I’d seen her so far. Her arms were no longer crossed and she was turned toward her husband pretty consistently. As he looked at her, she smiled back. When I asked her what it was like to hear Josh describe his experience this way, she said, “It’s such a relief to hear him say that he realizes how shutting down wasn’t working now that he’s home. For so long, it’s felt like he was trying to get me to shut down, too—and this scared me. When I was scared, it would come across to him as clingy or angry.”

The tension had now left the room, and I felt myself relax as I experienced getting some traction with them. I realized how stiff I’d become in our previous sessions, worried about how this process would unfold. In EFT, we use our felt senses as barometers for what may be happening in therapy. I know I’m not providing the best care when I’m feeling stiff and anxious that I won’t be able to help. Such feelings compel me to go faster just when I need to slow down.

At the start of session seven, I asked Josh what it was like for him that I was curious about his shutting down—a question we use in EFT to help clients share how they’re doing with the therapy process. He told me it was strange and a bit awkward, but that he was OK with it. He said I asked “weird” questions about his inner experience that nobody, including their previous couples therapists, had ever asked. Knowing that, like a lot of military services members, Josh was probably allergic to the “F” word (feelings), I avoided it. Instead, I asked, “On the inside, what are you going through?” Or, “Tell me about your inner experience.” Or, “Help me understand what you go through on the inside as you see your wife’s tears. How do her tears touch you?” His honest responses felt like permission to continue evoking his inner world. “So, then, Josh, can you tell me what ‘autopilot’ is like for you on the inside?”

He said autopilot became his constant companion and best friend. While initially uncomfortable with it, he came to consider it his safety zone. I asked, “Like getting your game face on?” “Exactly,” he responded. Kicking in people’s doors, seeing the terror on children’s faces, and being a “menacing force” wasn’t his norm. “Autopilot,” he related, “helped me tolerate my moral conflicts with my job, stay focused on the missions, and feel that I was in charge of the war, rather than feeling like the war was in charge of me.”

As I reflected and explored all he was sharing, I wondered whether he used autopilot to help him not feel helpless. “Definitely,” he said.

“Is your helplessness too risky to feel, too potent to touch?” I wondered in a soft and slow voice.

He responded, “I couldn’t afford to touch my helplessness downrange—what good would that have done? I’d have to go out and do the same thing again tomorrow. There was no way I could focus for a nanosecond on my helplessness. But, did I feel helpless? Yes, absolutely—and often. Our vehicle would break down, and we were sitting ducks. My buddies got killed, and I was supposed to carry on. My parents and wife were struggling back home, and I couldn’t do a damn thing. Yes, helpless is how I’ve felt a lot lately.”

Acknowledging feelings of helplessness can open awareness to a rich trove of emotional experience, which ultimately can be shared with a loved one. Always before when Josh got a glimpse of his helplessness, he’d back away. But at this point in our work, when I got a more visceral glimpse of his feelings and sensations, I’d lean in, and try to coax them out into the open. Josh described his helplessness as a constant presence—it was so strong that he couldn’t eat and was losing weight. He felt it was zapping him of what he felt was his greatest asset: his strength. As he and I worked together, I kept one eye on Jennifer, who was listening attentively.

Turning to her, I asked what it was like to hear Josh describing his inner struggles. “I didn’t realize how hard it was for him,” she said thoughtfully, as she faced him and leaned closer. “He’s never shared what it was like downrange or any of this since being home. I’ve been complaining about his lack of emotion without realizing that being on autopilot was his way of coping.” She was so relieved he’d survived the war and had wanted to make his transition home easier. But now she was seeing how much he was going through. With tears in her eyes, she looked at her husband and said, “I’ve missed you so much. I love that you’re a military man, but something changed inside me after we were married.” She realized now that her “clinginess” came out of her fear of losing him.

As Jennifer talked, tears came to Josh’s eyes. “I get it now,” he said. “I get that you were crying for me, in a way. I get why you were so clingy. I was giving you nothing when you’d waited so long for me to come home. When I saw your tears, my own pain would start getting agitated. I tried to get you to go on autopilot, too . . . but I get now how we need to open up with each other.”

Over the next several sessions, something fundamental shifted between Josh and Jennifer. Josh reported that he no longer felt so helpless, or so anxious to escape into his default autopilot mode. And the more he opened up to Jennifer, the more easily she could give him space. The more settled she became, and more able to slow down and share her fears, rather than pressure Josh for reassurance, the less he experienced her as “clingy.”

For the first time, Jennifer was able to travel on her own without becoming agitated. “I used to fret and worry when we were apart—it was like I was trying to cling to Josh even from another state!” she said. “It was such a relief to feel connected while we were apart. I didn’t call him in a panic, and it didn’t feel like our relationship stopped while I was gone.” Another key moment that helped stabilize their reconnection was Josh’s response after a conversation between Jennifer and her father that left her in tears. Instead of feeling helpless and distancing himself, Jennifer said, “He actually put his arms around me, and told me he understood.” She called this “amazing,” as tears came to her eyes and Josh smiled at her.

As we terminated therapy, Josh was making plans to leave the Army and go to graduate school while Jennifer was finishing her degree. Since then, Jennifer has stayed in touch with me periodically and has shared how well they’ve continued to do. “Of course,” she said, “it’s not perfect, but we find our way back to each other with more ease and less drama.”

The 3 S’s

“Attuning to avoidance” may sound like an oxymoron, but getting in synch with the undercover emotions that lead clients to distance is just as important as attuning to loud, angry, or dramatic expressions of emotion. Rather than trying to circumvent Josh’s emotional detachment, focusing on it helped us slowly create the possibility for more emotional openness. Slowness and softness are key—creating a pace and tone in the therapy room that establishes safety and enables clients to take the risks of engaging with emotions they’ve long avoided.

A therapist isn’t going to get an emotionally shut-down person to open up with a fast-talking, high-pitched, intellectual delivery of interventions. The way interventions are conveyed influences how they’re received. So, if the therapist is being cognitive, the client is encouraged to be cognitive in response. By contrast, a soft and slow therapeutic style deactivates the client’s limbic system and creates an opening for new experience and a deepening of relationship. In EFT, therapists struggling to establish connection with clients are reminded again and again of the three S’s—soft, slow, simple. These are essential elements of therapeutic style if one wishes to connect with the shut-down client.

Kathryn Rheem, Ed.D., L.M.F.T., a certified EFT therapist, supervisor, and trainer, is the director of the Washington Baltimore Center for EFT. With Susan Johnson, she’s a cofounder and codirector of Strong Bonds, Strong Couples, an EFT-based program for Army and Marine couples following combat deployment. Tell us what you think about this article by e-mail at, or at Log in and you’ll find the comment section on every page of the online Magazine.

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  • Comment Link Sunday, 01 July 2012 20:22 posted by Jennifer Gracie

    While shutting down is a coping style which combat veterans may be particularly susceptable to, it is not limited to combat veterans and I found this an encouraging article as to ways of working with a shutdown client. Thank you for keeping this real and showing how challenging this can be for the therapist and all concerned.