Intimate partners motivated to feel valuable tend to show compassion and kindness. Those moved to feel powerful invoke shame or fear to get their way, or use force or coercion to dominate. In our first course of therapy, I hadn’t trained Patrick to do something that, when he felt devalued, would make him feel more valuable. By default, this left intact his habit of exerting power to escape the abyss of vulnerability he felt. The manual override—insight about how and why he felt vulnerable—was an unreliable regulator of this dangerous and entirely automatic habit.
Conditioning Core Value
The goal of blue-collar therapy is to develop the habit of moving beyond the feedback loop of alarm-
assessment-enhanced alarm to the more empowered improve mode of mental processing. The optimal conditioned response is an association of states of vulnerability-threat-injury with motivation to improve-repair-heal, so that occurrence of the former stimulates the latter. Rather than immediately moving from feeling threatened-exposed-weak to feeling angry-defensive-aggressive, the goal is to move from the former to a desire to soften, connect, and feel better.
Step one of blue-collar therapy invokes the high degree of motivation required to practice the behaviors that, with repetition, we want to become habits. Therefore, I first worked with Patrick to heighten his sense of commitment to becoming the person, partner, and parent he most wanted to be. We started the process by using the following questionnaire.
1. What are the three most important qualities about you as a person? (Patrick wrote: “passionate, loyal, hard worker.”)
2. What are the three most important assets your partner brings to your relationship? (Patrick: “sensitive to others, generous, cheerful.”)
3. What are the three most important qualities about you as a husband and father? (Patrick: “affectionate, loving, protective.”)
4. List three ways you’d like to improve as a husband and parent. (Patrick: “more respectful, engaged, and focused on the good moments.”)
5. List the five things you most appreciate about your marriage. (Patrick: “companionship, fun, sensuality, security, vitality.”)
6. Write a brief narrative about yourself, using the 17 items you described above. (Patrick: “My relationship brings me fun, sensuality, vitality, security, and companionship. My partner is sensitive, generous, and cheerful. I’m passionate about doing whatever hard work it takes to be more loving, respectful, loyal, engaged, protective, and appreciative of the good moments.”)
The next step of blue-collar therapy is identifying a repertoire of thoughts and behaviors that make the client feel more valuable. These will be practiced in association with the client’s recall of vulnerable states, with the goal of building new prosocial habits. I begin by asking about times in the past when the client felt more valuable. To help him or her recall these times, I give hints about four general categories that encompass value-enhancing behaviors:
• Improvement (when you’ve tried to make a situation a little better)
• Appreciation (when you’ve opened your heart to be enhanced by the qualities of someone or something else)
•Connection (when you’ve felt attuned to your partner’s positive emotional experience or felt compassion for his or her negative feelings)
•Protection (when you’ve looked out for the emotional well-being of someone else).