Most people come to therapy for help with emotional or behavioral responses that aren’t under their conscious control. 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, and other attempts at cognitive understanding. In fact, 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, 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.
To begin the process of change, I asked Sally to think of a particular resource experience—someone she’d hated in the past but now felt okay about. My goal in making this specific request was to help her find a memory in which she’d already succeeded in unconsciously resolving hate. This is an example of what legendary therapist Milton Erickson described as “what you know, but you don’t know that you know.” Everyone has had an experience of hating someone and later somehow finding a comfortable resolution, but we often don’t realize that we’ve done that. That experience, however, holds the unconscious key to changing a present hate in a useful way.When Sally said she’d thought of someone who fit these criteria, I asked her to see her inner image of that person and her image of Craig at the same time. “As you see both those images,” I instructed, “I want you notice the sensory differences between them, starting with the location of each image in your visual field. One might be closer and the other farther away. One might be more to your right or left, one might be higher or lower.”
After a few moments of silence, Sally reported that she saw Craig’s upper torso and face straight in front of her, about two or three feet away. In contrast, she saw the full body of the person she’d hated in the past but was now okay with about 15 feet away and 20 degrees to her left.“Great,” I said. “Now tell me what other differences you notice in the images. One might be clearer than the other. One might be in color while the other is in black and white. One might be more in focus, or have more vivid contrast.”
Sally said Craig’s image was “big, clear, and in vivid color,” and the other image was “much smaller, faded, foggy, and in muted color.” This information made it clear why Sally’s hatred for Craig was so intense. It wasn’t because she had a schema, engram, neural circuit, or flashbulb memory that was etched or burnt into her brain, as many therapists often insist. It was simply because she had a big, clear, vivid image of him that was literally straight in front of her in her mind, and she responded accordingly. In addition, the differences between the images provided specific information about exactly how to change her response to Craig. This kind of information is unconscious for most people, but can easily become conscious in response to a therapist asking the kind of simple questions I posed to Sally.In the next step, I asked Sally to take the image of Craig and allow it to move to the location of the other image. “Let that image of Craig move out to 15 feet away,” I instructed. “Let it become smaller, faded, foggy, and muted in color, and then shift it about 20 degrees to your left.”When I asked her how she felt with the image of Craig in this new position she hesitated, and then in a doubtful voice she said, “I feel a little better, but the feelings of anger dragged along with the image.”
Because she still had anger, rather than the comfortable response she wanted, I knew there was something about her resource image that didn’t quite fit for her, so I gathered more information about the person whom she’d once felt anger toward but now felt okay about. “What was it about that person that allowed you to have a different response?” I asked.In a soft voice she said, “I was thinking about my brother. I was really angry at him at one time, but I came to care for him and trust him.”
When I responded, “It certainly wouldn’t be appropriate to care for and trust Craig, would it?” she laughed and heartily agreed. Therefore, we needed to find a more appropriate resource experience that satisfied additional criteria. “Think of someone you once hated, and still don’t care for or trust, but have come to have a more comfortable response to,” I said. When I asked her about her image of this person, she said it was also full-body, about 15 feet away from her, small, faded, foggy, and in muted color. However, instead of being 20 degrees to her left, this image was straight ahead of her, down about 30 degrees from horizontal.When I asked Sally to allow her image of Craig to move into the position of this new image, I heard a soft, full exhalation on the phone. Then, in a voice that was animated and strong, she said, “I immediately felt my anger dissolve, and the tension in my chest released. I can breathe easily now.” Now that Sally had the comfortable response to Craig she wanted, the next step was to rehearse it in her imagination, to make sure that her new response would transfer automatically out into the real world, where she needed it most.
The location of an image is a primary way we all unconsciously sort our experiences—and its size, vividness, color, distance, and sound are also important factors. These sensory parameters of an image are usually far more significant determinants of the intensity of emotional response than the content of the image itself. Someone can have truly horrible memories, but if their images are small, dim, far away behind them, and silent, they won’t be bothersome. In that configuration, it’s easy to say, “I’ve put all that behind me”—a literal description of what’s been done internally.