Unlocking the Emotional Brain

Unlocking the Emotional Brain

Finding the neural key to transformation

September/October 2008

As therapists, we're all too familiar with the strength and tenacity of ingrained emotional schemas—unconscious templates of feeling and behavior, usually established during childhood, that can seem immune to our best clinical efforts. For example, a woman goes into anxious, compulsive attempts to please her husband whenever he seems even slightly upset or impatient with her; a man flies into uncontrollable rage when any small mistake or misstep is called to his attention; a bright and promising graduate student repeatedly drops out of school programs just before successfully completing them; a woman plunges into deep, crippling shame when treated disrespectfully by others. All sorts of family-of-origin rules, roles, and attachment patterns operate through such embedded schemas, as do behaviors or moods unconsciously triggered by ordinary daily events or relatively insignificant mishaps. At times, our clients appear to have put an "issue" to rest, only to have a new situation trigger a relapse.

The tenacity of such symptoms reflects the durability of the underlying emotional schemas, which persist through the decades. These schemas are made up of our own living knowledge, acquired in emotionally intense episodes of life, yet they're largely or completely unconscious and nonverbal. Even more curiously, one's own schemas respond to situations autonomously, without our conscious awareness of either the knowledge they retain or the experiences that originally formed…

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