Although further work was needed to explore the “scary” loss of the illusion of control, this emergence from a lifetime of self-invalidation into a recognition of her own intactness and worth was a completely unprecedented shift for Regina. The main breakthrough had occurred.
Ready for Unlearning
The cases of Carol and Regina illustrate how different techniques can be used to facilitate the brain’s core process of profound unlearning. That’s why this process can be fulfilled within many different systems of experiential therapy. The particular usefulness of our Coherence Therapy approach is that its steps match those of the reconsolidation process: first, evoke into direct experience the emotional learnings underlying the client’s unwanted patterns. Then find a vivid knowledge or experience that contradicts those learnings. Finally, combine those two into a juxtaposition experience and repeat it several times.
Using Coherence Therapy to dispel a hair-trigger temper was the challenge with Raoul, a 36-year-old carpenter who installed fine maple and oak cabinets in expensive kitchens. He came to his first appointment, despite his considerable bias against therapy, to deal with frequent flare-ups of anger that baffled and demoralized him. In a variety of situations, he found himself bursting with rage, shouting at his wife, his two young children, or his best friend—sometimes even at other tradespeople on a job or the occasional hapless sales clerk. At times, he had to storm out of a room to prevent himself from hitting someone. He wasn’t sure why he kept blowing up and he wondered aloud during his first session whether he needed medication for some sort of “brain glitch.”
The discovery work began by engaging Raoul in looking closely at several recent explosive interactions, and he readily came to a new awareness: his anger flared when he thought that the other person had broken an agreement between them, even if only in some minor way. A few seconds after this recognition, another realization came, revealing why broken agreements were such a hot button. Five years earlier, he’d started a business with another talented carpenter. Together they’d installed Raoul’s treasured tools in a rented cabinet shop and set out to build custom kitchens, agreeing to split the profits down the middle. After a promising start, the partner became disorganized and careless. First, a few tools went missing from the shop. The partner promised to return them as soon as he finished a side project in his garage workshop, but didn’t. Then the partner withdrew some funds from their business bank account. Afterward, he didn’t show up for a time-sensitive remodeling job several mornings in a row, blaming his absences on a family crisis.
One morning, Raoul drove up to the shop and discovered that it had been stripped completely of tools, including a set of fine Japanese wood chisels he’d inherited from his father. The partner was gone, as was all the money remaining in their bank account. In a state of deep shock, anger, and sorrow, Raoul was forced to declare the business bankrupt, let go of a long-treasured dream, and start over as a hired hand for general contractors.
Raoul’s shock at his business partner’s betrayal had engraved rigid emotional responses in the neural pathways and synapses of his brain’s implicit memory networks. Whenever an interpersonal interaction seemed reminiscent of the betrayal, a web of neurocellular pathways would become activated, instantly launching an urgent, self-protective response—anger.
To find out why Raoul’s dominant response was anger—rather than depression or a sense of vulnerability, for example—the therapist engaged in further discovery work using the experiential technique of symptom deprivation. If the cause of Raoul’s anger was in some sense an emotional necessity, then being without the anger would cause discomfort, and deeply exploring that discomfort would put Raoul directly in touch with a hidden problem that he was solving with anger. Guiding him to revisit a situation in which his anger had flared because of a perceived breach of agreement, the therapist said, “See what it feels like if anger doesn’t come. Just notice what you start to experience instead.”