Let’s say you’re living your life, minding your own business, so to speak, when something unpleasant or scary happens because of either an external cue from the environment or an internal cue from a random thought, image, or feeling. Then your partner snaps at you for not cleaning the lint filter in the dryer, or the driver in the next lane cuts in front of you, or any of a thousand different triggers happens. At this point, your brain immediately reacts with three distinct operations.
1. The primitive, limbic area of the brain generates an alarm: something bad is about to happen.
2. The prefrontal cortex interprets the alarm and assesses how bad the situation is, what it means, how it happened, how much damage has occurred, how much threat it represents.
3. A more advanced level of the prefrontal cortex begins acting to improve the situation: to neutralize the threat without doing further damage and repair any damage already done.
Patrick, like a lot of people stuck in a pattern of dysfunctional emotional habits, could never get beyond the first two operations to begin working on the third. He was caught in a self-reinforcing emotional loop between feeling bad as a result of some emotional trigger and negatively interpreting the trigger to justify his bad behavior—which then reinforced and amplified his bad feelings. His pattern went like this: alarm (I feel fear, anger, distress), assessment (I have every right to feel that way, given all the bad things that have happened to me), enhanced alarm (more anger, distress, fear).
In our initial work together, I thought that validating the intensity of Patrick’s states of vulnerability and relating them to the ghosts of his past would nullify the alarm that was blocking his brain’s move to the improve mode. Now I try to help clients merely acknowledge the alarm, without confusing it with reality. The alarm is not the fire! Then I help them assess the damage, and finally, we focus on improving. Clients rehearse the sequence repeatedly until it becomes a habit.
In Patrick’s case, he rehearsed: alarm (I feel ashamed and then resentful when my wife complains), assessment (I’ve lost no self-value from my wife’s complaint, and the shame I feel is a motivation to pay more attention to her, not a punishment for failure), and improvement (I’ll pay attention to her complaint and try to help or support her if I can).
The Power of Practice
Compared to the drama of Christmas Carol therapy, developing habits is repetitious and sometimes tedious. Thus, because of its assembly-line-like quality, I call it blue-collar therapy. The blue-collar therapy mantra is “To get big change, think small.” It has an equivalent in physical therapy and in the muscle memory that athletes strive to develop. Professional basketball players shoot hundreds of foul shots in practice sessions. Three-point shooters take so many practice shots per day that they never have to look for the three-point line in a game—they know in their bodies where it is. Essentially, daily practice of particular and discrete skills for incremental change will eventually lead to larger changes.
Blue-collar therapy requires high motivation on the part of the client to make the effort necessary to develop new habits. Of course, insight about the past can provide useful motivation to be a better partner and parent, but because I work exclusively with clients trapped in destructive habits, I prefer the shorter route of using their core values to motivate practice that will bring about long-term change. This is a necessary approach with most of my clients, whose anger and behavior problems stem from their habit of substituting power for value—perhaps the easiest and most destructive habit we can acquire.
Human beings are prone to learn early in life to associate vulnerability with powerlessness and to associate the adrenalin rush of anger with personal power. The problem is that states of vulnerability are more often triggered by the diminishment of self-value rather than by the loss of power. When people feel devalued, they try to feel superior by exerting power over others overtly through aggression or by mentally devaluing them. Naturally, this tendency backfires: most of the emotional distress that clients suffer—indeed, much of the psychological dysfunction in the world in general—comes from substituting power for value. Temporarily feeling more powerful by driving aggressively or shouting at your spouse is unlikely to make you feel more valuable. In fact, it usually does the opposite. It subverts the motivational function of devalued states, which is to get us to enhance the value of our experience. Substituting power for value is like eating when your body tells you to urinate, sleeping when it tells you to eat, or taking an amphetamine when it tells you to sleep.