In this step, Patrick said he could improve situations when he listened to Mattie, but I had to point out that it was what he’d do differently that would actually make him feel more valuable. When he provided more information to Mattie instead of trying to refute her, for instance, she felt more valued and he felt more valuable. The corrective behavior he then identified was listening without contradicting—which he agreed to practice doing, especially when he felt devalued.
Patrick could vividly recall instances when he’d appreciated Mattie—like the time she stayed up with him all night when he was wrenched with intestinal flu—but he could recall only one example of connecting with her deeper vulnerability when she’d been angry, and that was a time when she’d been angry at her mother, not him. He had a lot of guilt, which led him to focus on how badly he felt when he mistreated Mattie, but he lacked compassion, a quality which would allow him to focus on how badly she felt and what he could do to help. After all, Mattie was just as hurt when angry at him as she was when angry at her mother. I pointed out to him that he seemed to feel more valuable when he regulated his guilt by focusing on compassion for what had hurt Mattie, and asked if he preferred that to being angry at her. Of course, he preferred the more valuing emotional state, so he vowed to practice regulating his guilt by focusing on sympathy for Mattie and offering to help her when she was angry at him.
Patrick easily recalled a time when he’d felt protective of Mattie. A man in the grocery store had called her a “bitch” when she’d inadvertently cut in front of him in line. The man instantly apologized when he saw Patrick, who was much bigger. With encouragement, Patrick recognized not only the fear and shame Mattie must have experienced when the man had shouted at her, but also how much more fear and shame she must have felt when her own husband shouted at her and called her names. He vowed to practice protecting Mattie’s well-being, even when he felt devalued.
Blue-collar therapy strives to develop habits of choosing value over power through a process I call TIP.
Think repeatedly about the desired change, and if you journal, write about it. For example, “When she says I’m selfish, I’ll allow myself to care that she’s hurt and show her that I care.”
Imagine in detail how to overcome any barriers (usually guilt, shame, anxiety) to the desired change. For example, “I feel guilty about having been selfish in the past, but caring about Mattie and feeling connected to her is more important, so I’ll try to focus on what’s most important to me.”
Practice in simulated stress and in real life the specific behaviors likely to lead to the desired change.
In Patrick’s case, practicing in simulated stress meant that Mattie would deliberately provoke him with comments and behaviors that in the past had led to angry outbursts. For example, she’d voice her intention to buy something she wanted, and when he’d object, she’d point out that he was stingy just like his father. (Note that the practice incidents should be varied to achieve a generalized effect rather than just desensitization to one or two provocations.)
My experience of working with clients who habitually tend to increase their power when they feel devalued is that it takes about 12 repetitions per day of associating behaviors that increase value with feelings of diminished value, and it takes about six weeks of practice to form the new habit. Thus, each day while Patrick was at work, I had Mattie text provocative remarks with which he could associate behaviors that made him feel more valuable. For instance, in response to the previous example, he’d write, “Honey, you absolutely deserve everything you want to buy. I know I’ve had a money problem in the past, but money is just numbers, so let’s sit down together and count the numbers coming in and going out and decide together on a budget.” After each practice session, he had to make a mental note of how much more valuable the new behavior was making him feel compared to the old response of anger or aggression.
The frequent practice required of habit-building is likelier to be accomplished if done in a regimen at the same time every day. I urge clients to choose transitional times to practice the new thoughts and behaviors, because what we experience during transitional times—when we stop doing one thing and start doing another—tends to have more carryover effect. Each practice session should be about one minute, three at the most. Using traditional work days as a model, I urge clients to practice first thing in the morning, before they leave the house, before they go into work, at morning break time, at lunch time, at afternoon break time, before they leave work, before they go into the house, before dinner, after dinner, while preparing for bed, and once in bed.