I’m back from vacation. I’ll be writing more frequently…
This morning’s Alter Net news has this story about breaking old habits. If you know the Enneagram you can see the dynamics of a troubled style 8. The relationship between anger, the search for justice and the fear of vulnerability are especially revealing.
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.”
Through several rounds of symptom deprivation, Raoul experienced three distressing dilemmas that he’d been avoiding with anger, and he verbalized them with the therapist’s help:
“Without my anger, I feel powerless and defenseless against being deceived again, so I need my anger.”
“Without my anger, I feel such intense grief and heartbreak over what I’ve lost that I might be swept away by it and unable to function, so I need my anger.”
“Without my anger, I feel he totally got away with it and there’s no accountability or justice in the world. Letting go of my anger would be letting go of my demand for accountability and justice—and that’s totally unacceptable to me.”
Addressing the first response, the therapist asked Raoul to say more about how vulnerable he felt to being deceived again.
“I didn’t see it coming, so how am I going to see it coming next time?” Raoul asked. The therapist responded, “I can understand that sense of vulnerability, but I’m also wondering whether there’s been something in your life that makes it extra uncomfortable to feel vulnerable, so that it’s better to get angry instead. Can we look at that?”
Raoul revealed that in his family of origin, a man who was worthy of respect never felt powerless and defenseless. Men were always supposed to know what to do, be strong for everyone else, and show no fear or pain. “That’s how I grew up. That’s my culture.” Being perceived as falling short in these qualities was shameful and had real consequences, like being excluded from important social circles and networking possibilities.
The therapist then helped Raoul dig deeper, resulting in this statement: “I can’t risk feeling this vulnerability because it’ll make me be seen by everyone as weak. I’ll be stuck forever in shame and excluded forever from things that are important to me.”
The therapist wrote this on an index card and asked Raoul to read the card every day between sessions. In his next session a week later, he reported an inner shift: “I’d look at a neighbor or at friends we were having dinner with, and think, ‘Really? This person would judge and exclude me like that? I don’t think so!’” Raoul was describing juxtaposition experiences that arose in daily life as a natural result of holding the schema consciously.
The therapist asked him to again say aloud the sentence on the card, and now it was flat and void of emotional resonance. His emotional schema had been dissolved. With the old social punishments no longer expected, his sense of vulnerability was greatly reduced, and the need to avoid it was no longer urgent. So his anger was no longer needed and the sentence was obsolete.
The therapist then addressed Raoul’s second statement: “Without my anger, I feel such intense grief and heartbreak over what I’ve lost that I might be swept away by it and unable to function, so I need my anger.”
His expectation of being overwhelmed by his feelings was the target emotional learning here. The best contradictory experience would be seeing for himself that it wasn’t so. To make it safe enough for Raoul to begin to feel his grief directly and realize that it wasn’t overwhelming, the therapist said, “Ungrieved grief causes people all kinds of trouble. Here in my office, with me guiding you, would you be willing to allow a minute or two of feeling just a small degree of the sensation of the heartbreak that you’re carrying around? I can coach you on how to open the valve a little, just for a minute. And then you’ll see that the valve closes, without the overwhelming feelings you’ve been anticipating.”
Raoul was wary but willing to try, so the therapist said, “Say these few words out loud: What I lost really hurts.”
He thought about that for a few seconds, and then said he wanted to change the words to “What was stolen from me really hurts.” Raoul then said those words.
After a few seconds, the therapist asked, “Do you feel anything in your body with that?” Raoul put his hand on his solar plexus and said, “Yes, it feels hot and tight right here.”
“OK,” said the therapist, “let your hand lightly hold or massage that place for a few seconds, and then we’re done with it for now and we’ll focus on other things.”
Gradually, over several sessions, Raoul opened to the full, direct experience of his grief, and each time, he saw that the waves of grief and pain, even the most intense feelings, lasted only a few minutes at most. To ensure that juxtaposition experiences were occurring, at certain points the therapist briefly guided him to connect with his old expectation of being overwhelmed. Toward the end of this process, the therapist asked, “How much is left of thinking you’ll be wiped out by the grief you feel? What percent?”
“Close to zero,” Raoul confirmed. Beyond allowing his grief process to unfold, this approach had transformed his knowledge of his own capacity to feel emotion.
Raoul’s third statement was “Without my anger, I feel he totally got away with it and there’s no accountability or justice in the world. Letting go of my anger would be letting go of my demand for accountability and justice, and that’s totally unacceptable to me.” His business partner had stolen his money, as well as his hopes and dreams, and Raoul was struggling to keep alive his implicit model of the world as being good and just, and relying on his angry demand for accountability to accomplish that. In essence, resorting to anger was his passionate campaign to preserve a sense that there’s good in the world.
The therapist asked Raoul if he felt any connection between this campaign and what he’d previously described about the total honesty and goodness of his family. His childhood, he’d said, was sheltered from bad experiences and scoundrels, leaving him unprepared for such encounters. To help him access that theme emotionally, the therapist said, “To you as a boy, the world of people seemed to be all goodness, and then, at 31, you had a powerful, traumatic encounter with badness. I can imagine that might be challenging to come to terms with. Could we take a look at what’s going on inside about that?”
That question opened the door to a chamber of implicit meanings, and Raoul now recognized that his angry quest for justice was actually his desperate attempt to preserve the innocent, uncompromised world he’d experienced as a boy. With this dilemma in mind, the therapist commented empathetically, “So, for you, the existence of this bad person has the power to nullify all the good that you also know exists.” Raoul’s mismatch detector immediately swung into action on his revealed schema, lighting up his own contradictory knowledge and creating juxtaposition experiences. He soon arrived at a new, more nuanced model of the world. As Raoul put it, the world “contains lots of good and some bad.” He no longer needed to be an angry seeker of justice and accountability. In his last session, he announced that his wife, with great affection and gratitude, had offered the final verdict on his healing journey: “The man I married is finally back!”