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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Psychotherapy Blog: How Your Unconscious Beliefs Affect Your Sense of Reality

As I discussed in my prior article, The Unconscious Mind and Experiential Therapy: The "Symptom" Contains the Solution, when individuals or couples seek help, the problems that they come into therapy with often have underlying unconscious beliefs and, prior to therapy, they have no awareness of how this affects their sense of reality.

How Your Unconscious Beliefs Affect Your Sense of Reality

Often, these unconscious beliefs were formed in early childhood and continue, without the client's awareness, through adulthood.

Let's talk a look at an example of this in the following vignette, which is a composite of many different cases with all identifying information changed:

Ted came to therapy because he was having problems with his wife and his boss at work.

How Your Unconscious Beliefs Affect Your Sense of Reality

His wife, Mary, had been trying to persuade Ted for years to go to therapy to get help with his temper, but he was adamantly against coming to therapy--until he received an unsatisfactory performance evaluation at work and he feared he might lose his job.

As Ted explained it, he couldn't understand why he was having problems in his marriage and at work.  He felt he was a good husband and a good worker.

Mary came with him for the first session because she was concerned that Ted's total lack of self awareness about his interpersonal problems would get in the way of his being able to change quickly enough to save his job.

As Mary explained it, Ted tended to become very angry and lose his temper with even the mildest, most tactful criticism.  This caused arguments at home between them, and it also created difficulties when Ted's boss tried to give him feedback at work.

She explained that Ted never lost his temper about anything else and, on the whole, he was "a calm, sweet guy."

Ted agreed that he would lose his temper whenever he felt criticized and he knew this was a problem.  He wanted to change, but he would get angry so quickly.  He described it as a "knee jerk response."

He felt highly ashamed about his "communication problem." He said he didn't want to ruin his marriage or lose his job, but he felt hopeless to change his automatic response to any criticism.

He recounted how he took an anger management course because he hoped that would help him not to react angrily, but it didn't do any good.  He continued to lose his temper whenever there was even the mere suggestion of criticism.

After getting his family history and preparing him to do EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), we began to process the last incident where he lost his temper that was still emotionally vivid for him (see my articles: What is EMDR?How EMDR Works: EMDR and the Brain and Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR, Can Lead to Emotional Breakthroughs).

Ted recalled an incident a few weeks ago where his boss told him that a customer complained that Ted took too long to get back to him about a sales problem.  He told Ted that he also felt that Ted could have done better and he needed to be especially responsive to this customer because they hoped to increase their business with him.

Ted described how he felt his face turn red and he felt a surge of rage overtake him.  Before he knew what he was saying, he was yelling at his boss and telling his boss that he was disrespecting him.

How Your Unconscious Beliefs Affect Your Sense of Reality

His boss reacted by walking away.  But later on, he came back, when Ted was calmer, and told him that he needed to be able to accept constructive criticism without flying off the handle.

A few days later, Ted received his performance evaluation in his in box and, much to his dismay, it said, in part, that Ted needed to learn to take constructive criticism without losing his temper.  It also said that if Ted didn't improve in this area, he might be terminated.

Fortunately, Ted was by himself when he read this so no one observed him losing his temper again.  But he knew it would be only a matter of time before it would happen again.  This was why he was willing to accept help in therapy.

When I asked Ted about the negative belief he had about himself with regard to this memory of losing his temper with his boss, Ted said, "I feel helpless."  Asked how he would like to feel, he said, "I would like to feel confident and empowered in these situations and not lose my temper."

To determine if there were any underlying earlier memories that fed into the current situation, I helped Ted to do a "float back" (also called "bridging back") to see if there were any other similar experiences.

Ted was able to recount many similar experiences in his adolescence when he would get angry and fight when anyone criticized him.

Then, he remembered something that his father said to him when he was 12, which he hadn't thought of consciously for many years:  "If you allow people to put you down, you're not a man."

Ted was surprised to have this memory come back to mind.

As we continued to process this in EMDR, Ted realized that this was the unconscious belief that had been fueling his anger whenever he felt criticized.

Even though, as an adult, he didn't consciously believe this, the unconscious belief was very powerful and he recognized that there was still a part of him that felt this was true:  If he allowed others to criticize him, this meant he wasn't a man.

At first, Ted couldn't understand how he could have two contradictory feelings at the same time.  But as we continued to process this in EMDR, he also realized that he had another unconscious belief that was underneath the first one and that was that if he didn't defend himself when he was criticized, he would be a disappointment to his father.

This other unconscious belief was even more puzzling to Ted than the first one, especially since his father had been dead for several years.

As we continued to use EMDR therapy, Ted came to realize that the second belief about disappointing his father was even more powerful because it was a way of keeping him connected to his dad, and he felt that if he let go of that belief, he would be letting go of his father.

So, in the course of our doing EMDR, Ted came to see that he never completely grieved for his dad and a younger part of himself was still trying to please him.

We all have certain aspects of ourselves that are in conflict with other parts.  So, Ted needed to learn this in therapy so he could accept these contradictory parts of himself at that point in therapy.

EMDR helps clients to integrate unconscious contradictory parts and, with time, Ted was able to accept this about himself.  He was also able to grieve for his father and accept that he no longer needed to act on what was once an unconscious belief about defending himself against criticism.

EMDR helped Ted to see his unconscious belief in the "light of day" and to understand the function that it served with regard to his relationship with his father.

When Ted recognized the underlying purpose of his unconscious belief, he no longer felt ashamed because working in this way in therapy is non-pathologizing.

How Your Unconscious Beliefs Affect Your Sense of Reality

Once Ted grieved for his father, he no longer had negative reactions at home or at work whenever he felt criticized.

If I had used only a cognitive-behavioral approach and not an experiential therapy like EMDR in this case, Ted never would have gotten below the surface of his symptom of losing his temper when he was criticized.

Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR, Helps to Achieve Therapeutic Breakthroughs

He never would have traced it back in his memory to his relationship with his father or see the underlying symptom below the first layer that acting on this belief kept him attached to his father whom he had never really let go.

Getting Help in Therapy
Ordinary consciousness often masks unconscious beliefs that affect your sense of reality.

In "Ted's" case, his unconscious belief told him that if he didn't defend himself, he wasn't a man.  This was his unconscious sense of reality that was driving his interactions with his wife and his boss.

This unconscious belief was completely outside of his ordinary conscious awareness and regular talk therapy often doesn't get to this.

Experiential therapy, especially therapy that uses the mind-body connection, provides an opportunity to get to these unconscious beliefs so that they can be seen for what they are.

If you're struggling with problems that you don't understand and regular talk therapy hasn't helped you, rather than continuing to suffer, you could benefit from working with a psychotherapist who uses experiential types of therapy like, among others, EMDR, Somatic Experiencing, and clinical hypnosis (see my article:  EMDR: When Talk Therapy Isn't Enough).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.

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