Someone recently told me about how he very often hears things as criticism when they are not meant to be critical. For instance, he and his wife had a disagreement about buying snack bars. When at the store he had agreed that he would eat the raisin filled bars since she and their son did not like them. When it came time to fill lunch bags he also wanted one of the other variety and she said,” Oh, no, you wanted the raisin ones, you cannot have these.” This innocent interaction between two people who love each other became a “big deal” and they both left the house in a fowl mood, holding animosity toward the other.
John*, says to me, “Why do I take that as criticism? I do that all of the time. Can I change that?”
My response to him, “Yes, let’s see if we can discover where this all started. Can you remember a time when you were criticized or mistreated, where someone did not care about your feelings nor about what you needed or wanted?”
John: “I have not thought about this for years, but when I was a child, my older brother would pummel me. I mean he would punch me and beat on me repeatedly and my mother would not stop him. In fact she would beat me as well. My father was gone and I had no one that cared about me to keep me safe. They were criticizing me and beating me. Do you think this made me like I am today—about criticism?”
NOTE: Here I can see that John is beginning to feel the sadness, emotional pain, and isolation that he had felt as a boy. And I was also feeling a deep sadness for him, that he had had this experience. I was thinking what a horribly painful experience it must have been, to be that age, living every day in fear, dread, and loneliness; to have no one care about him, or want to protect him. So with interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB), the therapist wants the individual to know what the therapist is feeling, and that the therapist is deeply moved and cares about the experience of the child and the adult.
As a child, John’s neurons and body were “wired” to interpret his experiences as “I am bad,” “I am defective,” and “I have no value.” He certainly does not feel deserving of safety or having people hold his best interest at heart. Up until now John had never had anyone really care about his feelings or help him identify and meet his needs for safety, caring, affection, and connection. Although his wife loves him very much, they do not yet know how to meet these needs for each other. My job is to give him all this and, hence, change the way his brain fires—or should we say, rewire his circuitry.
Me: “John, when you are telling me this I notice that I start feeling two things, and they are very different feelings. The first is, I feel this deep sadness and loneliness for that boy. I can only imagine how lonely and scared he must have felt. And secondly, I feel this feeling of warmth and caring for you, the adult here with me now and for that boy. And I feel them together, as they are side by side, like two railroad tracks running along side each other.
“Now please notice if you can sense my feelings for these two parts of you. When you look at my face, can you see the moisture in my eyes and hear the caring tone in my voice? These feelings are for you, and my intention is to provide the physical and emotional safety available to you right now, to give you what you have never had before, to have you feel my caring that this happened to you, and to have us both feel an intimate connection; a personal, emotional connection where we both feel safe and open and this is okay. Just notice what it is like to feel and experience what I just said and revealed to you. Then, after reflecting, please share with me your experience; whatever it is I want to hear it.”
John: “I am overwhelmed right now and do not know how to put into words how good I feel. I can tell that you genuinely care about me, and that boy was here with us and he felt safe—not completely, but more than he ever has.” (He goes on to speak more about his positive feelings).
Me: “John, I have to tell you that I am celebrating in my heart. I am rejoicing that, working together, we accomplished something incredible. Together we helped meet your needs for safety, caring, and connection. And we did it at a deep level. Your tendency to hear things critically will never be safe. We have begun to significantly rewire your brain, so that you will not takes things so critically again. It is not completely repaired, but it is significant. We are amazing, aren’t we? Now, the last thing, John, notice the way your body is experiencing my words and intentions and feelings. Notice the physical sensations.”
In this last part, two things are important. The rejoicing and experiencing the physical and emotional sensations are critical to a successful session.
* Names and identifying information have been changed to protect client confidentiality
© Copyright 2010 by Christopher Diggins, MA, LMHC. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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