How to avoid avoidance through gentle healing
What is it about the business of "getting better" that seems so easy at first glance but turns out to be a long, drawn-out process of ups and downs, better and worse, gains and relapses? When a few sufferers seem to get immediate and long-term relief from their depression, stress, anger or any number of mental and emotional ills, why do most people tend to struggle, either getting no result from the therapist’s best efforts, or getting early positive results only to be disappointed with a relapse later.
All too often, endeavours seem to be drawn into some sort of black hole that "vanishes" every bit of therapy we expose ourselves to, either immediately or piecemeal over time. Wellbeing should not be as elusive as it is, but we often seem to be skilled at avoiding and sabotaging the emotional life changes we seek.
Most of us have seen, either at first hand or on television, examples of sudden and sensational healing acts. Whether we believe what we are seeing is authentic healing or not, there are not too many of us who don’t privately question the longevity of such healing miracles. It’s not for me to question or deride true positive change brought about by these practices, but what we want to address is the question: If it’s authentic, but it doesn’t last, what’s going on? Why doesn’t it last?
Taking a step back from the episodes of sensational healing, let’s not ignore the fact that positive changes brought about by more conventional, longer-term forms of counselling and psychotherapy often don’t last, either. So what gets in the way of permanence in our desire to "get better"?
First and foremost, we are talking about unconscious processes that prevent us from making life changes for the better. So we are addressing here those aspects of self that are unconscious, those parts of us that avoid and sabotage change. We are also discussing what "healing" means, as well as what "gentle" means in reference to healing.
If the business of manifesting change in our mental and emotional life were as simple as making rational and wilful decisions to do so, and then setting our conscious mind the task of following those decisions, this article would be redundant. There’d be no such thing as avoiding or sabotaging — we’d simply "change". In fact, if that were the case, there’d be no need for therapists, either, because there would be no mental or emotional discomforts at all. Our conscious rational mind would be in complete control of our wellbeing and our life.
So the landscape we’re referring to is the hidden territory of the mind — the subconscious, or unconscious, mind. After all, any habitual thought, feeling, emotion, attitude or non-elective reaction or response is generated from the unconscious mind. Much is written, spoken and debated about the "subconscious", but in relation to the subject at hand, we’re most interested in the two properties of the unconscious mind that have a huge bearing on our seemingly intractable capacity for avoidance and self-sabotage. First, our non-conscious mind stores every bit of information, every thought, feeling, experience and learned response of our whole life. This is the invisible territory where our avoidance and sabotage drives reside. Second, a great amount of this stored learned material is constantly accessed and used.
When the unconscious mind stores (encodes) the memory of a learned response or task that has any positive outcome — in other words, it works for us — that response or task doesn’t simply remain dormant. As time goes on, there’s a constant dynamic that leads us back to the memory of the tasks and reactions that worked for us in the first place and were encoded (remembered) as stored material. This dynamic is called "trace-bridging" and it is truly unconscious. It’s the dynamic that creates and feeds the habits known as "parts drivers" and "task drivers".
Parts drivers and task drivers
We’re all intricate, interesting beings and each of us has a layering of simple tasks and reactions learned at some time in our early existence. A task driver may be defined as the dynamic that develops all our habitual unconscious actions and reactions. In order to come into existence, a task has to be learned and has to be accessed through trace-bridging whenever it’s needed.
So, from a very early age, we learn certain tasks that are vital to our comfort and existence, these are encoded, and we repeat these tasks and responses because they served to get our needs met at the time of learning. We’ve all heard ourselves quietly say something like "There’s a part of me that seems to want to do this" or "There’s a part of me that makes me do that and I don’t know why". These little utterings signify the presence of parts drivers and they "drive" our life.
Now let’s look at how we learn to avoid change and why we continue to do so. Early in our infancy, we learn that change is not a comfortable thing. We learn that, to be able to live a stable life, we must avoid change at all costs. If we did not do that, our lives would be utter chaos, never remaining stable and having no direction. This, then, grows into a habitual task that the unconscious mind carries out for us and it plays havoc with any attempts to bring about therapeutic change.
There are two interesting aspects of our avoidance-of-change task drivers. First, our mechanisms and manoeuvres for avoiding change are legion. This unconscious dynamic wins out on almost all counts, whether it is before therapy sessions or during session work. Second, and much more importantly, this dynamic has positive intention. Its job is to keep us on track and not allow us to go spinning off into uncharted territory. As a personal exercise, just think what life would be like for you if you did not have an unconscious driver that prevented change away from set patterns of behaviour, emotion and feeling. While our avoidance-of-change task drivers seem to operate peri-therapeutically — that is, during and around the therapeutic exchange — our sabotage-of-change task drivers operate post-therapeutically, or at a later time. The interesting thing is they are identical dynamics, serving the same purpose, but are different only in that sabotage drivers begin to operate after a change has started to take place.
Many people who have undergone therapy, then started to make changes for the better and seemed to then slip backward are familiar with the little bit of self-talk that sounds something like: "There’s obviously a part of me that wants to sabotage all my good work." This is the sabotage task driver at work. So we can see the complexity of a path to healing and wellbeing when it seems there’s almost always something going on at the unconscious level to prevent us from changing for the better; and, to compound the issue, there’s something unconsciously going on that might make sure we don’t maintain any change we’re able to bring about, anyway!
Over decades, our culture has grown to expect instant gratification. Many people pay good money for therapy, work hard to understand and bring about change, so why shouldn’t they get results when we want them — namely, now! Unfortunately, it’s all too often our expectations of immediacy in healing that produce immediacy in disappointment and negative outcomes.
It wasn’t that long ago that the term healing applied only to physical and biological improvement. We were healed from physical sickness, cuts and broken bones, and this process was inevitably slow. We now use the term to describe positive change to mental, emotional, habitual and attitudinal issues and problems in our lives as well, yet we seem to have an expectation that this healing should be immediate, exhilarating and even sensational.
Another form of exhilarative healing is that which encourages some form of emotional "release" or "healing crisis" as part of the therapeutic episode or exchange. Many people "feel" like they have released something, or they may even get a quasi-physical feeling of a weight being lifted, but these episodes are no more than signals that a process has started rather than finished. So, in any therapeutic context, the process of "healing" can only be experienced over time, with the therapeutic process serving as the kick-off. Good therapy seeks subtle change that’s experienced as ongoing improvement in how we live our lives, and as a gentle rebalancing of emotions and behaviours previously "stuck" in an uncomfortable place.
Gentle and subtle
In therapy, I most often encourage people to look forward to "subtle and gentle change for the better". It’s a delicate balancing point, because some people may experience change in an immediate, profound and long-lasting way and we don’t want to discourage that, but we must swing the pendulum at least partway in the other direction from the "immediacy" and "exhilarative" expectations that our society seems to encourage. All quality psychotherapy is about planting a seed for change. The seed is planted in session. The plant grows of its own accord. Most often, that takes time.
Let’s assume that a client has indeed experienced an "exhilarative healing release" during therapeutic session work. This would be an experience that signals the mind on all levels, that significant change is taking place. Enter stage left, the player called ‘the sabotage change task driver.’ Not only has that part been bolted into action, the problem is compounded by the fact that it has positive intention and serves only to maintain the status quo in the business of survival of the organism in a non-chaotic way.
On the other hand, if an immediate and profound ‘release’ has not been experienced, yet the seed of change has been planted and we are encouraged to allow change to take place at its own pace, then the probability of stimulating either the avoidance or sabotage mechanisms is greatly reduced. My own comment in session work is that ‘when changes are subtle and gentle, those changes seem to slip between the cracks and grow, without being spotted by our sabotage mechanisms.’ When we reduce our expectation of immediacy in healing, and settle into a more comfortable anticipation of gentle and progressive healing, we are much more likely to bypass the effects of our avoidance and sabotage task drivers.
Payoffs and attitudes
We can’t ever discuss the issue of healing or therapeutic change without looking at another culprit — "payoffs". Technically, these are called epinotic gains, and it’s no surprise that nobody really wants to acknowledge their existence. Nobody wants to hear that their problem carries with it some sort of payoff. But it is a fact that we do not maintain any habitual action, reaction or response without getting something out of it. As much as this is unpleasant to consider, it must be said that this is a truly unconscious dynamic.
Payoffs may be simple or complex, single or multiple, but they are always fuel that might ignite the good old sabotage mechanism. If, at the unconscious level, we have become habituated to get attention as a result of our problem, get love, get looked after, get power or control, feel wanted or worthwhile, or even get revenge, then when we start to lose those payoffs as a result of healing (getting better) there’s always a part of us that seeks to reject that loss. Result: sabotage. We’re likely to revert to original status quo in order to regain "payoff lost". This, then, is another argument for the process of healing to be a subtle, gentle business.
Finally, we look at the issue of attitude. We enter again into the territory of the subconscious, because it’s highly unlikely that any of us would go along to therapy sporting a conscious knowledge that our life attitude may prevent change. So, at an unconscious level, it just may be that our attitude to others — our personality style — can play a part in the sabotage process. Attitudes have payoffs. They are subject to epinotic gains. As a simple example, take the person who has a feisty, argumentative and recalcitrant nature. The likelihood with this attitude is that payoffs such as control and attention exist and there again is fuel for sabotage mechanisms to react to the perceived loss of control of others.
What on earth do we do with all these larrikin parts of ourselves? Parts drivers, task drivers, payoffs, attitudes and the multitude of unconscious "stuff" that seems to be fuelling avoidance and sabotage. All is not lost. Much of the power of these unconscious processes is invested in the fact that we don’t realise they exist. Or at least we haven’t taken them into account in this process we call healing. A common and true adage in psychology is "you can’t change that which you don’t acknowledge". Particularly when it comes to our emotional selves, the act of observation almost always starts a process of change to that which is observed.
In the human experience, knowledge is power. To know of the existence of avoidance and sabotage task drivers, and to observe their efforts with interest, can go a long way toward divesting those drivers of their efficacy. To observe them with interest, to not fear them and to realise they have been learned and operate in our best interests will almost always create a more conducive mind environment for healing to continue unchallenged.
The term "affect" is defined as "a class of human feelings and emotions". Affectology is the study of how significant affective learnings and habits are in the running of our mental, emotional, attitudinal and physical life. Af-x therapy, the practical application of affectology, is interested in the processes of learning and habituating emotional reactions and the reframing of those processes.
Clients of Af-x therapy take with them, after session work is completed, the knowledge of the tricks of the subconscious and are encouraged to allow for the "gentle healing" that Af-x promotes. Af-x practitioners aim to assist, not in the process of exhilarative release experience but in the subtle and gentle process of encouraging a "re-modulation" of those parts of us that are creating mental, emotional and physical disorder.
For more information on affectology refer to WellBeing Issue 98, 97, 96 and 95 or go to www.EmotionsInBalance.com.