Here's and excerpt from Part Two of the series from the class I taught on "The Stages of Healing," which follows Part One, "Basic Trust." As we progress through each stage of healing, keep in mind that the work of the previous stage is still ongoing and overlaps with the next stage for a while.
Here's Part Two:
Uncovering Beliefs and Images
Part of the healing of basic trust is accomplished by unlearning, or deconstructing, the beliefs and images one has held from childhood that have led to not trusting oneself (or others). Whatever the level of dysfunction, whatever the degree of obsessive or chaotic thinking, and however blocked emotionally, most people have some access to logic and some connection to reality. Therefore, there is a part of almost every adult patient in therapy that is capable of examining objectively the beliefs that they hold about life, others and themselves.
Very often, people are acting according to beliefs that they don’t even know are there, so initially, simply becoming aware of one’s beliefs advances the healing process. Insight-oriented therapies, in which the main therapeutic tool is exploring the mind, provide some relief from neurosis and free up some psychic energy primarily by increasing the patient’s level of self-awareness, particularly of what has been suppressed or repressed out of consciousness. To “not remember” or to dissociate from significant beliefs, memories, feelings or interactions with others depletes or fragments a person’s access to energy. Remembering and facing honestly the traumas that led to these defensive maneuvers furthers the healing process by returning some amount of access to psychic energy. It is not always necessary or possible, however, for a patient to specifically recall traumatic events. In most cases, a person cannot remember experiences from the pre-verbal times of the first few years of life. Traumatic memories are instead “stored” in the body, expressed through character structure features.
Helping a patient uncover beliefs does require technical skill on the part of the therapist. Particularly important is his ability to listen to, track and translate the coded language of a patient’s belief system. Crucial to identifying beliefs are hearing the key words that are reminiscent of the childish mind, which always thinks in absolutes and extremes, and without any real sense of past or future. Words like “always”, “never”, “all” or “nothing” in a statement about oneself or others or life are usually coming from an old childhood belief system. (“I will always have to struggle with money.” “Love is never easy.” “All men/women are__.” “Nothing gets done right unless I do it!”) Beliefs are always generalized to give the child some sense of predictability in an environment that was painfully unpredictable. Also, practically any statement that includes the word “should” is based on a child-created rule that is meant to control some painful aspect of life that, in fact, could not be controlled.
Many types of cognitive-rational therapies today work with beliefs, and up to a point, focusing on beliefs is an effective approach for creating some amount of change in a person’s life. Again, most people have some access to rational thinking, and by simply reflecting back to them what they are “really saying” and “really doing”, many patients will “get it.” Having achieved a level of self-awareness and understanding, however, isn’t “enough” for every person who comes to therapy.