John grew up in a family that makes “dysfunctional” tame. His mother was an alcoholic; his father came from an abusive family and carried on the tradition. Both parents were physically abusive with him, and he was repeatedly molested by an uncle. John and his siblings all sought escape in drugs and alcohol. His brothers died before they reached forty. With help, John found the strength to free himself of the drugs and alcohol. But what remained was an anger that burned deep. He had a “mean streak” that would come out, and he felt out of control. Because of this, he continually destroyed relationships, both with friends and with women – especially with women. When he came to see me, it was with only a glimmer of hope that he could get the anger under control. He biggest fear was that he was destined to continue this pattern the rest of his life.
Over the years, I’ve heard some say, “People don’t change”. Well, if people couldn’t change, there would be no point to what I do for a living; yet I keep doing this work because, in fact, people can change! I see it every day, and it’s what keeps me coming back and enjoying what I do.
With John, we used a two-pronged approach to help him make the desired changes in his life. First, we worked on how to change his reactions and his behavior, now and in the future. I talked with him about how we develop mental habits, just as we develop behavioral habits. I explained how the brain develops neural pathways and becomes “wired” to easily repeat the known and familiar. I taught him about how when the amygdala gets over-stimulated with anger, the pre-frontal cortex, the “thinking” part of the brain, goes offline. So instead of relentlessly pursuing and attacking the person he was upset with when he was angry, our first goal was for him to learn ways to calm that part of his brain so he could start actually thinking clearly again. He found this fascinating, and strangely reassuring. Understanding what was going on inside his head helped him make sense of his experience and realize how to approach the problem differently than he ever had before.
Secondly, John felt that he needed to clear out and heal some of the old trauma from his early years. Fortunately, psychologists have a great way to do this, called EMDR. This is a therapy technique that was developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro at Stanford University some years ago. She discovered that by working through traumatic memories while alternately stimulating left and right hemispheres of the brain, one could get faster and better results. This is most commonly done by moving the eyes back and forth, or with auditory stimulation, alternately on the left and right side. Emotional, traumatic memories are stored in a different place than everyday kinds of memories, and this alternate stimulation allows us to have a connection with those stored emotional memories while we are working. This allows us to facilitate healing faster and more effectively.
As John was able to heal some of these old traumas, he felt a new peace and balance in his life. The anger became less of a problem, and when it flared he was able to control and manage it with the new strategies he had learned. The two-pronged approach we had used in our work together had given him the tools to take control of his life. He felt empowered and optimistic. His wife was ecstatic, and he was building better relationships with his kids.
Can people change? You bet. As John so eloquently said to me in our last session: “Anger, substance abuse, and damaged relationships were my heritage, but they are no longer my destiny.”
Dr. Catherine Aisner is a Psychologist in South Lake Tahoe, helping individuals and couples improve the quality of their lives. She can be reached at 530-541-6696 or online at www.CatherineAisner.com.