Achieving Freedom by Hazel Gale
Is The Way It Seems To Be Really The Way It Ought To Be?
“I feel like I’ve been untethered from something nonspecific; something that I didn’t really realise was there before, but that I feel much better equipped to proceed with my life without…”
This client saw me for two sessions a couple of months ago. His comment got me thinking about how many people seem to struggle through a somewhat less than satisfactory existence without questioning it. We just survive, day in, day out, confined by our own self-generated limitations; but without even recognising that those limitations are being imposed. That is, until they either affect us so much that they demand our attention (via some symptom like illness, phobia, stress or insomnia); or until after they’ve been released.
Think about your existence for a moment. What’s normal for you? That is, how do you actually feel most of the time? Are you happy? Sad? Anxious? Alert? Jumpy? Calm? Angry? What if you could feel better than you do now? But if things have always been that way – if it’s always felt like that to be alive – then why would you question that it’s anything less than your given lot? You probably wouldn’t.
For this reason, it’s not uncommon for me to witness people discovering, through therapy, a certain freedom, or happiness, or calmness that they never knew they weren’t previously allowing themselves access to. Often, this comes about after they have released some generalised anxiety that has been hanging around since early childhood. Something that’s been so consistent, over such a long period of time, that it’s just become the norm.
The release of something like this can feel amazing; a little like having a blocked up nose for so long that you forget what it’s like to breathe freely, until you wake up one morning and discover that you can. Here’s how all this came about for the client who sent me the email including the above quote.
When Jacob first knocked at my door, my initial impression was that he was the classic, successful, young professional London type. He worked as a project manager for a big company in the city, and described a high pressure professional existence where days were long, and there was “always something on”. He was strong, athletic and good looking; and he had an air of steady composure which you’d be likely to read as a deep-seated and easy self-assurance. The type of person who’s friends would probably describe as “sorted”.
Yet, despite his apparent equanimity, Jacob wasn’t sleeping well. He’d wake up early in the morning – very early, like three or four o’clock – and feel a rush of adrenaline that prevented him from getting back to sleep. Targets and deadlines, predictably, would make things worse. It seemed that the very moment his eyes opened, his body was readying itself for action; he was going into fight or flight (and that’s not something that’s very useful during the wee hours of the morn’).
Let me backtrack for a moment. When we first spoke by email, Jacob had asked if we could do a session to train him in “deep relaxation techniques”. He wanted a tool to use in tackling his sleeping problems as they occurred. This was something I thought we may touch on in future sessions, should he still need to. However, it seemed obvious to me that resolving the underlying cause of the insomnia, rather than simply addressing the symptom of the sleeplessness itself, was the way to go.
So I wanted to know what this perceived threat might be. What was it that his unconscious mind was preparing him to fight or flee from at 4am? It should be noted that the unconscious simply reacts to threat as if it’s life-threatening. It doesn’t know the difference between a scary exam and a sabre-tooth tiger. They’ll both arouse the same physiological response: namely, the stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, and a release of adrenaline.
I asked him if he had always been successful; was he an “overachiever”? I asked this because it’s often the more successful of us, who are fearing failure the most strongly. This, paradoxically, is usually because a small part of the overachiever believes that he actually is a failure: he fears failure because, deep down, he doesn’t believe that he is good enough to win . Of course, this is often going on outside of conscious awareness, so the resulting symptoms of anxiety,
self-sabotaging behaviour (or whatever) can be disruptive and confusing without there being any obvious reason for their occurrence. This, I thought, could be the type of fear that Jacob was living with. Was failure his sabre-tooth tiger?
However, to my surprise, this question elicited a resounding “no”. On the contrary, since a young age, Jacob had resisted achievement. Not that he’d never done anything, just that he’d not necessarily achieved as highly as he could have because he tended to hold himself back. He told me how his report cards from school frequently referenced his “unfulfilled potential”. However, aside from one short spell in his early twenties, Jacob had never really connected to any motivation or impetus to strive or move forward. Something was keeping him from trying.
We began our practical work in that session with Time Line Reconsolidation (TLR). TLR works by utilising the metaphor of a time line to visualise and navigate one’s own lifespan. By doing so, the individual can pinpoint the initial sensitising event, which first caused (and still causes) his problem. If I use the example of a common spider phobia, TLR would help a client locate the very first spider the unconscious mind found to be scary (the memory of it, that is). From that point on, any other spider (due to its bearing close resemblance to that first scary spider) would have an emotional warning sign attached to it that reads “DANGER!”. Thus, whenever the unconscious recognises this warning sign, it produces a fear response in order to keep the phobic individual safe (i.e. away from) the perceived threat. (More about TLR here)
When I asked Jacob to describe the feeling associated with his sleeplessness, he visualised a black circle on his forehead. TLR enabled him to trace this feeling back to his early teens at first. He remembered sitting in the living room with his mother and father on a Sunday night before the school week commenced. There was nothing particularly threatening about this memory, but he was acutely aware of a “sense of foreboding”, as if there was “something dark in the future”.
I asked him if he could trace that feeling back any further, and he found another memory coming to mind. This one was from around the age of five. It was the moment he first realised that his dad was going to die. I should clarify here that his dad wasn’t ill or in any kind of specific danger. In fact, his dad is still alive today. This was just the moment when this young boy recognised the death of his father as an inevitability at some point in the future. Presumably, this was the “something dark” that was still being sensed on that Sunday night all those years later.
The fantastic thing about memory is that it’s plastic: our recollections (no matter how real or factual they might seem to us) are actually subject to change every time they are brought to mind. This is great for therapy because it means that no traumatic event, and no warning sign that might have been attached to it, is ever a fixed entity (more about this here).
So we discussed this defining moment for a little while. Often, just seeing the memory from an adult perspective is enough for the mind to update its meaning. The idea with TLR is to remove the warning sign from the original memory so that the brain in the present moment can stop referencing and responding to it with the problematic outcome (fear and sleeplessness in this case).
But the thing that I believe made the final difference was this: I asked the younger Jacob how old he thought he would need to be before this understanding (that his dad would at some point die) would have been considerably less scary to know (I asked this because when the memory first came to mind, Jacob had mentioned that he thought he found this out “earlier than he should have done”). He reported that his younger self thought this point would be some years later, when he was in his teens, perhaps once he was comfortably into his school years. Knowing that his father would still be alive throughout this time, I suggested that Jacob take his younger self up above the time line of his life, and show him whatever it was that the little boy needed to see to prove that the old fear was unwarranted. We then, for good measure, allowed him to see other things from his future life that could help him in finding the motivation to move forward into it. Both the successful period in his twenties, and recent moments spent with his father were visited and presented to the little boy as evidence for his not needing to hold onto that fear.
And that, really, was all there was to it. Jacob witnessed his younger self letting go of the old anxiety, and when he imagined his future afterwards, he saw a brighter, lighter place into which he could freely move. I did wonder if the initial memory that surfaced – the one with his parents on a Sunday night – was significant in that it was the point when the sense of foreboding became connected to the context of school (and achievement there). It’s a fascinating thing, the way problems like this can be so sticky; it’s as if they collect new associations the more we experience. It just takes a process like timeline to help us join the dots.
Whether or not this particular theory was on the money, something had successfully shifted that day. When Jacob came back for a follow up session, his sleeping patterns had improved considerably (sometimes sleeping for an “unheard of” ten or eleven hours). Furthermore, when he had woken up in the night, he was now able to get back to sleep. But certainly the real value in all of this was much greater than just overcoming insomnia (as important as that may have been!).
I guess you could say that Jacob came with the intention of learning how to sleep better, but left with a completely unexpected understanding of how to be better.
Fear always implies belief. One can’t fear spiders, for example, unless a part of them truly believes that they can cause harm, no matter how well he might know (consciously) that isn’t the case.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Viktor E. Frankl