If you can think primitively, you can communicate about stuckness with any participant. You can also spot stuckness earlier than most clinicians might. We’ll talk first about the “educational piece” that now happens at an earlier point in the RRT process than it used to–right after demonstrating understanding but before getting the baseline design.
1.When it’s done well, covering this material early in the session can be hypnotic. The rich metaphors and unusual language open up a whole new vista to the participant’s mind. But also hypnotic because it builds credibility. From the participant’s seat, a therapist who doesn’t follow the mainstream, who colors outside the lines, and who knows this territory by heart, immediately shapes up as a specialist. Respect, curiosity, even intrigue builds, as they want to follow and hear more, sensing the RRT therapist is different and has something unique to offer. What follows we are now well familiar with. As you look over a few transcripts and learn the key points by heart, you’ll have them forever in your hip pocket, ready to go as the session unfolds.
Primitive mind can only communicate with emotion. It can’t send a fax. The purpose is not to make the animal feel bad but to get it to take an action that will enhance survival.
Why people get disturbed is not reachable through logic. When others go to explain what’s going on they are always interpreting with the evolved part of the brain; and it’s usually wrong because it interprets in its own terms. This is why we get all sorts of misinterpretations of causality based on the sort of person they are, psychology about drives and secondary motives, theories about family or social influences, just about everything from soup to nuts (pun intended) to explain why they are having disturbing feelings except the correct one–primitive mind reads a threat as present now and is trying to motivate a behavior to get it to stop. A thought is equal to an event is equal to an active threat in primitve-speak. If you can think it, you can do it something about it; or better, if you can think it, it’s really there, it’s happening, so do something about it now! The evolved part of the mind doesn’t operate with the magic or with the speed of think it-do it, and doesnt get that the overall purpose of feeling is to kick-ass, that is, jump us right into behavior. It doesn’t get it could be that simple.
Primitive mind is set up for an enviornment we lived in ages ago. It’s always about facing threat and either fighting it off or fleeing for one’s life. Primitively speaking, threat is felt as unitary, not placed on a continuum, and it’s all on the level of coming face to face with a lion. Primitive mind is not good at making fine distinctions or seeing shades of gray. It’s about preserving the bloodline and survival. When it’s working smoothly, it brings to attention automatically what would be both beneficial and possible, which serves to enhance reproduction, safety, and survival. Primitive mind, which is built for speed, not accuracy, couldn’t conceive of how to weigh the evidence, titrate the response, or run its responses through more sophisticated filters, like ethics or the greater good. That’s why the intensity doesnt usually match up with the reported external or internal trigger. The threat could be coming from something external or something internal but, in the end, it gets read as life-threatening or an “it” absolutely necessary for survival.
With all this going on, mind makes a processing error with something that was threatening and holds it up in the hallway where it does not move all the way into storage. The upshot of this is the hallway makes a piss-poor holding area for threatening material. Wierd things happen.
For one, there in the hallway, human mind makes the error of mistaking data about an event that happened for the event still happening. Normally I can tell the difference between remembering putting on my shoes and the actuality of putting them on right now. My mind is not confused on any level that just because I can recall it, it is not happening now. But for disturbing stuff that gets hung up in the hallway, the data about a prior event is read as something actually in existence and vividly underway. Thinking primitively, this would be like the horror of opening a book on the Civil War and suddenly finding oneself on the battlefield with things exploding and people dying. The distinction between a book and war or just info about a war and a real war is lost. Its all glommed together as ongoing war. The person can’t go back to a book being just a book and information just being data. It’s as if they’ve been fitted with a pair of the new high-tech goggles that project a virtual world, where mere thought brings on the reality of the orignal threat full-bore, with no end in sight. Sure, there are gradations of disturbance with this, but on some level, while the data is hung in the hallway, it remains disturbing, even if not currently being thought about. And primitive mind responds with a strong fusillade of emotion to get the person to do something about it. Whether they’ve had quiet lives or eventful lives, there is stuff hanging in the hallway for just about everyone. People need help getting the primitive brain to know what the intellect already knows –that the Civil War is not in existence anywhere. Even on the fields at Gettysburg, there are not men writhing in agony, spurting blood from horrendous wounds. If it’s no longer happening at the site it originally happened, it’s not happening anywhere. If it’s not happening anywhere, it doesn’t exist.
Secondly, the traumatic data is near the portal for new data coming in and it associates to anything that is structurally similar. Together the two of them vibrate like a couple tuning forks, and hence, something incoming that needn’t have been threatening now becomes threatening simply because it hooks with some similar aspect of the thing stuck in the hallway. The ability to see what’s really there starts to deteriorate when certain conditions are met.
Thirdly, the hallway is where unhealthy meanings are likely to get attached. Now, humans can see meanings as relative and optional. But humans also see meanings as absolute, exclusive, and coterminous with the thing being considered. When we start seeing the meaning as inherent in the thing, we are surely loading up on distortions. That would be apparent to a goat, who just sees what’s there, but it is not always apparent to us. It’s like the difference between a friend asking you to look at a building through yellow tinted shades and you have full awareness that the building just turned yellow, and why, and that it’s just as easy to take the glasses off and have things return as they were. But then if someone slipped into your room at night when you were an infant and surgically implanted yellow lenses onto your eyes, you would live life thinking the world always had this yellow tint. In fact, you might not even have a word for “yellow” and wouldn’t even notice it as different. It would be your absolute, exclusive paradigm. You’d assume everyone just knew that it was the way things were.
That is how it is with meanings that attach in the hallway. Something traumatic happens and destructive meanings get welded on like, “I’m worthless” or “It was my fault” or “I’m the kind of person who..” and become one with the data already being read as happening. Now we’ve got the meaning also being read as happening and it really starts to vibrate and shake. Let’s take an example. The mind could bring up something it would be good to avoid– the possibility of doing something embarassing. But if something traumatically embarrassing happened earlier that’s hovering near the incoming portal, like a fish near a sluice gate, it gets fed by stuff that comes in with any structural similarity, and it really starts to vibrate. It gets stuck more deeply, meaning, primitive mind dispatches the sledgehammers of upsetting emotions that drive its pilings in stronger, deeper into the bedrock of emotional life, with no result. It’s truly stuck because no one can do anything about something not in existence about which there’s nothing to be done. It starts to take on a life of its own. There is now no difference between doing something embarassing at one time, thinking about it possibly happening in the future, and being an embarassment continuously. Experientially, just thinking it makes it seem like one has just embarrassed oneself again right now. We can readily see how humans can get really screwed up and run around smashing into all sorts of things, with mind working like this.
2. As an added feature, I’ll outline how we can learn to spot stuckness by its telltale language. Jon Connelly dubbed this the language of “past future”. A guy might say in past-future, “ I have a short temper. I get angry and hurt people.” Notice how past, present, and future seem fused together. If you point out to him he isn’t hurting anyone now, he’ll agree that’s true. But he might be thinking, “But in my past-future, I “have/will” hurt people because I “couldn’t/can’t” stop.
To take a parallel slant on this, I recommend listening for excessive use of the imperfect (usually signalled by would, was, were, used to). The imperfect is different from the past tense. In fact, in English the imperfect isn’t just one discreet tense. It’s anything that’s im-perfect, incomplete. In the past (what language studies call the past perfect) tense, things are over and completed at a definite point in time:
We went to the market last Friday.
The imperfect is the tense of narration and story-telling. It’s used to set a scene. It’s used to talk about a continuing action that took place in the past, an action that started in the past and continues into the present, or an action that was ongoing when something else happened. It’s also used to describe states of being or enduring qualities.
The foothills were bathed in the rose-copper light of the late-afternoon sun hovering over the Arizona desert.
I used to sit in the market in the cool of the evening.
I was working my job on the docks, a gift of political patronage, when my big-shot brother-in-law, the alderman, walked in.
Tall, wiry, he would walk with a swagger, as if his hips were sweeping the boardwalk of anything that might get in his way, serenely contemptuous of the townsfolk and their rustic ways.
The imperfect shows up as a distinct tense in other languages, but is more hidden in English, where a speaker can slip into it, such that we’re not aware we’re no longer hearing a report of events over and done with, but of a past that somehow continues, invades and even predicts the future, with permanent meanings tacked on and in effect:
He would take me into his basement, calling it our “special place”.
“I know eventually the taper will stop, and that’s when I get into trouble. I’m no good with pain.” (notice we dont really known when “when” is)
I used to go by Applebee’s on the way to the beach. I hope I don’t go by there and smell alcohol and start using.
I’ve always had this fear of someone criticizing me. I shy away from people.
When a person uses the imperfect excessively, or talks like they are a passive passenger on a ride through their lives, where it’s circumstances at the wheel, my ears perk up to the possibility they are talking the language of trauma– stuck, with no barrier between past, present or future, unhinged from their own agency.
We know to how to look for obvious signs of trauma: re-experiencing, numbness, avoidance, or hyperarousal. But those signs show up in relatively bold relief. Having this handle on language gives us a leg up on spotting it sooner, in its everyday dress, as participants present themselves. Going back to the first part of this piece, having a good handle on the above processing errors that lead to stuckness gives us a leg up on being able to describe what’s been going on to participants in a way that confirms their experience, normalizes it, and enrolls them in the shared mission to get mind to optimal, to get it all cleared up.