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Current Update as of June 05, 2004

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Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Hear

Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Hear

Book Summary by Clayton Montez, M.A.,
Atlantic University

What tweaks your hot buttons? A crises pops up, your smiley face goes south, and anger or fear steals your peace of mind. Suddenly old habits reappear and a familiar scenario takes control of your life.

According to psychologist and teacher Tara Bennett-Goleman, some things from our past continually haunt us because a lost connection between our feelings and the events that trigger them lead us blindly into seemingly irresolvable dead-ends.

Oftentimes, we respond to life’s challenges automatically with powerful emotions in order to block us from facing painful truths or troubling feelings. The more often that we allow an event to evoke a feeling, such as anger, the greater the probability that the emotion will determine how we will perceive and react to a particular event.

After repeated dependence upon a destructive emotion to cope with difficulties, it is more likely that the emotion will control us, keep coming back, and define how we see ourselves.

Bennet-Goleman explains in her new book, "Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Heart" (Harmony 2001), that most of what troubles us can be pegged to a particular set of maladaptive emotional habits called schemas.

A recent hybrid of psychological techniques called schema therapy is designed to identify these destructive habits in order to begin healing.

Emotional Alchemy identifies ten major schemas with countless variations; pointing to the possibility that most of us have one or two principle schemas, while other schemas may visit us on a smaller scale. These schemas are identified in the following list:

  • Fear of abandonment – a constant apprehension that a partner will abandon us.

  • Feelings of vulnerability – such as the irrational fear that a minor setback at work means that you will end up jobless and homeless.

  • Unlovability – the fear that people would reject us if they truly knew us.

  • Mistrust – the constant suspicion that those close to us will betray us.

  • Social exclusion – the feeling we don’t belong.

  • Failure – the sense that we cannot succeed at what we do.

  • Subjugation – always giving in to other people’s wants and demands.

  • Entitlement – the sense that one is somehow special, and so beyond ordinary rules and limits.

  • Emotional deprivation – the core belief that that your needs won’t be met due to childhood experiences with inattentive or pre-occupied parents.

  • Relentless perfectionism – a sense of failing no matter how hard you try, due to harsh parental judgment that instills inadequacy in the child.

Schemas frequently combine and operate in clusters. One of Bennet-Goleman’s clients, for example, always relented to her husband’s demands, trying to be the perfect wife and doing everything she could do to please him without his reciprocation.

Although she hated it, she feared that he would leave her if everything weren’t all just right. The cluster of schemas molded a pattern of deprivation, abandonment, and subjugation.

The deprivation schema led the client to care for her husband’s needs, never letting him know that she felt uncared for in their marriage. Her abandonment schema made her so terrified of his leaving her that it played into her pattern of subjugation.

She’d do almost anything he wanted in order to ensure his continued presence. The result: a marriage with no problems – at least on the surface. Yet underneath it all lies a deeply unhappy, resentful wife.

Schemas can also interact as they develop. For example, if a child through the deprivation schema compensates by over-achievement, the entitlement schema may come into play through feelings that the world owes special treatment for one suffering hard times.

Bennet-Goleman explains that an awareness of destructive emotional habits and their effects upon us is the first step to breaking their hold. We can achieve the ability to do so by mastering several techniques illustrated in Emotional Alchemy where she melds modern day techniques of schema therapy with the time-honored Buddhist tradition of mindfulness meditation.

Schema therapy is a scientific method of investigation derived from cognitive psychology. It requires several stages to heal disruptive emotional patterns. The first stage evolves around the notion of simply becoming aware that the pattern exists and that we must pay attention as to how it affects us.

Once the schema is recognized and observed, we must try to disengage from the schema’s patterns that interfere with the more practical perceptions of our world. Willful resistance applied to the schema’s addictive power eventually weakens its compelling importance and allows room for more constructive interests.

In another illustration, Bennet-Goleman writes that Miriam, a client, lived a harsh relationship with her mother. Her mother’s neediness and self-absorption resonated perfectly with Miriam’s subjugation and deprivation patterns.

Miriam always felt that she could never do enough to help her mother, and she never dreamed of voicing her own needs or feelings. Following a contact with her mother, she would feel waves of self-criticism and guilt.

Having learned to recognize the early signs of a schema about to emerge, Miriam saw through the distorted perception of her guilt and the feelings of inferiority.

Her discovery of the schema’s wrongful perception of reality weakened the power that other people held over her whenever they triggered the schema. Consequently, Miriam no longer expects people to change into what she wants.

Instead, she is more assertive in shouting to the world – and to herself – that she’s not to be treated unfairly anymore.

Schema therapy focuses on four domains, each one interdependent upon the other. These domains include: 1) our thoughts, 2) our emotions, 3) our actions, and 4) our relationships.

Bennet-Goleman’s techniques in emotional alchemy attend to all four domains as they function together. For example, one cannot focus only on the distorted thoughts that typify a schema while ignoring the raw emotions that fuel the pattern, e.g., identifying the steps of an abandonment schema may only provide temporary relief until the fear of loneliness is resolved.

Building upon the notion that the mind can transcend its natural tendency to obscure itself with habitual emotional reactions to one of natural, open clarity, Bennet-Goleman shares her insights about the Buddhist standard of mindfulness and how it works when combined with schema therapy to distinguish distortion and reality.

She explains that Emotional Alchemy is mindfully enhanced schema therapy: "a transformation from a confusing, dense emotional state to clarity and lightness of being."

Bennett-Goleman describes mindfulness from her Eastern Asian experiences with several Buddhist mentors, including the Dalai Lama. Like all forms of meditation, it is a systematic way to retrain attention. It cultivates the power of mind to stay focused on the object of attention, without being pulled away by distractions.

The components of mindfulness, concentration and insight, elevate awareness of the meditator to a greater understanding of his or her experiences with an even, non-reactive comprehension.

Bennet-Goleman clarifies the application of mindfulness for resolving schemas: "When we practice mindfulness, the effects can show up in many different ways in life. Sometimes it may be in responding differently to an irritation, without being provoked; sometimes it means getting in touch with a feeling you would have ignored before, and listening more closely to the message that the feeling offers.

Sometimes mindfulness gives you more empathy for someone – or for yourself. Other times it may allow you to get an insight into why you are having an emotional reaction, or you may realize that your reactions now make you feel less overwhelmed."

Mindfulness in the above context means seeing things as they are without trying to change them. It softens the impact of disturbing emotions without repressing them. When an activated schema stirs strong emotional feelings and reactions, sustained mindfulness dissipates the intensity of the emotion and neutralizes strong feelings and reactions.

Mindfulness works together with schema therapy and incorporates the negative aspects of our schemas and invokes personal wisdom to obtain clarity and a healthy mind. If an abandonment schema, for example, assails you with feelings of hurt, Bennett-Goleman advises that you lightly repeat the words "fear" or "loss" or "abandonment" to help you notice what’s going on without being drawn deeper into it.

"As we become more familiar with tracking these traditional emotional patterns", writes Bennett-Goleman, "we can trace a chain of associative thoughts, using mindfulness to track and identify the moment the thought arose in our awareness, then how it took us over so that we believed the thought."

With practice we can develop a calm, focused investigative attitude about the underlying building blocks of the schema and what we can learn from them.

Despite its apparent success, Emotional Alchemy is not a quick fix for embedded schemas. It requires work and oftentimes, professional support. Bennett-Goleman warns that simply learning about destructive emotional patterns and knowing their effects will not produce a magical cure.

The emotional healing depends upon the coordinated efforts of multiple brain functions that process information differently. Our emotional habits grow from years of practice in the limbic centers deep inside the brain. This area of the brain does not adapt to new information and ideas as readily as the thinking brain in the neocortex.

Therefore, reversing learned emotional habits, such as the perfectionism and deprivation schemas that evolved through innumerable repeated episodes, would require repeated exposure with positive thoughts and actions to countermand the schema.

Once a schema is identified, Bennett-Goleman points out that we encounter various stages of the schema with different coping strategies. For example, we tend to avoid a schema the moment we start to notice it. We try to stay away from the painful feelings that drive them. Paradoxically, avoidance feeds the schema by letting emotional habits take control of the situation.

We can fight back in the spirit of mindfulness with questions like, "How can I respond to this thought, this feeling, or this dilemma?" Bennett-Goleman adds, "Staying with our feelings mindfully allows us to penetrate into that forbidden zone, to get at the emotional source of the schema, and so release stored up feelings.

From both a spiritual and psychological perspective, avoidance tactics fail us as they close us off to our feelings and to the potential insights they might offer. The alternative and recommended method for handling a disturbing emotion is to transform it.

One woman explained to Bennett-Goleman that the transformative approach resolved a difficult relationship with her neighbor. "My neighbor drives me nuts in exactly the way my mother does," she cried. "He’s always negative. I spin out for days in self-criticism after a run-in with him."

When she investigated her underlying emotions within her schema reaction and found that a connection with her mother triggered her reaction to the neighbor, she contemplated the raw experiences behind her angry feelings. The emotions she found tapped into a larger pool of anger and resentment – a lifelong rage over being emotionally abused by her mother.

Her neighbors criticism was the schema trigger that gave her an opportunity to reconcile her anger by transforming habitual self-condemnation into refreshing discovery of self-worth.

Getting to the source of the schema, says Bennett-Goleman, is like peeling an onion. Fear may be the most obvious detectable emotion, such as one might find in the abandonment schema. But beneath the fear may lie a layer of sadness, and behind that may be anger.

Our schemas protect us from examining these hidden emotions. The vulnerability schema, for example, preoccupies our mind with worrisome thoughts and milder anxiety to prevent full-scale panic.

The abandonment schema breeds clinging or aloofness to avoid the deeper dread and despair of being all alone. Subjugation, another schema, encourages submissiveness to avoid facing the explosive anger that subjugation breeds.

These and other schemas insulate us emotionally from deeper pain; but they will never go away until we get past the numbing effects of the schema and go to the heart of the circumstances that caused the hurt.

Bennett-Goleman names two strategies for challenging habitual thoughts and changing knee-jerk reactions to schema triggers. The first strategy, wise reflection, lets us reflect on the emotional episode with mindfulness in order to let insights emerge. The other strategy is sustained awareness – exploiting the equanimity of mindfulness for a calm enabling of clearer thoughts and feelings.

In one episode, two friends became alienated following an argument. One used wise reflection to engage the feelings that were strongly stirring within. The schema’s modus operandi would have been to re-establish a connection with the friend in order to calm the fear of abandonment.

Instead, the desire to explore the fear, the sadness, and the troubling thoughts in the controlled environment of mindful investigation led the contemplative friend to follow her feelings into the formative stages of the schema.

The intensity of the grief that she had been hiding from all these years prompted aversion by placating the schema, but the deliberate act of wise reflection allowed her to understand that she would be okay without her friend and would no longer be controlled by fear.

Mindfulness applied in the above situation broke through the schema’s defenses and exposed the underlying feelings that empower them.

When the contents of the schema become too intense, a breathing meditation helps to calm things down and, eventually, an awareness more powerful than fear would give courage to quash the emotional power of the schema.

The next time a schema is activated, mindfulness can attend to the presence and potency of the schema’s emotional contents under a calmer, empathic scenario. Bennett-Goleman advises that two important functions of mindfulness, recognition and letting go, can help us to avoid a schema attack.

Recognition weakens attachment to uncloaked emotional patterns by helping us to realize that our reactions to schema driven events is not our true nature, but rather a result of repeated conditioning, rooted earlier in life, that we are acting out. Letting go is the process of observing an emotion without running away from it.

Instead of letting the emotion run its course, we engage the ability to impart understanding and compassion while acknowledging the schema’s modus operandi, where we are less likely to react impulsively from our schema fears.

Lauren, another client of Bennett-Goleman, found that when she studied her underlying fears of unlovability from episodes with an unresponsive, aloof boyfriend, she discovered a tendency to perpetuate a childhood founded schema in uncaring relationships.

Having recognized the pattern, she began to recall subtle nuances of parental neglect during her childhood that formed certain habits to help her cope with painful feelings. The consequent insights she acquired through recognition and letting go restored self-esteem and peace. It also led her to build compassionate friendships.

Mindfulness bolsters schema work by reinvigorating old memories with intensity, clarity, and rich detail. These memories, some of which may have been dormant for decades, may help to give insightful support to present problems with greater meaning and significance.

Bennett-Goleman remarks, "Reconnecting now with these memories, most of which will be from our childhood, allows us to understand them from a mature viewpoint."

Once the origins of the schema building patterns from early childhood memories are discovered and connected with introspective wisdom, the next step in schema therapy is to seek a compassionate dialogue with the part of our mind that is bound up in the child’s view.

When Bennett-Goleman’s client Alexa dwelled on the abandonment schema, a pivotal memory of her estranged and deceased father came back to her. As a child she had conflicted feelings between wanting his affections and rejecting him for not caring enough about her.

For years she had harbored anguish and guilt because she could not comprehend why she spurned her father when she needed him most. During her schema investigation she imagined a compassionate voice connecting with the twelve-year-old inside her saying, "Of course you are angry with him. You had a good reason to be. He abandoned you. He wasn’t around for years and when he finally returned, his violent outbursts frightened you."

Mature wisdom combined with empathic mindfulness of the child mind’s trauma melted years of remorse for Alexa and helped her to reconcile a lifetime of pent up regret. The schema seems to melt away as we make "new connections between the emotional and the rational brain, creating the healthy response habits we failed to acquire in childhood," adds Bennett-Goleman.

Many of our schemas, Bennett-Goleman claims, surface in the midst of our closest relationships – anyone with whom we have a strong emotional connection: "Schemas can make any relationship an emotional battleground… but they also provide opportunities to let us do the inner work that will free us from the grasp of our schemas."

Paradoxically, our most maladaptive schemas draw us to partners who will trigger them. The attraction is especially strong for patterns like deprivation, abandonment, mistrust and unlovability. People with the deprivation schema can be drawn to lovers who are ungiving, narcisstic, aloof, or cold.

For people with the abandonment schema, their partners are often unavailable or unreliable. And for those with the unlovability schema, a relationship a relationship with someone who is distant or unavailable prevents the intimacy that might expose their own imagined flaw.

Schema activation on close relationships can be good or bad depending upon what we do with the schema trigger. We have the opportunity to face them head on and dissolve its power; or instead, let its distorted beliefs continue to dictate how we react.

And if both people share the same schema, and neither has done any work on the pattern, they may not recognize the schema in action and will likely fall prey to the same distorted thinking.

For example, say both partners are prone to the emotional deprivation pattern. If one misinterprets something the other does as a thoughtless gesture, her angry retribution may trigger the same deprivation schema in her partner, who then feels hurt or angry. While one sulks, the other demands – both sharing a blind spot where they can not see any other way to react or to interpret what is happening.

Emotional Alchemy shows that mindfulness is especially important for willing partners who can work together to identify and dismantle the schemas that can cloud a relationship. Mindfulness provides a structured method for calming down and empathizing with the feelings of the other person.

Empathy disempowers schemas. When one person can acknowledge the way the schema sees things and the feelings that go along with it, then the other person can begin to disengage from the schema and think more objectively.

"Once you know the thoughts and feelings that typify another person’s schemas, you can use empathic understanding to guide how you act with them," says Bennett-Goleman. Following this notion, we can avoid acting in ways that trigger a schema.

One helpful exercise for an empathic connection is to mirror the partner’s point of view. Before we assume that we heard something correctly, we might repeat what was said in our own words in order to show our partner that we care about what was said.

We also want to verify that we correctly targeted the issues that we are to empathize with. A popular empathy technique is to start with a phrase like, "What I hear you saying is…"

As we become aware of the schema needs that drive our relationships, we begin to recognize the signs that a familiar schema has been activated once again, and we can use those signs to devise an antidote. For example, if your partner feels insecure and unlovable, you can be especially affectionate; if your partner feels that her needs are not being noticed, you can be particularly attentive.

At the close of schema work, we may achieve a certain level of individuation. This is a popular psychological term that defines when one has achieved autonomy and maturity by breaking the grip of schemas created in youth.

The old yearnings, that the schemas shaped, fall away and the new insights about ourselves that we gathered along the way open the portals to new discoveries about our place in the world. Conquering schemas by changing emotional habits eventually leads to a new adventure – that leading to a journey into the spiritual dimension.

Whereas, the work of emotional alchemy focuses on things as they appear relative to personal issues, spiritual alchemy moves towards a larger dimension of seeing that goes beyond our everyday understanding of things.

Yet, as theorists like Ken Wilbur point out, spiritual development is only one of many dimensions in our life. The other dimensions, emotional, moral, cognitive, and so on, have their own lawful order and rate of growth and will at any one point in time be quite uneven with each other. It is possible for someone to be intellectually, spiritually and morally advanced while lacking in emotional maturity.

Bennett-Goleman explains that all of the various dimensions require the same steps for schema work, but as we move to the spiritual level, our inner work becomes subtler.

"At the relative level, our lives are caught in the tides and eddies of a hundred competing thoughts and emotions, all seeming to define the truth of the moment for us. But behind it all lies our actual nature: a mind free of obscuring thoughts and troubling emotions – a possibility for each one of us."

When we are caught up within the heated cauldron of a schema brought upon by cumulative emotional habits we have an opportunity to transcend our worries toward loftier purposes. Alchemy is about transformation, both spiritual and material.

"Its essence," writes Bennett-Goleman, "lies in the goal of a transmutation of consciousness from our ordinary, lead-like perception to a more subtle, gold-like mode of perceiving."

At the fork of the road, where the path leads to further entanglement and confusion or the other way towards a refinement of awareness and compassionate wisdom, we have an opportunity to choose whether our minds continue to run along the usual ruts of habit or explore alternatives to steer clear of them.

If we choose the latter, the troubles that so preoccupied us seem to dissolve as we catch a glimpse of a bigger reality unobstructed by a limited vision.

In the end, emotional alchemy boils down to wisdom and compassion. When we melt old habits that plague us with tormenting schemas and engage in the greater sense of interconnectedness through wise compassion, Emotional Alchemy promises a new found, unfettered freedom for our souls. The choice is ours in every moment.

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