Healing Trauma through New Virtual Memories
In order to describe to you how PBSP psychotherapy works with trauma, there are some general features of this method I need to describe. The first general principle is that PBSP is designed to help clients construct new virtual memories. I will not go into the brain research that confirms this, but, the idea is that current consciousness is constructed out of memory. My current experience of my world is a construction made of memory. Memory gives meaning to current experience by virtue of the fact that it is our memories that define our current experience. This fact is demonstrated by the terrible disease of Alzheimer’s. As people lose more memory, the more dysfunctional they become. For PBSP this means that in order for psychotherapy to help change a person’s current experience (“I’m not loveable,” “I’ll never find meaningful work,” and so on) something has to change in their memories. Obviously, we can’t literally go back in time machines and change our life experiences. But we can do something that is almost as good which is to purposively create a virtual memory. This is done through role playing.
A unit of therapy in PBSP is called a “structure.” A structure is a creation of a ritual space. In this space is represented, via role players – which can either be actual group members or objects such as pillows – who represent emotionally charged persons and events in the person’s life. Sometimes, perhaps particularly with severe trauma, the emotional “charge” happens first with no known context. This happened to me with a woman who was referred to me by her therapist because they were stuck and her therapist thought she would benefit from a structure. No sooner had this client began to tell me her story, when her hands and arms began to flap back and forth in what looked to me like an expression of helpless terror. As her hands were shaking she was looking at them and saying, with considerable fright, “What’s this, what’s this? Why are my hands shaking?” I suggested to her that she was experiencing what we call an “unbounded” emotion, which is emotion that has never been formulated into a meaningful experience and never interacted with. I asked her if she would like what we call a “containment” figure which is a role player who represents a person who would be with them physically while they are feeling the feeling. She agreed to this, and the figure put her hands on the outside of the clients flailing hands so that the movement would be contained. This calmed her down just enough that she could begin to give the context for her feelings. I don’t want to say too much here, to protect confidentiality, but I’ll just say that she had what sounded like a psychotic mother married to an abusive man (step-father to my client as a five-year-old).
As soon as she identified this history her mother and step-father were represented (she choose some pillows, one to represent her mother, the other to represent her step-father). When such enrolling, as we call this process, occurs when the client is in the midst of feeling their feelings as they remember such events, the enrolled figures take on a surprising reality. Since she was already feeling her feelings in the form of her hands shaking, I was prepared to offer her right away an antidote figure, which is essentially a reversal of the negative history. In this case, I wondered if she would like to enroll a protection figure, which, had that figure been back there then – at the time of the memory, in this case when she was five – this figure would have protected her from the physical abuse she suffered from her step-father. This figure has to be made up in conjunction with the client so that it is a believable figure. We came up with an ideal child protection worker. She chooses a male to represent this figure. Such a protection figure is placed between the client and the source of danger, facing the source of danger. In this case, the source of danger was her step-father. She placed the protection figure so that she could not see the pillow representing her step-father. I suggested that she might like to hear her protection figure say, “If I had been back there then, when were five, I would have said to your step-father, “I will not let you harm her.”” She thought that was a wonderful idea and I instructed the protection figure to say those words.
Let me pause here to mention two critical facts. One is in this method we are very careful to track with the clients’ time-line. This is why I had the protection figure say, “If I had been back there then, when you were five.” This creates two pictures in her mind. One is the actual memory which includes her remembered feelings of terror. The next is the new picture of someone being there with her back then. Not in the present, but back then. The second fact is that I am constantly “microtracking” tracking her, which is a kind of active listening with a twist. When I microtrack, I enroll in the air a hypothetical figure who had he or she been there back then, would have seen what the client was feeling. So, in this case, one such statement would have been, “If there was a witness back there then, the witness would have said, I see how terrified you felt when your step-father threaten to hit you.” The skill of accurately microtracking, which entails reading the clients’ bod