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How to Identify and Remove Unconscious Blocks

Find out what's holding your client back


The unconscious mind is a powerhouse and can find ways to subvert what the conscious mind needs to do.

“Maybe she still haunts those corridors!”

Sheila (not her real name) was jokingly suggesting that her mother’s spirit might still stalk the passageways of their home back in India. She had just recounted some dark, shadowy times from her past, in which she had felt terrorized, hopeless, and helpless.

But what, if anything, did these memories have to do with Sheila’s presenting problem?

“Something always stops me!”

Sheila had a dream – an idea that could revolutionize, or at least greatly aid, the emotional wellbeing of the world! In order to fulfil her vision, she needed to do a Masters degree in social work… but there was a problem. Each time she applied for the Masters program, desperate as she was to do it, she would have a bizarrely strong emotional reaction that would stop her.

Most recently – just the day before her session with me – as she’d started to apply, she’d fallen so badly she’d had to ice her knee! Another time she’d suddenly felt uncontrollably sleepy, to the point where she’d actually fallen asleep!

Something always seemed to prevent those applications.

This to me seemed far more acute than the kind of lethargy and procrastination many of us (myself included!) might have when confronted with a bit of paperwork. She also reported feeling highly emotional when she was about to apply.

The unconscious mind is a powerhouse and can find ways to subvert what the conscious mind needs to do.

Sheila was successful in many ways, but this last jigsaw piece toward her major goal seemed unable to be placed. I had to find out what might be holding her back.

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A spotlight on the past

The past is never really gone in some ways, at least not all of it. It lingers on, influencing our decisions and reactions. The central psychological phenomenon of pattern matching can produce what may seem to be baffling responses within us.

With this in mind, whenever we’re confounded by our own or our client’s emotional responses, when they seem out of character, we can do what I did with Sheila.

I decided to use the Affect Bridge to see if Sheila might not be the victim of some faulty pattern matching relating to a past trauma or other emotional learning.

It seemed she was.

The haunted corridor

During our session, I asked Sheila to close her eyes and focus on the feeling of being about to apply for her Masters degree (about 24 minutes into the UPTV video).

She described this as a hopeless and heavy feeling. As she focused on that feeling, I then asked her to notice if any memory came to mind in which she had felt those same feelings strongly.

It’s important to understand that we’re seeking to see if a memory that the client has always had comes to mind. We’re not seeking to create or ‘uncover’ a memory the client has never had, because then we risk false memory creation.

When using the Affect Bridge, it's important to understand that we're seeking to see if a memory that the client has always had comes to mind. We're not seeking to create or 'uncover' a memory, because then we risk false memory creation. Click to Tweet

After a little while, Sheila suddenly recalled a time back in India. Her mother, who had been bipolar and prone to psychotic rages (her father wasn’t around much), was screaming and yelling as she stalked up and down the dark corridor of their home.

Sheila had felt scared, hopeless, and helpless as her mum screamed that she was useless and would never amount to anything! That same feeling, or a strong echo of it, now reared up whenever Sheila tried to apply to do her Masters degree.

What next?

I asked Sheila to open her eyes, and she then suggested jokingly that perhaps her mother haunted those corridors still. And indeed, in one sense she did. I surmised that once we had deconditioned those memories, we could unhook the faulty pattern match and free Sheila up to go for that Masters.

Now you might think this would be a suitable case for the Rewind Technique, but because it seemed more of a subthreshold trauma, not overwhelmingly horrific, I decided to try something different.

Holding hands with the child back then

I decided to use the Helping Hand Technique. With Sheila’s eyes open, I suggested to her that she’d be able to apply for that Masters degree with her adult self and not with her 12-year-old self. This reframed somewhat her sense of what had been happening.

I re-hypnotized Sheila and suggested she gather up a sense of all her personal resources – all the learnings and talents and wise perspectives she now has as an experienced adult – and travel back in time to that corridor to comfort, encourage, reassure, and calm that 12-year-old child. As she did this, I suggested feelings of lightness to contrast with the heavy feelings she’d described.

I next suggested that the truth is very important, that Sheila had something very important to teach her 12-year-old self, and that the nature of that teaching would have to do with ‘untruthful limitations’.

While Sheila was relaxed, I also had her rehearse preparing her application for the Masters program. Lastly, I reframed this as not just an application but a sacred act she’ll do for that frightened and hopeless 12-year-old girl in the corridor.

So what was the upshot?

Putting ghosts to rest

A few days after the session, Sheila emailed to tell me she had at last submitted her application for her Masters degree. She wrote that she felt the session had been “a huge success”.

I love sessions like this. A simple problem (Sheila had already gotten therapy for many other issues relating to her mother and her past) and a pretty simple solution.

The principles here are:

  • Spot a pattern that seems strong and out of character (Sheila certainly didn’t seem the kind of person who’d habitually procrastinate).
  • Ask your client to describe just what the feeling is.
  • Do an Affect Bridge to see if some memory or series of memories comes to mind that seem to match up to this feeling.
  • Ascertain whether the memory is in need of the Rewind Technique, or another technique such as the Helping Hand Technique.
  • Decondition the memory and do some relaxed rehearsal of the new desired response.
  • See if this work has freed up the person to respond, feel, and act differently within the context where they wanted change.

I like to think that Sheila’s mind is no longer haunted by that memory. Sometimes therapy feels a little like a gentle exorcism.

You can watch the video of this case study therapy session inside Uncommon Practitioners’ TV.

Watch this Case Study in Uncommon Practitioners’ TV

This case is taken from a filmed client session inside our members’ area, Uncommon Practitioners’ TV. One of more than a hundred filmed sessions, among other resources for practitioners, you can join and stream these videos to any device, whenever you want, through our App or on your computer. Read more here.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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