Tag Archives: Imago therapy

On Vulnerable Communication: Timing and Dosage

From the couples and family therapy files at Embolden Psychology

The amygdala (my nickname for this area of the brain is Amy) is the part of the brain that is activated during feelings of fear, anxiety, threat, and aggression. By putting feelings into words — a process known as “affect labeling” – we can help diminish Amy’s response when we encounter things that are distressing. Verbal expression is generally controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain, including the temporal and parietal lobes. In addition, the frontal lobe helps with decision-making and problem-solving. It also tells you what not to say: impulse control. This ‘party of four’ – Amy, as well as the parietal, temporal, and frontal lobes, are all part of the ability and vulnerability to share personal problems with others.

Underneath it all is an actual desire and commitment that you want to communicate without harm to self or your loved one(s). Related, read Healing in Relationships: Imago Therapy for Communication. 

The ability to express feelings to a trusted other entails employing relational / interpersonal / social skills, verbal skills, and the most mundane and important strategy of all: practice. While some people may have seemingly kissed the Blarney Stone, for most, communication requires effort and practice.

Important factors include timing and dosage. When you get a medication prescription, it tells you when to take (or give) it and how much to ingest. Vulnerable communication is much the same.

*Physical state. If you are not a ‘night person’, and you’re exhausted, that’s probably not the best time to engage in a conversation. Similarly, many people cannot converse or listen well early in the morning.

*Mental state. If you are someone who can become angry or impulsive at times of duress or stress,walking away can be very helpful before speaking.  Most people do not speak very well when Amy is the major person in the room.

*Location location location. No one can listen well if they feel cornered. I always suggest to parents not to confront children or teens in their bedroom or in the car. Some of my adolescent clients have told me they felt like jumping out of the car because they had nowhere to go and their parent was ‘talking at them’.

This is equally true for adults. Some couples may continue an argument for hours, even physically following each other while one person tries to ‘get away’. Some believe that you have to talk it all out as soon as possible, but if your partner does not have the propensity or ability to do the same, it can actually create harm. Taking a time out, no matter your age, when feeling stirred up, is a good idea. Set a time to talk later. That doesn’t mean that you are sweeping things under the rug. It means that you are acknowledging the respect of speaking at a time where everybody is in a better headspace.

*Emotional learning skills / EQ. Not everyone knows how to verbally express their emotions. This is an important point for compassion for self and others, as well as a commitment to learning how to communicate. If you had no role models to show you how to discuss emotional experience and feelings, how are you supposed to know? The good news is that it can be learned and practiced like all other learning.  Related, read: What is Affect Phobia?

*Ask for consent. Reciprocal communication requires permission. Is this a good time to talk? May I set up a time to discuss something?

*Pick your people. Have a trusted friend who will support you. If you need a lot of talk time, try spreading your conversations out to multiple people. One person can get worn out, and having a broad social support system lets you distribute that load. In a healthy relationship, I always say that things are 49–51. There is no 50/50. But no one should have to carry the bulk of the emotional labor habitually.

*Talk with an end point. Absolutely no one I have met can talk for hours, especially with intensity. When you have a discussion that’s going to be affect-laden, limit it to a pre-agreed-upon time and duration. I have couples practice this in my office with actually having a physical object, such as a small ball or baton to pass back-and-forth. Listening to intently is not a skill that most people have without practice. In fact, research indicates that most people know what you’re going to say before the other person is even finished talking.

*Do not co-ruminate.  Contrary to the old adage, misery does NOT love company. Having a group of friends who are consistently negative, coworker who complain regularly, or online chats that are focused on how terrible your child/partner/spouse is have shown no significant effects on the ability to share vulnerable feelings, reduce distress, or experience relief.

*Writing helps. A number of studies from the department of psychology at Southern Methodist University have shown that writing out your feelings can be as effective as expressing them verbally. You don’t even have to share what you write. But being able to ‘get out of your head’ from what you’re experiencing, perhaps even a repetitive or intrusive thoughts, is helpful. Writing also creates a sense of continuity in thought. See also Restorative Writing on Mental Health.

*Seek professional help. Being able to have a place to vent where you feel safe and not judged is the essence of therapy. I always say to my clients, I may see you for three hours a month. In between, there’s a lot of living that happens. If possible, write it down.  Those three or four hours each month can give you a space to present and process those feelings, and not have them used against you. In a journal or your phone Notes App, jot down your thoughts, if you’re not sure that you will remember what you want to say in the therapy session.

*Practice a range of verbal expression. Talk to people you care about regarding both positive and negative feelings and experiences. Speaking about the positive as well as the negative is like a bank account. You won’t go into emotional overdraft if you do both. Interestingly, the simple act of texting during the day, even a check-in, has shown interpersonal positive effects. Read: https://embolden.world/the-power-of-texting/

*Not everyone benefits from talking it out. This might seem contradictory to the ‘traditional’ verbal expression model of psychotherapy. In their clinical psychology research, Drs. Siddique and Bonanno found that dispositional repression was at times related to good mental health. This was even true of individuals who had suffered early conjugal bereavement and other traumas. This sub-group appeared to receive more social support, and returned to their regular routine faster than people who expressed feelings of bereavement and loss. Individual differences matter when it comes to self expression.

Not everyone benefits from endless analysis of feelings, a hard truth in clinical psychology.
From the American Psychological Association online library: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1999-02328-010
On emotional dissociation and self deception: at play in the fields of consciousness. Bonanno, G. and Siddique, H., Lawrence Erlbaum, New York, NY, 1999.

Healing in Relationships: Imago Therapy for Communication

The concept of Imago, which is the Latin term for image, as an image of familiar love suggests that your early relationships teach you something about love and about yourself. Through these early experiences, you develop a sense of an identity related to love, such as what love is and what you need to do in order to experience love from others, accept and give love, and feel safe.

In your early relationships, you start to develop a sense of self-worth based on how you are treated by important people in your life, such as caregivers. You start to develop attachment patterns and gain a sense of how you think you should be treated by others.
For example, if growing up you only received praise and feelings of love from your caregivers WHEN you performed well at a task, you may move into your adult life believing that you must perform well in order to be worthy of love and to receive care and comfort from your partner. If your partner turns away or shuts down on you, leaving you feeling unloved, you might quickly start to reflect on your own behaviors, replaying things and looking for what you may have “done something wrong” for the person to treat you this way.

Our intimate relationships: parents, family, partners, close friends, are prime ground for bringing up raw spots, old wounds, and patterns of behavior. These connections can leave us feeling close and cared for or lonely and abandoned. It is not surprising that our intimate relationships often tend to bring up old, familiar emotional wounds since Imago therapy suggests that you unconsciously pick partners and friends and have interactions that feel “familiar” to you.

When these old wounds come up in relationships, however, Imago therapy holds that they can give us a chance to heal and grow. As psychologist Dr. Harville Hendrix, the founder stated: “We are born in relationship, we are wounded in relationship, and we can be healed in relationship”.

In my couples and family imago work, I emphasize the following:

  • A commitment to the relationship. At this moment in time, do you value this relationship and find it important and worthwhile to address areas of difficulty?
  • Acknowledgment of the vulnerability of the other person. At this moment in time, are you able to accept the vulnerability of your therapy partner without having to fix it, critique it, ignore it, minimize it, or try to change it?
  • Acknowledgment of the value of dialogue. In addition to developing listening techniques through practice, two factors that are crucial in communication are: timing (e.g., not having a discussion when either person is exhausted, ill, at work, emotionally flooded, or intoxicated) and dosage: taking turns speaking, not interrupting, not taking over the conversation. Also important is how much to say and how to be specific. For example, intense discussions that go on for hours are usually not helpful). Also unhelpful is bringing up numerous past grievances in the discussion. Think of medication and dosage; it can heal or you can overdose. Staying focused on the actual feelings in the moment requires mindfulness. For parents and teenagers, I also emphasize not having intense discussions while in the car or by cornering the adolescent in their bedroom.
  • Acknowledgment that we genuinely yearn to be heard. As part of the listening practice, your therapy partner will tell you if you have heard them accurately. If you have not, then you listen again, until they say you got it.

Listening Techniques
The core aspect of Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT) is dialogue. This dialogue is a structured method, initially facilitated by a trained therapist, which allows clients to gain understanding and increase empathy.

The goals of Imago dialogue are to:

  • Remove negative, hurtful language from communication. This includes “absolutes,” such as ‘you never do …’ or ‘you always make me feel …’
  • Create a safe emotional environment for both partners to openly share
  • Allow both partners equal space and eliminate the idea that one partner has more power over the other
  • Allow both partners to share their personal vulnerabilities without asking for problem-solving or interruption
  • Within this dialogue there is a “sender” and a “receiver,” the sender being the one to share thoughts and feelings openly with their receiver. The “receiver” practices the following three steps during the Imago dialogue:

Mirroring
Repeating back what you have heard your partner say in order to gain clarification and understanding. The receiver does this with no judgment, criticism, or response, but simply repeating back what they have heard their partner say. For example, the receiver might say, “So what I’m hearing you say is…” and then follow by paraphrasing the sender’s original words. The sender then has to acknowledge that the paraphrasing was correct.

Validation
The receiver works to validate parts of what their partner (the sender) has shared, what makes sense to them. As they are doing this, they are letting their partner know that they “get it” and are actively trying to understand. If there are parts that the receiver does not yet understand, they can ask the sender to share more. For example, the receiver might say something like, “I can understand how that would make you feel that way.”

Empathy
At this point in the dialogue, the receiver shares with their partner what they think the other might be feeling. Sharing on this level is a way to let their partner know they are gaining a deeper understanding of their emotional experience, allowing the partner to feel seen and heard. For example, the receiver might say something such as, “I imagine you must be feeling disappointed.”

Many of these are also common techniques used in all types of therapy as a way of improving communication. The sender and the receiver take turns speaking, after making sure that the other person has had ample time to express what they are feeling without being interrupted or corrected. Sometimes, I suggest use of a physical object to pass back-and-forth to indicate that “this is your turn now”.

Imago therapy was developed specifically for the understanding and healing of relationships. Some of the issues that Imago therapy can help with include:

  • Recurring disagreements/conflict
  • Feelings of disconnection
  • Improving general Communication skills
  • Lack of intimacy or quality time with partner
  • Trust issues or infidelity
  • Sibling or friend rifts and ruptures

Like any other therapy, it requires practice. We are used to automatic ways of listening, hearing, and responding. Active listening can feel strange because we are used to adding a ‘twist’ to what we hear. Just like the childhood game of telephone, by the time the message is delivered/received, it may have entirely changed. The step of mirroring teaches how to accurately reflect the message that was sent, not what you ‘thought you heard’.

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