In our work with teens and families, we often talk about creating mismatching experiences, or corrective emotional experiences. In the type of therapeutic work that we do, these are powerful, even transformative processes aimed at freeing people from their emotional responses tied to early memories and attachment experiences. But what do we actually mean when we talk about creating these corrective emotional experiences?
The idea of mismatching or corrective emotional experiences and our therapeutic practices around them are based on the concept of Memory Reconsolidation as described by Bruce Ecker, Robin Ticic, and Laurel Hulley in the book Unlocking the Emotional Brain: Eliminating Symptoms at Their Roots Using Memory Reconsolidation. In the book, the authors describe a process of therapy in which the neural connections holding core emotional learnings based on early attachment experiences are unlocked and then even erased within the nervous system. This means that at a deep neurological level our brains can be rewired in such a way that our deeply rooted interpersonal patterns can be changed.
Essentially, the way the process works is that a core emotional learning is activated so that the individual has a here-and-now visceral experience related to the core emotional learning. This can occur as a situation presents itself or by asking the individual to recall an early experience that created the learning. For instance, this could be calling to mind an early experience of being teased on the playground leading to the core emotional learning that “No wants to be my friend.”
After calling to mind the feelings related to the core emotional learning, the authors use the technical term The Juxtaposition Experience to describe creating what we call a mismatching or corrective emotional experience. In this stage, the person is presented with an experience that brings about alternate feelings which stand opposed to the core emotional learning. This can be an experience that happens in the here-and-now, like an in-vivo experience in individual, group, or family therapy, or it can be brought about by intentionally bringing to mind a particular memory or experience. For example, a mismatching experience for the learning “No one wants to be my friend” may be the closeness one feels with other participants in group therapy, or it could be calling to mind memories of experiences of felt closeness with a friend or loved one. The individual would be asked to experience, feel, and hold this new experience while also reflecting on how different it feels from their visceral experience of the old core emotional learning.
The next step involves repetition of this process of recalling both the old and new experiences. In this way, just like working with wet cement, the individual is able to impact that wiring in the nervous system while the neural connections are still activated and malleable. Considerable research has been conducted on this process of Memory Reconsolidation which has demonstrated effectiveness in harnessing neuroplasticity to unlock synapses in order to “eliminate emotional learning from implicit memory” (Unlocking the Emotional Brain, 2012).
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