Can memory reconsolidation work give you burnout?

Once you know about memory reconsolidation, it becomes a great gift. Yet it can also be a curse. You now know that there’s a brain mechanism that brings transformational change. There is something you can consciously do to make that happen. There is a danger in this knowledge.

In this article, we will cover:

  • the danger of memory reconsolidation to the therapist
  • maintaining togetherness
  • lessons from improvised theatre

The danger of memory reconsolidation

Memory reconsolidation depends on doing certain steps that trigger the brain mechanism. Those steps require us to find a target learning, develop a mismatch, and then set up a mismatch experience.

The danger is that we can become focused on the doing. We can get caught up in the puzzle of it. If the brain needs the client to have a mismatch experience, the puzzle is around what needs to be mismatched.

Is it the autonomic nervous system responses? The beliefs? And if so, which ones? Is it the memories or images that intrude into their thoughts? Is it their unmet needs?

Sometimes it’s as clear as day. At other times, it’s foggy. In those moments, the truth is that you won’t yet know. So the brain begins to work hard in an attempt to solve this puzzle.

The result is that you get tired. Exhausted even. It’s hard to switch off.

How can you work out the answer to those questions? What is the target learning that would result in change if neutralised? What would be the best experience to create the mismatch with the best fit?

Maintaining Togetherness

A therapist with ideas can be a worrying thing. Therapy is a co-created space. The therapist who has ideas can work too hard. It is easy to fall into the trap that this is about us and our brilliant ideas. But it isn’t.

Therapy is the process of one person facilitating a genius. The client is that genius.

It is worth a reminder that finding the target learning to mismatch is not solely your job. It is something you discover together. We do have expertise but the number one expert on the client is the client.

By leaning on the client’s expertise we achieve two things. First, we don’t work so hard. Second, we get better information. To work hard only to get worse data is the worst of all worlds. To work more easily yet find gold makes more sense.

In the imaginal work I do, I notice just how minimal a role I play. I bring the process but my question is simply: “so what would you need to happen next?” The client knows. Often, their answers surprise me. I would never have thought of them. Moreover, I notice that they are always right.

I remember once having a “better” idea than my client about what could happen in their imaginal scene. I shared it only to realise instantly that it wasn’t a better idea at all. I dropped it immediately and learned to stop having such ideas. The client knows what they need.

Similarly, the puzzle of finding the target learning can be shared too. This is the part that can cause most brain churn and puzzlement. Yet you’ll learn far more from the client than you know yourself.

As with the imaginal work, a process that allows the client to provide the answers tends to work best. Questions typically work better than self-generated answers.

Sometimes, the client’s answers will, of course, concur with your own private guesses. At other times, they will astound you and bring about a breakthrough.

In this article, I looked at three possible target learnings that could result in mismatch experiences: beliefs, feelings and unmet needs. One possible process might be to use a shared tool or document that keeps this, and other key information, in view together for discussion.

An example of this is below.

Another way is to use the exercise repurposed from Motivational Interviewing that I call The Single Sentence Technique.

However you do it, make it a process that is outside of your brain, not busily inside it.

Lessons from improvised theatre

Therapy reminds me of improvised theatre. I have a performance arts background and at one time ran an improv troupe. I notice how improvisers can speed up and talk more when the next step is unclear and they aren’t yet sure what to do. Therapy is a similarly unscripted space.

What do you do in an improv scene when you feel stuck while on stage? Any improv director would tell you the same answer – be quiet, slow down, and let your scene partner save you. In therapy, it is much the same. Your client is your scene partner, and you are theirs.

You’ll be amazed at what you learn when you take your foot off the pedal and leave space. There have been many times where I was ready to ask something, left an extra couple of seconds, and the client used the silence to share something profound and magnificent.

This is something we do together. If you feel puzzled, that’s okay. You will do. It’s a puzzle you will solve together. The more the work is shared, the better the work will be.

And of course, you know this already. It’s just a helpful reminder that memory reconsolidation work doesn’t change that.

Conclusion

The knowledge that we have about memory reconsolidation may trick us into thinking that it’s all on us. It can lead to brain overwork rather than sharing the puzzle with the client. Often, going slower and saying less can bring more useful expertise into the room.

Neuroscience gives us knowledge about triggering change that we didn’t have before. But the process of therapy is still a shared one, and the best answers still come from the client.

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