David P. Armentrout, Ph.D.
Some years ago I saw a postcard with the caption, “I have abandoned the search for Truth and am now looking for an acceptable fantasy.” That seems to summarize the goals of rescripting. It also summarizes the dereific processes leading to psychosis. Rescripting means substitution of fantasied content for valid memory. The usual reason given for rescripting is that realty is too terrible to be handled.
Mental disorders can be roughly broken down into those problems due to faulty wiring of the cranial computer and its peripherals, and those due to flawed software. In the first group we find various dementias, cyclothymias, autisms and the schizophrenias. There is a region of overlap in which subclinical problems may or may not become significant, as in the case of borderlines who may learn to channel their creativity, or who may dissociate under stress. Generally, these disorders are present at birth and receive psychiatric treatment through drugs which suppress some of the most noxious signs and symptoms.
The software group of disorders is generally acquired. The most common software problems presented to the clinician seem to be traumatic neuroses. Of these Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is an excellent example. The intrapsychic structure of traumatic neuroses involves a focal event or sequence of events in which strong negative emotions were evoked which exceeded the ability of the actor to cope. Because the issues exceeded coping capacity, the events could not be fully evaluated, and thus were pushed into a corner of the mind where they could be surrounded by side tripping mechanisms (the usual form of repression). Instead of recalling the painful event, the mind is led aside from the topic, and thus is protected from unpleasant memories.
Repression is effective until some external event causes the repressed material to be recalled, at which time its full emotional impact is again realized. This leads to compensatory behaviors and thought patterns through which stimulation of the traumatic material is avoided. For example, a person who nearly drowned may repress the experience, and then develop an anxious avoidance of water in order to prevent restimulation of the memories. As associations with the repressed event radiate outward through the usual processes of stimulus generalization, the range of feared places must be increased in order to maintain equilibrium. Agoraphobia is a typical outcome. Through extension of the number and scope of prohibited experiences, the actor thus seeks to avoid remembered dangers, yet the protective measures themselves become painful. The energies of the actor are thus alienated and turned against their source. In a very real sense, the traumatic event remains in real time as an active source of disruption.
Direct removal of signs and symptoms resulting from traumas is generally unsuccessful because it leaves the actor defenseless against the repressed trauma. In the short run this often creates anxiety. In the long run, new defenses are evolved, often as bad or worse than their predecessors. As a result, resolution of traumas must involve bypassing the distractor mechanisms so that the actor can again review the event. At that time the full emotional content is accepted and any appropriate decisions can be made. Once it has been reviewed, the traumatic material no longer needs to be repressed, and is stored away like any other Old Business.
Occasionally, the recalled emotional content is too severe to be accepted and the therapist must use strategies such as, “Look at the event as if it is a movie. You don’t really know the actors, and the emotions are only superficial.” Various techniques allow successive approximation to full realization of the past traumatic residue, in this case through progressively clarified imagery in which the actor becomes progressively more identified with the material. An alternative involves progressively better definition of the event, for example starting with, “I went to the beach. Then I went home,” which is later expanded to, “I went to the beach and almost drowned. Then I went home.” Later the story would involve details of drowning sensations such as choking etc. These approximation techniques are generally hypnotic, drawing heavily upon the ability of hypnosis to define selective perceptions. Not all therapists are competent in application of techniques for successively approximating to a trauma, usually because of lack of specific training.
Once the trauma has been located and evaluated, a second consideration often arises, forgiveness. This is another case of scripted responding, and properly falls into the same category as rescripting the content of an event. When a person has been terribly abused, the recollection of abuse often is tied to righteous outrage at being violated. Some therapists propose that certain types of violation are too outrageous to be forgiven, and urge the actor to develop and maintain a sense of hatred and anger. However, when the feelings of rage and hatred are examined, they are always found to be volitional responses based on consideration of the damage involved in the trauma. In other words, to develop hatred or rage requires that the actor cling to the sense of damage and violation. Conversely, once that posture is taken, recall of damage leads back to feelings of rage and hatred. Rage and hatred keep the wound fresh and bloody. To remove the sense of damage and allow the wound to heal requires forgiveness.
Forgiveness does not equate to reconciliation, nor to permission, nor to approval of the trauma. It merely means that the actor has decided that life is too short to carry a desire to wreak vengeance on the perpetrator. Common sense adds that we should avoid people who do us harm. However, when the sense of hatred and rage is abandoned, there is no longer a prompt to retain a freshly bleeding psychic wound, and healing occurs. At that time the event is stored away as Old Business.
The Problem with Rescripting
The presumed need for rescripting arises from the desire to provide an alternative to admission that there was a traumatic event so that the traumatic content of that event need not be further considered. This may be because the therapist is not competent to decathect the trauma, perhaps due to fear of abreaction, or perhaps due to some other deficiency. In that case, rescripting produces a happy client so that the therapist looks good for the moment. That the process may be destructive to the client later is not an issue. Another reason for rescripting is because the actor may refuse to be rational and accept therapy, instead creating a false persona based on fantasied events. No matter what the reason, the repressed trauma remains and still leads to compensatory signs and symptoms, but the events surrounding the trauma are denied.
The result is that the actor denies the existence of a general scope of life experiences which included the trauma, and yet must still engage in irrational protective rituals and compulsive defenses. In order to remove these defensive strategies it becomes necessary to first remove the rescripted delusional pseudo-personality, which also entails negation of any positive values, such as self esteem, based on the false persona. Then, once the delusional state is removed, the trauma may be attacked through regression. Not only does rescripting leave additional pathology which must be treated in order to access the true traumatic content which it protected, but removal of the rescripted personality in order to treat the initial trauma also involves removal of any personal growth which is predicated on the pseudo-persona, so that any interim gains may be lost.
Rescripting is a normal defense mechanism for psychotics. For hysterical personalities rescripting typically involves denial, selective perception and confabulation. These factors allow a false self to be constructed and maintained, even in the face of conflictive reality. People who use their employment, prestige, or other social qualities as pseudo-personae often create stability for long periods in this manner. Unfortunately, when the external conditions end the fantasy collapses. A period of hysterical psychosis, often called a “nervous breakdown,” may follow collapse of the false self. More severe psychotics are also inclined to dereify: a “schizophrenic break” is one example.
The past-life therapist has an added problem when considering rescripting. Each lifetime is a successive element in a learning process. The samskaras of prior lifetimes which ripen into karmas (literally the conversion of potentialities into realized actions) carry the nature of past experiences, past problems and past solutions into the present. These are generally the problems which the actor must resolve in order to grow. To redefine the present or the past so as to alter the actor’s awareness may soften the experience of living, but it destructively interferes with the process of finding solutions for past problems.
As an example, if my past habits, values, beliefs and outlook have led me to kill, maim and torture millions of innocents, then my life is likely to bring me some remarkably unpleasant experiences. I can expect these unpleasant things to continue so long as I continue in my errant ways. However, when I develop a superior sense of values they will stop. Now assume that I go for therapy for nightmares, and soon come up with these horrific past-life memories which agonize me. If my therapist glosses over my past by telling me that it no longer exists and that really I was a Sunday School teacher in my last lifetime, I am prevented from attaining the necessary insight to solve my problems.
Justification and Motivation
Rescripting can create a sense of comfort. In fact, rescripting supported by directly suggestive hypnosis can insure that life is comfortable and that one has not a care in the world, even though one was almost murdered last week. The result is that the actor remains unchanged, never able to deal with real issues, continuing through life as a happy idiot, unaware of the reasons prompting compulsive defenses and moments of panic. The same general results can be obtained through massive doses of Valium, heroin and so on. In terms of its effects, rescripting is the mental equivalent of hallucinogenic tranquilizers.
One support for rescripting has been taken from quantum mechanics, a mathematical convention for treating the interactions of minutiae. Because there is no implicit direction in quantum interactions, time is sometimes said to run bidirectionally. It has been proposed that this means that rescripting can create a past which a person might subsequently acquire by living as if it were true. However, even if problems of the ordering of cause and effect could be resolved, thermodynamic processes always tend toward increasing entropy, which means that there is a definite arrow of time implicit in any event, even if not immediately obvious. Further, the events in quantum mechanical interactions typically ignore prior states and historicity through which the event comes into existence. When the sequence of history is considered, accretion of history is both represented in attributive changes in the interacting quanta, such as altered momentum or direction, and by accreting entropy, the stuff of which history is comprised, defining the arrow of time. It follows that atemporality in quantum mechanical computations does not justify rescripting.
Rescripting is not needed when competent therapists employ normal regressive and decathectic methods. In such cases, successive approximations allow access to trauma with discomfort levels well within the toleration of therapy clients. It follows that rescripting is only used by therapists who find themselves unable to employ regression and decathexis. This might be because they cannot handle the level of traumatic material evoked due to lack of training. Alternatively, it may be that they are too codependent to watch a client handle discomfort during therapy, a result of insufficient “training therapy” prior to entering practice. Most programs require 50 or more hours, and 100 to 200 hours of therapy are often needed before the apprentice therapist is freed from personal issues.
In the spirit of the modern HMO’s, where remuneration takes precedence over therapeutic value, rescripting offers an escape for therapists who are more interested in minimizing patient contact time than in producing permanent results. These therapists seem to believe that when the client stops complaining, the problem is over. Through rescripting, the entire therapeutic process can be short circuited by substitution of a pleasant fantasy. The patient feels good for a few days, and the therapist collects a fee. Unfortunately, short term optimization does not equate with a win-win strategy.
This brief review has shown that there is a strong similarity between rescripting and other delusional states found in pathology. Not only does rescripting numb the actor to past events, it hides the truth, and thus prevents therapy. Arguments attempting to support rescripting based on quantum events are specious. Because rescripting is substitution of delusional content for truth, it is, of itself, a pathology, and when employed in a therapeutic practice it amounts to folie a deux, and is universally detrimental. Because truly competent therapists never need to resort to rescripting, it appears that rescripting is indicative of therapeutic incompetency.