Parataxic Distortion

My favorite new term from my family therapy program is parataxic distortion, coined by the “American Freud” and one of the grandfathers of family therapy, Harry Stack Sullivan.

A parataxic distortion is when a current situation or person reminds you of something from your past, often without you knowing it, such that you behave to some degree as if you are inyour past, dealing with that situation or person. Parataxic distortion is an umbrella term for confusions like Freud’s transference (client gets inappropriately emotional about therapist) and countertransference (therapist gets inappropriately emotional about client). It is also very much like to co-counseling’s “restimulation of distress.” Most likely every psychotherapeutic school has its own name for this phenomenon.

The idea is that there is a way in which your memories are categorical, not specific. That is, if your dad hit you when you were a kid, you not only attach fear and anger to your dad in your memory, you also attach it to a range of things, maybe bald men, short men, men in general, authority figures in general, certain kinds of places or rooms, etc.

Mostly, our memories are useful. This ability to generalize, for example, helps us avoid burning ourselves on hot stoves in general instead of having to painfully learn not to touch each hot stove. Neat trick!

But with a parataxic distortion, our unconscious memory keeps us from being able to understand and deal with situations as they are, in the present. It patterns your behavior. It limits your options. Usually without your knowing it, it makes your life more scary, sad, irritating, and ultimately isolated than it needs to be. Most therapeutic modalities have some version of this three-stage recipe for resolving parataxic distortions: 1) Form a trusting relationship with someone who has less distortion in the area you have trouble with. 2) Have a “corrective emotional experience,” where you basically re-experience your distortion-driven emotional pattern while demonstrably safe in this trusting relationship. 3) Have a “cognitive reappraisal,” meaning come to a new understanding of your behavior in light of current reality as it is. Go meta.

Easier said than done, of course, but well worth it!

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, May 13, 2010.]

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