The Instant Replay: Reliving a Critical Moment By Michael R. Jackson, PhD on 6/12/19 - 4:39 PM

In doing psychotherapy, I sometimes feel like I am wandering with my client through a dense forest of brush and brambles, trying to find a pathway out. Often there is no clear direction or clue, and the way ahead may be difficult. However, there are also times when I have found it particularly helpful to ask my client to return with me to a salient event in his or her life and look at it once again in considerably more detail. This might involve, for example, reexamining a triggering experience or an incident that brought the client into therapy. I call this process of reexamining an earlier event—exactly as the client remembers it happening, moment by moment—the “instant replay.”

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You might do this when the client first brings up such an experience, but often it is best not to do so right away. The event may be too raw and painful when it first comes up in therapy; and additionally, you may not yet know enough about the client to grasp the full significance of this landmark in the larger terrain of his or her life. Consider the following case.

Beth, a fifteen-year-old, had been admitted to the hospital due to explosive outbursts, depression and suicidal ideation. Her anger toward her family seemed inexplicably intense, and her worst outbursts were directed toward her mother. For example, on the day she was admitted to the hospital, she had planned to run away, and when her mother found out and tried to stop her, Beth had threatened to “deck” her mother, had refused to return home and had threatened to jump out of the car when her mother tried to bring her back. When asked about her anger in family sessions with her mother—and sometimes in individual sessions as well—Beth would withdraw into a seemingly impervious and almost catatonic silence. When she did talk about her anger, Beth expressed feeling criticized, and stated a belief that everyone in her family blamed her for all the family’s problems, including the breakup of her mother’s marriage to her stepfather, and the fact that her biological father had stopped all contact with her. She was not convinced by attempts at reassurance that her mother and stepfather had had their own marital problems and that her biological father had stopped contact not only with her, but with other family members as well.

As time went on, another side of Beth began to emerge. Her mother revealed that at times, Beth had written letters expressing unbearable remorse about her behavior and a desperate wish to change. One letter, which was four-pages long, was entitled “The Unconditional You.” It described a story from a book Beth had read about a girl who was ungrateful and cruel toward her mother until she realized with shock that her mother still loved her unconditionally. The letter went on to express Beth’s belief that she and her mother were like the girl and mother in the story. Beth’s mother voiced exhausted confusion about letters like this and the fact that her daughter could still explode into rage toward her, even after writing them. Beth’s mother seemed to have difficulty accepting that her daughter could have such seemingly contradictory feelings.

At about this time, Beth opened up, first in group and then in individual therapy, about her history with her biological father. He and her mother had separated when Beth was very young, but he had continued to visit Beth, and had remained close with her until he moved to another state when she was 11. They had promised to write each other every week. They did so for a while, but a few months later he remarried and without explanation stopped responding to her letters. Beth’s behavior worsened after this.

The day after she told me about this, I found Beth crying in her room when I came to meet with her. She had spoken to her mother on the phone and was feeling hopeless about ever returning to her family. We talked about the phone call, and then I told her that her mother had showed me the letter about the story she had read. I said that I knew how badly she wanted unconditional love but that I believed that her mother couldn’t always give her this kind of love because her mother was dealing with her own problems.

At this point, the time seemed right to do an “instant replay” of the events that had brought Beth into the hospital. I reminded her of what had happened the day of her admission—how her mother had tried to stop her from leaving, how they had argued, and how she had exploded and eventually been taken to the hospital. I asked her to tell me what they had actually said to each other and we reviewed their argument, step-by-step and word-for-word. She described how her mother had attempted to talk her into returning home. Beth had refused, and after more attempts to persuade her, her mother had finally grown exasperated and said “You can just stay [away]! I’ve tried for seven years, and I give up!” That was the moment when Beth exploded and threatened her mother.

“It sounds like it really upset you when you mother said that. It really hurt you and made you angry.”

“Yes,” she said.

“It scares you when your mother says things like that.”


“Can you say why?”

“Because I’m afraid my mother is going to leave me like my dad did.”

This was the first time Beth had ever explicitly made a connection between her behavior toward her mother and her hurt about her father.

In the next few sessions, we clarified and extended this insight. Working individually with Beth, I pointed out that when she had felt hurt by some of her mother’s actions, the hurt had been supercharged by the past pain related to her biological father’s rejection. In parent work with Beth’s mother, I explained that Beth’s battle for distance was accompanied by a fear that she would lose her mother completely, leading her to do things that forced her mother to take greater parental control, while simultaneously pushing her mother away. And in family sessions, we explored together how Beth’s feelings about both of her parents had come to be focused on her mother. As Beth said to her mother in one of these sessions, “It’s easier to get mad at the parent who is there for you.”

Somewhere within us, painful memories are frozen in time. Unexpectedly, they may leap to life, opening old wounds. But under the right conditions, we can gain the upper hand over time—revisiting and re-running those painful experiences, freeze-framing the exact moments when we gave them power, and clearing a path to healing.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections