Peeling the Onion—Uncovering Our Wounds in Therapy
The Triple Allergenic Theory—A Developmental Theory of Ego Wounding
"The ego is my best teacher; it just doesn't remember what the lessons are."
"My mind is like a bad neighborhood. I've learned not to go there alone."
How does the ego, an imaginary false identity, become so wounded? How can the ego be healed? An intriguing multi-disciplinary perspective is offered by medical hypnoanalysis, a group of spiritually oriented medical doctors and psychological professionals. Drawing upon the trail-blazing work of Louis K. Boswell and William J. Bryan, the "triple allergenic theory" is proposed by Daniel A. Zelling to help understand the development of emotional challenges and their physical manifestations. 1
In this theory emotions and their psychological and physical expressions are likened to how the body becomes sensitized to a specific antigen in developing a physical allergy. With exposure to antigens, antibodies are formed that with subsequent exposures leads to a histamine-diphosphate bond break that releases free histamine into the blood stream resulting in allergy symptoms. Zelling uses the illustration of becoming allergic to strawberries by enjoying them at first, building antibodies, and developing hives and a little rash with the next eating of strawberries. These allergic symptoms only become more severe with additional exposure to strawberries.
Many emotional challenges like depression and anxiety and their physical Expression in the form of psychogenic or psychosomatic illness patterns are understood as the "reverberation" of an emotion, that is, a percolating vibration of that emotion throughout time from the "initial sensitizing event" (ISE) not recallable by the conscious mind, through to the "symptom producing event" (SPE) that is usually recallable, and then to a "symptom intensifying event(s)" (SIE) that is recallable.
Zelling shares the example of a mid-20's Vietnam veteran who sought treatment for an incapacitating phobia of heights after being hit by ground fire in DaNang while in a transport helicopter. Drawing upon hypnotic regression, these intense symptoms seemed to first begin with an incident at age 10 when building a tree house with his brother and being asked to pass a hammer. Having some fear of getting to the edge of the platform, he threw the hammer from the middle of the platform, hitting his brother in the foot who then screamed and yelled along with his mother doing the same in running to the scene. Earlier still, at about age four, he sat next to his mother on a roller coaster ride after his father and older brother talked her into going on the ride. As the roller coaster went up and then started to speed down, his mother released a blood-curdling piercing scream that was accessible to his deep unconscious in regressive hypnosis, yet unavailable to his conscious mind.
In this example, this early scream of his mother, the major figure offering love, safety and nurturance in his life, was the event that "sensitized" the boy to yelling and screaming as well as to a fear of heights. This event later reverberated as the screaming and yelling of his brother and mother on the tree house platform that produced the symptom, that still later the phobic feelings became much more intense with being hit in a transport helicopter. Once awareness of the origin of the emotional reverberation is brought to awareness, emotionally and cognitively processed with the recognition that it is no longer necessary today, the person can be desensitized to what was unacceptable, painful and traumatic in earlier experiences.
The opportunity is to progressively desensitize yourself to unworkable patterns and triggers, while you progressively acclimate to healthier, workable patterns and supportive stimuli. Such desensitization by almost any means boils down to letting go, releasing, surrendering, and even choosing to forget more of what doesn't work, while simultaneously letting in and even choosing to remember more of what does work.
A second illustration of this theory in action regards a woman in her early 40's who presented with the complaint of not being able to stick with an exercise program as a part of wanting to lose about 25 pounds. With careful questioning it became evident to her that coming to seek help at this time coincided with the coming anniversaries of both of her parent's deaths that she was incomplete in acceptance and grieving as evidenced by her still having the ashes of one of them. This was the symptom intensifying event.
It referred directly back to the symptom producing event when she originally gained 25 pounds, the deaths of her parents. While mentioning her enjoyment of physical activities lifelong, she also noted how she had lost and gained about 25 pounds several times. The weight may serve as a means of protection and defensive resistance against the acceptance of these painful losses, while the inactivity and overeating may serve for self-soothing. Within an accepting, supportive therapeutic environment, she revealed an early loss of a sister at age seven that fits as an initial sensitizing event for this patterning.
Lasting transformation comes with desensitization of the "original seed"-the initial sensitizing event-by a skilled clinician is pulling the psychological and psychosomatic roots of the emotional/physical garden weed in this theory. From the standpoint of the imaginary ego, this process of desensitization is actually more of a disidentification from a mistaken identity by a very young immature ego that simply doesn't have anything near the essential information or the ramifications of its survival decisions for healing its wounds. In addition, it has no idea what to do to remedy this. Actually, it is our ability to stay in an inquiry process of not knowing and continuing to look and see in witnessing our wounded ego from outside the mind, all guided by a therapist with fine diagnostic and healing abilities, that can make an effective difference.
Awareness itself naturally sheds all reactivity coming from false identifications with forms, including thoughts, beliefs, emotions, stories and roles. Transpersonal psychologists Roger Walsh and Shauna L. Shapiro see "disidentification" as "the process by which awareness (mindfulness) precisely observes, and therefore ceases to identify with, mental content such as thoughts, feelings and images." 2 It is precisely here in the disidentification process, embracing both a healthy desensitization to previously traumatic triggers as well as a healthy moderate cognitive disillusionment, that the wounds of the ego at its root can be made whole, healed, and sustained.
1. Daniel A. Zelling, "The Triple Allergenic Theory," Medical Hypnoanalysis Journal, 3 (2), June, 1988, pages 58-62.
2. Roger Walsh & Shauna L. Shapiro, "The Meeting of Meditative Discipline and Western Psychology: A Mutually Enriching Dialogue," American Psychologist, 61 (3), 227-239, quote: pages 231-232.