Ryan Howes PhD, ABPP

In Therapy

Cool Intervention #6: The Hunger Illusion

10CTI: Growls from your unconscious

Posted Jan 30, 2010

No, this intervention isn't (necessarily) about food. Tucked away in the pages of a George Weinberg book lies one of the most powerful and elegant techniques ever. And it's safe to use at home, no therapist required.

Dr. Weinberg is known for many things. The Manhattan psychologist has authored a dozen books on topics as varied as statistics, Shakespeare and fear of commitment. He coined the term "homophobia" in his 1972 book Society and the Healthy Homosexual. And he's also the guy who wrote The Heart of Psychotherapy which ranks among the best books in the trade and introduced me to one of the Ten Coolest Therapy Interventions.

Many people come to therapy to figure out why they do what they do. This could range from why they binge drink to why they seek unavailable partners to why they talk with their hands. They're engaging in some behavior that feels automatic and has a mysterious origin, and want to know why. Freud would say they have unconscious motivations that are blocked from awareness. Such motivations may leak out in dreams, slips of the tongue, hypnosis or free association. These standard tools of psychoanalysis are fine, but they take time: you may have to wait for an insightful dream or slip, and it can take a while for clients to get comfortable with hypnosis or free association.

Enter the Hunger Illusion. According to the text: The person stopping any habitual behavior becomes subject to an illusion, which becomes pronounced as the impulse mounts to resume the habit. I call it the Hunger Illusion.

The process is simple: 1) identify the moment you tend to act automatically, 2) don't, and 3) see what thoughts and feelings come up. He gives an example in his book of a big, tall man who tends to wave his hands around frantically when he is trying to make a point. When he resists the urge for a moment and talks about the thoughts and feelings that arise, he describes feeling small and afraid he won't be heard. He's huge and Dr. Weinberg is listening intently, so this is clearly irrational. This leads back to a memory of him as a small child with older siblings who wouldn't listen unless he made a fuss physically. He is unconsciously playing out a behavior that was necessary in childhood, but is no longer needed. Making the link to his early belief helps him understand and control the behavior.

The applications are innumerable. Feel the urge to walk away, crack a joke, grab the donut (there's the food tieback), have a drink, sigh deeply, view porn, spend irresponsibly or approach the wrong mate? Stop the automatic response and see what thoughts and feelings arise. Tie it back to an earlier memory. You may discover the hidden meaning for the behavior, which gives you power to control it.

I recently tracked down Dr. Weinberg and had one of the best phone calls in recent memory. Here's an excerpt from our conversation:

When would you use the Hunger Illusion?

Usually they bring up the subject of something they either can't do or can't not do: what happens to you if you don't drink? If you have an alcohol problem and you go back to your buddies and tell them, "I'm not gonna go into the tavern," you might think, "well, they'll think I'm not a man, I'm not tough." So maybe you drink partly to feel virile, like one of the guys. You may not have known that until you literally don't go and say, "no, I don't drink anymore." It helps you learn about yourself.

In your experience, how have you seen the Hunger Illusion help clients?

Well, they learn what they're really afraid of and then they can look for other places where they have the same fear, and if you can attack a thing from many sides, pick up a blanket from many sides, you can really deal with a problem better than if you pick it up from one. If you're afraid of asking for things from men then maybe the first thing you have to do is return a broken iPod to a clerk and then ultimately you'll be asking to run the company, you know, down the line.

As far as the interventions you've known and used, what would you say makes the Hunger Illusion a cool intervention?

What makes it cool is that it's easy to do, it's available, it doesn't require deep analytic theory, you don't have to be a Freudian or subscribe to Mahler's Rapprochement theory. It's cool because it's waiting for us. It gives unique information, it doesn't fall into any theoretical stereotype and I think that makes things cool when they don't follow the lines of some one true light, someone's one religion. It's available to all of us. Yourself, as a therapist too, which makes it cool. You don't have to pay top dollar to use it, you can try it in your own life. Anyone can verify that it teaches us things.

Sure. I could see therapists from almost any modality using it.

Yeah, anyone, and these schools of therapy keep multiplying. There's got to be something wrong if we have 700 theories of how people change.

What's next for you?

My new book is Lies Your Therapist Told You which will be out next year.

Uh oh, you're gonna kick me out of a job here.

No, but I think we can do a better job if we don't lie. We need more interventions like this instead of saying: "well it's obvious that you had an attachment to your father that you have to discover, and come here for the next 12 years to discover it." We're dealing with people as they come along, not stereotypes. That's one of the reasons why therapy is losing ground. Talk therapy was a booming new idea at one point, and now half the things people went to talk therapy for they're taking a pill for instead, and I think they underestimate the power of really investigating yourself.