My eyes are closed, and I'm standing with a microphone in my hand in front of a room full of people. Dr. Steven Stosny, an anger and domestic abuse expert, has just asked me to recall a time I got really angry.
"My roommate's boyfriend drinks my beer without asking," I blurt, remembering a recent late night when I was awakened by the sound of Coors Light pop-tops being opened in our living room. Thanks to Dave, I have beer-opening radar. "I've asked him not to, but he just keeps doing it."
As soon as the words leave my lips, I cringe. I'm standing in front of 40 people who've paid about $800 per couple to hear Stosny talk about how to end the emotional abuse they endure from their significant others. Your husband constantly belittles you? You've been cut off from your friends and family? Too bad. I've got a shameless alcohol thief in my house. O, woe is me.
The occasion for my embarrassment is Stosny's "emotional boot camp." People have flown from all over the country to conference-friendly, centrally located Dallas to spend a weekend learning Stosny's trademarked HEALS process, a mental exercise meant to help emotional abusers and their victims manage anger and resentment. Practice your HEALS religiously, and poof! Abuse-B-Gone.
The soft-spoken, elfin Dr. Stosny has been on Oprah three times and was given the sacred blessing of Dr. Phil, making him the fixer du jour for broken relationships. His advice isn't cheap--the $800 didn't include airfare or room and board at the commuter motel in Irving where the seminar was held. If you want to fly up to his office in D.C. for a private session, you're looking at $2,000 a day.
When I balk at the price tag, Stosny has a quick response: It's cheaper than a divorce. (Of course, so's a single one-way ticket to Acapulco.) For those who seek him out--usually severely emotionally abused women toting reluctant partners--the boot camp is a last resort before a permanent split. Stosny does use his HEALS techniques on serious court-ordered cases, but the boot camp is for a median level of abusive relationship, somewhere in that vast gap between a weekend stay at Baylor Hospital courtesy of a vase to the head and "Ted says chores are for womenfolk." Some have already separated and seek Stosny's help for the sake of the kids they'll be co-parenting.
Foolishly, I had expected that everyone there would just look abused. The men would come in wearing monster masks, and the women would be perpetually in tears. But these people could be here for a Tupperware party or real estate seminar. Some hold hands. One husband idly rubs his wife's back. Another couple is wearing matching Hawaiian shirts. They don't need a psychologist. They need a stylist.
A couple of days earlier, Stosny had told me over the phone that his method works because he doesn't place blame on abusers. Excuse me? You don't blame abusers for abusing? Every feminist bone in my body (that'd be everything except my jaw, which has an uncontrollable love for Hooters wings) was prepared for a fight.
"You don't change people by confronting them with your superior values," Stosny said. Superior? Expecting someone to act like something other than a total douche bag sounds like a normal, non-superior value. But Stosny continues, "You change [people] by appealing to their own deepest values."
Rebuking abusers for their behavior creates guilt and anger, Stosny lectures at the seminar. That's where his HEALS process comes in. Deep down, nobody wants to be a huge jerk, right? Instead of lecturing abusers on why their behavior is bad, he persuades them that learning to show compassion for their significant other is a more effective way to communicate than, say, giving wifey the silent treatment because she parked the Saturn crooked.
The first afternoon of the seminar, Stosny asks for volunteers for live HEALS demonstrations. It's a shaky acronym, but try to stay with me here. The "H" is for visualizing the word "HEALS" in your mind when you're angry. "E" is experiencing core hurts, "A" for accessing your core value and "L" and "S" for loving yourself and solving the problem. What Oprah-endorsed psychologist would be complete without a trademarked acronym?
Bill (not his real name) volunteers to be HEALed. First, he tells about a time he became angry. Bill says his girlfriend always leaves things in front of the bathroom light switch, which really winds him up. He'd thrown an entire shelf full of toiletries to the floor in front of their 2-year-old daughter. Let yourself get mad about it, guides Stosny, then visualize the word "HEALS" flashing in front of your eyes. Bill then must imagine how the maddening behavior affects his deepest core hurts: He's really angry because he feels unlovable, says Stosny. Bill feels he doesn't deserve to have an unblocked light switch.
But Bill is lovable. All human beings deserve 24-hour unimpeded access to light switches. He now imagines a series of things that make him happy: spiritual connections, family members, his favorite piece of art. Then, says Stosny, recall nice things done for others in the past. Who could be angry, with all that beauty in the world? Immediately, says Stosny, compassion takes over and the inclination to throw a fit is eliminated.
Stosny says the key to change is practicing HEALS 12 times a day for the next six weeks. Abusers will grow to associate anger with compassion, and those they abuse will associate fear and resentment with compassion. Everybody ends up in one big love bubble, getting what they need because they ask for it nicely instead of demanding it. If only we'd listened to our pre-school teachers.
During a break, I ask Stosny if the technique works in relationships where there isn't a mutual emotional commitment, like the one I have with Dave, where the only mutual feeling is a tacit agreement not to throw each other off the balcony. (We'd probably lose our lease, anyway.) Sure, he said, but the core hurt is powerlessness, not being unlovable. I get mad because no matter what I do, from asking nicely to fits of Hello Kitty pajama-clad rage at 4 a.m., I cannot will Dave to stop drinking the hooch. Stosny suggested I volunteer to be HEALed.
As he walked me through the process--I loathe Dave! Dave's a mooch! But I love kittens and my parents and Monster Ballads Volume 2. I'm a nice person!--I began to see where Stosny was going with all this. Politely asking Dave not to gank my booze was probably a better option than charging out of my room, screaming at him to never drink my effing beer ever effing again. Flying off the handle just made me feel like a huge jerk; it didn't make Dave feel like being any nicer to me. And even if he keeps thieving, I don't have to feel like the big, bad wolf.
I contemplated this revelation while hunkered down in my seat, doing my best to become invisible, reliving every moment of my silly, shallow complaint. But just when I was about to feel totally powerless and unlovable, Dr. Stosny made my day. No matter what anyone else does, he lectured, you're still valuable on the inside. Around the room, 40 heads nodded. And then, a joke:
"Your core value is intact whether the beer is there or not."
So, so true, Dr. Steve. Thank you.
But that still doesn't mean you've got free rein of the fridge, Dave. I've got my loving, compassionate eye on you.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.