I have heard this story before:
‘I thought ‘fuck him’ and chucked a load of chilli into his dinner that night.’
This was clearly not a romantic dinner à deux. My client was telling me about making dinner for her husband. But this was no ordinary weeknight supper; this was the meal she cooked for him the day she found out that he had been having an affair for most of the 20 years they had been married. She was heartbroken. So she decided to burn his heart. Literally. Her husband had a delicate palate and a disdain for spicy foods, so you could say it was a recipe for success – in the culinary sense, at least.
As I said, I have heard this story before, but in the laboratory rather than the consulting room. As she told me her tale of heartbreak and heartburn, I found myself thinking that she had, unbeknownst to her, actually enacted the ‘Hot Sauce Paradigm’. In research, psychologists use this to assess aggression, specifically by measuring the amount of hot sauce purposely doled out to a target known to dislike fiery foods. The experiment has revealed interesting things about people who are fearful of rejection. If you worry about being rejected, any whiff of threat is more likely to result in ‘fight-or-flight’ reactions, including impulsive and retaliatory anger using any weapon you can get your hands on – even a bottle of hot sauce.
But anger is never truly anger – it is most often a cloak for fear. Both anger and fear are responses to coming under fire, so they are, in fact, attempts at keeping you safe when you feel threatened. They are two sides of the same coin of emotional injury: generally fear is the expectation of being hurt, anger is the expression of being hurt. And nothing hurts more than being rejected by someone you love and depend on. My client wanted to give her husband a sense of how much his infidelity hurt and burnt. Hurt people hurt people. So that night she projected her feelings onto him by giving him a taste of his own (chilli-crammed) medicine.
It is untrue that therapists do not judge. We do. But we make judgments in non-judgmental ways, or hopefully we try to. I couldn’t reproach my client for inflicting culinary harm on her husband. She had lived her entire life in constant anxious anticipation of being rejected, and now she had been cruelly let down in her longest and most significant relationship. She had a right to her anger and it was not my place to try to manoeuvre it or change it. But what I could do is offer a space to think about it. It’s what we call moving from a ‘first order representation’ to a ‘second order representation’. So, not just going straight to being angry (1st representation) but instead taking a step back and starting to say ‘I feel angry’ (2nd). Connecting to the feeling in this way, opening it up, and exploring it gives a sense of some control, which can slowly make ‘being’ the feeling unnecessary – and ultimately, helps to ensure that the hot sauce stays in the cupboard.
This story inspired the recipe for my Tyrokafteri (‘hot cheese’).