Psychotherapy Comes to Life Working Experientially From a Body-Mind Perspective When Healing Relationships.
It is helpful to know about ourselves and each other to form a rewarding relationship. Often our partners unconsciously show us parts of ourselves that we have managed to disown. As we become familiar with the denied aspects of ourselves in a relationship we are often challenged by our partner to embrace these aspects of ourselves. While it can be challenging it can also provide wonderful opportunities to discover more about ourselves. Mindfulness is a form of attention that enables us to witness ourselves from an objective and non-judgmental place of observing. Mindfulness helps us get to know ourselves and our partners with kindness and acceptance.
The manner in which we relate to another person largely evolves from our experiences in our family of origin. People’s lives and present experiences are constructed by the models of the world they adopt. The models we develop to understand and relate to our world are formed from our interpretations, assumptions and beliefs about the emotionally laden memories and images we experienced as young people (Fisher, R. 2002). We make meaning from these early memories which then become our world view. It is important to realize that we all have a unique view of the world and this is what can cause difficulties in relationships when we fail to understand our partner.
As a therapist we encourage and teach clients to witness their internal and external experiences so that they can study and understand how they organize their present moment experience. Body-mind psychotherapy is a felt experience that transcends cognition and the client can have an enlivening embodied experience (Fisher, R. Summer 2007). The therapist helps the client to pay attention to their present experience even while they are talking about the past. This technique assists the client in understanding more about themselves. Every person has had formative experiences that shape their character and way of being in the world (Benz, D. & Weiss, H. 1995).
In 1949 psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich developed a character analytic school which focused on character development. Reich noticed the importance of how a client comes to therapy; their politeness or stubbornness, mode of speech, way of dressing, and the style and firmness of their handshake were all informative of a person’s character. He said that character is something substantial because it can be observed, and it is real and treatable. Founder of the Hakomi method Ron Kurtz wrote “Reich saw no predominant need to go back in time to the traumatic moment or origin of the condition.” Reich said all the information you need to heal a person can be found in the client’s present experience. Reich wrote “the entire world of past experience in the form of character attitudes continues to exist in every breath the patient takes (and) in every gesture (she or) he makes (Kurtz, R. 1990).” One of the main objectives of psychotherapy is to help people update their self-limiting beliefs formed in early childhood to adult beliefs that can assist them in participating more effectively in life. Being able to break the trance of the past is one of the challenges for couples in therapy (Fisher, R. Summer 2007). It is heartening to know that people can change their childhood beliefs which unconsciously drive their experiences in adulthood.
Kurtz wrote “many different influences combine in the development and maintenance of the patterns we study in psychotherapy (Kurtz, R. 1990).” It is with a mindful and kind attitude towards ourselves that we can be curious and open about what is happening and notice our patterns of behaviour called character strategies. A person can heal themselves as they understand how their beliefs, emotions, body sensations and memories have held their character patterns in place. Kurtz wrote “character patterns are the result of an ongoing interaction of the growing child with its physical and emotional environment (Kurtz, R. 1990).” Kurtz said that these character strategies can be seen as strengths implemented by a child as they learned to adapt to their environment. He said though that when any strength is developed to the point of imbalance it can become a weakness. For example a person who has a self-reliant strategy is strong in their ability to support and rely on themselves and has a weakness in being intimate with others (Kurtz, R. 1990). When a client participates in experiential body-mind psychotherapy they can have a connection with themselves and their external world that enables them to reorganize how they participate in intimate relationships.
A person seeking therapy with a self-reliant strategy could have relationship difficulties. Their model of the world could be that there is no support available to them. The person may have had parents who were busy being independent with work pressures or were self-centered and wanting their children to please them. As such the individual would have formed a belief that no one would be interested in their needs and wishes. A person may become fearful of expecting support when it is unreliable or unavailable because they have memories of being rejected and alienated. This is often how young people learn to reject themselves which can later be harmful in the way they relate in future adult relationships. These life experiences can reinforce the belief that reliable support cannot be found in the world, and that when entering a relationship they may continue to believe there will be no support or care for them. They are likely to be on the lookout for anything that confirms this belief including behaving unconsciously in an independent way that unwittingly blocks another from supporting them. This is a good example of how our character strategies can perpetuate the thing we are trying to heal such as loneliness.
It is interesting to note that couples are often drawn to people with the same or opposite qualities that they find in each other. For example a person with a self-reliant strategy may like a person with a sensitive withdrawn strategy who is also independent. They may develop a system with each other of relating in a way that is accepting of their character strategies and is less confronting about wanting the other person to change. For example a person with a self-reliant strategy can feel strong and capable while the person with a predominantly sensitive withdrawn strategy can appear non-threatening, weaker and quiet in appearance and accepting and grateful in attitude. Often their gaze looks away rather than having more direct and confronting eye contact. The self-reliant person may also feel their self-esteem increase as they enjoy looking after the person with a sensitive withdrawn strategy who simply wants to feel safety and belonging in the relationship (Morgan, M. 2008). It is also worth noting that we all can have a variety of character strategies and that there is no one size that fits all. For example a self-reliant person may still feel triggered emotionally when their partner is independent as this can remind them of an earlier wound of a parent being disinterested in supporting them. It all depends on where we are situated on a continuum of developmental needs and what we are seeking within a relationship at any given time.
A person in therapy may have reached a point in their relationship where they are feeling disconnected and lonely. They are now aware of their model of seeing the world which is influencing their present experience with their partner (Fisher, R. 2002). The client begins to heal as they move into true contact with themselves. They may locate an early memory in their family of origin where their thoughts, ideas and emotions were seen as irrelevant. This could be due to other family members being stronger and more forceful personalities who respect the ability to ‘do’ rather than ‘be’. This could involve a higher priority made in completing house duties and being successful at work. In addition parents could have preferred another sibling to the client as that sibling was more like them and reflected their positive qualities. At a young age a person may have developed a system with their attachment figure of trying to ‘please’ them to obtain support. This could then become a relationship pattern they fall into whenever relating to another. The downside of this is the possibility of losing one’s freedom to be oneself in a relationship.
The initial containing phase of therapy establishes safety within the client-therapist relationship to support the natural growth of the client. This involves discovering the strengths and limitations of their world view and adaptions to them. As therapists we acknowledge the client’s story, the way they tell their story and the emotions that arise. We help the client mindfully turn their attention inward as they touch on a life theme such as feeling unsafe, alone, without care, trapped, fake or unworthy. The key for both client and therapist is to be in a mindful, receptive and conscious state where you can observe what is, without trying to change it. Once a client has connected with a life theme they may begin to notice a felt sense of their experience by looking for the interpretations and beliefs used to construct their world.
In body-mind psychotherapy we provide experiments for clients to witness their experiences while they are having them in the present moment. This is achieved by firstly receiving the client’s permission to proceed. It is only then that we ask the client to be mindful, and to tell their story while we track the effects of their storytelling and ask the client to report back to us with their experience. This method enables the client to connect with themselves in such a way that information becomes available in a direct fashion (Fisher, R. Summer 2007 & Hakomi News 16 May 2007).
Hakomi therapist and trainer Robert Fisher eloquently describes the benefits of this method of experiential body-mind psychotherapy. Fisher says there is a big difference between reporting about an experience and having one. Having a live experience is influential and life changing. He asks us to “think about it for a moment. Which would be more satisfying: discussing the chocolate cake you ate sometime during the last week, or sinking your teeth into a piece of rich, moist, chocolate cake with swirls of butter cream frosting? …and which would be more likely to change your life: watching National Geographic on television or taking a trip around the world? (Fisher, R. Summer 2007).” Fisher explains that by “taking therapy from the realm of second hand reports about events that have occurred in the lives of your clients to the realm of actual experience, you will increase your therapeutic power and depth exponentially.” He says that a lot can be learned from noticing a person’s gestures, postures, and body tensions both as an individual and in relation to their partner (Fisher, R. Summer 2007). For example a person in therapy with the issue of feeling lonely in their relationship may talk about a recent argument they had with their partner. As they talk about the argument their body posture in the present moment may begin to move. Initially this movement is done without the person’s conscious awareness. The therapist notices the client’s right arm move upward diagonally across their chest covering their heart area and the therapist brings the client’s attention to their body movement as it is happening in the present moment.
We welcome the unpredictable and organic wisdom of the client’s body. The next step is to repeat and slow down the motion of the gesture in mindfulness so that previously unconscious internal material can come into awareness. The therapist could ask “is there a thought that goes with the impulse to move?” The client may say “I shut down emotionally when I feel confronted.” The therapist can gently contact the client by saying “it feels scary.” The person may reply “Yes. I don’t like feeling attacked.” The client could notice that with the protection of their arm against their heart comes the thought “I need to protect myself from being criticized.” A childhood memory of being with a parent and sibling may emerge where they felt singled out and disciplined harshly. The person may be surprised to realize that they habitually protect their heart with their arm. This happens when they feel vulnerable and cannot negotiate their needs and safely implement their boundaries (Petersen, S. Summer 2006). A person makes meaning from their experience as they witness their body movements, sensations, thoughts and emotions. This includes understanding that their feelings of loneliness stem from a difficulty relating to people outside of a professional environment without professional boundaries to keep them feeling safe. They may also be fearful of hurting their partner verbally in an attempt to protect themselves. Fisher writes that everyone has psychological places that they have been trained to stay away from such as feeling angry, vulnerable, sexual, affectionate, impulsive, dependent and powerful (Fisher, R. Summer 2007). Author Kate Figes says issues of power and powerlessness can become the emotional currency between a couple rather than a loving respect for each other’s autonomy when they have had early emotional difficulties and deep disappointments in love (Figes, K. 2010).
Fisher says many of the difficulties in a couple’s relationship stems from the interaction of one person’s defenses with the other person’s defenses (Fisher, R. Summer 2007). Hakomi and Sensorimotor psychotherapy are in favour of supporting the client’s defenses because by doing so their defensive system relaxes and feels sympathized with. The client feels like you are on their ‘side’ much like an ally. The feeling the person is trying to protect feels safe enough to emerge without force. This is how the therapist is able to gain the cooperation of the client’s unconscious (Fisher, R. Summer 2007).
In the above example the client can participate in an experiment where a pillow can be placed over their heart in a technique known as ‘taking over’. The pillow does what their arm was doing but with conscious attention. In a state of mindfulness the client can relax and feel what the cushion seems to be saying to their heart. The client becomes aware of a need to feel safe in intimate relationships. From this experiment the client becomes conscious of a decision they made as a child that in life “I have to be strong and aloof to protect my heart from being hurt by people.” A transformative moment in therapy occurs when the client gets in touch with their long held grief and sadness stemming from their desire to be in a relationship that is equal, mutually respectful, intimate and where it is safe to be emotionally vulnerable. Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk says this is good grief because the client is in contact with their true needs and the loss of them and this is where transformation can occur.
As the client’s knowledge about themselves increases from their live experience, a new understanding forms realizing they are not always sure when nourishment is toxic or healthy to receive in a relationship. With childhood memories surfacing of being pressured and pushed around or depended upon, love and nurturing to them seemed to come at a price of giving up their freedom to be themselves. It is beneficial to reflect back to the client their thoughts, feelings and body sensations as they have an experience of what it is like to feel genuinely understood in the client-therapist relationship.
A client can feel supported in having their own feelings while being in contact with another person. They can learn to be able to stay with their true self even while they are with others. For example the therapist could say to the client “what happens when you look at me? Do you feel in contact? What happens when you connect more? What do you feel in your body?” The client may say “usually I go inside myself, but now I’m coming out and meeting you and I’m still connected to myself.” The therapist may say “you missed being your true self and you weren’t supported and given the choice to truly be here.” New growth can emerge as the person learns to communicate in a relaxed manner without needing to perform for their partner. They notice now when relating with their partner that internally their breath slows and deepens and they are able to be open rather than protecting themselves. Psychiatrist Roberta Gilbert says when you develop higher levels of differentiation or maturity, not only is there more choice between thinking, feeling and behaving, but your self-boundaries are more intact. Psychiatrist Murray Bowen wrote more on differentiating, and said “if you can get a one-to-one relationship with each living person in your extended family, it will help you ‘grow up’ more than anything else you could ever do in your life” (Gilbert, R. 1992). In psychotherapy we are helping the client to update their internal files to a newer model of adult maturity. This can include learning to take the time to really listen to your internal self as well as outwardly listen to your partner with your body and mind.
Learning to listen to your partner’s feelings is an integral component of intimacy (Fisher, R. Hakomi News May 2007). When this happens there can be a subtle readjustment of your whole body and facial posture enabling a more available style of relating with the absence of shame (Kipnis, A. & Heron, E.). Author and psychotherapist John Welwood writes “the only thing that separates us from this larger presence is our tendency to turn away from our experience or shroud ourselves in the clouds of defensiveness (Welwood, J. 2006). It is not uncommon for people in relationships to enter therapy feeling chronically under acknowledged by their partners. It can be tremendously healing to invite clients with honesty to experiment with praising their partners. Being able to take in this nourishment is what makes it possible for couples to stand in their authenticity and simultaneously develop compassion and understanding for the person they are in a relationship with.
1. Figes, K. (2010) What Really Goes on Inside Other People’s Relationships, Couples the Truth.
2. Fisher, R. (2002) Experiential Psychotherapy with Couples, a Guide for the Creative Pragmatist.
3. Fisher, R. (Summer 2007) Experiential Psychotherapy with Couples: a Guide for the Creative Pragmatist in the Hakomi Forum – Issue 18.
4. Fisher, R. Working Experientially and Somatically with Couples in Hakomi News Issue 16 May 2007.
5. Gilbert, R. M. (1992) Extraordinary Relationships, a New Way of Thinking About Human Interactions.
6. Kipnis, A. & Herron, E. (1995) What Women & Men Reality Want, Creating Deeper Understanding & Love in Our Relationships.
7. Kurtz, R. (1990) Body-Centered Psychotherapy, The Hakomi Method.
8. Morgan, M. (2008) The Book of Character.
9. Petersen, S. (Summer 2006) How Do I Listen? Applying Body Psychotherapy Principles and Skills in Manual and Movement Therapy.
10. Welwood, J. (2006) Perfect Love Imperfect Relationships, Healing the Wound of the Heart.
Tessa’s genuine and empathic human qualities encouraging and was surprised to find I could naturally open up and re-connect with myself. I can now be with my partner with greater honesty.
Thank you for showing me a way to see and feel other ways. You have helped change my life and I’ll always remember you.
I have been pleasantly surprised to find how quickly I've been able to unblock emotional blocks from my childhood. I feel more connected with my partner.
I now feel surprisingly light and at a stage of acceptance where I'm ready to move on. I'm treating myself more kindly. I am grateful to you for helping me feel stronger much quickly than I thought I would.
Tessa embodies her compassionate nature and ability to be fully present with her clients. Tessa helped me be in the present moment, to listen to my intuitive wisdom, step into my personal power and be kinder to myself. Invaluable outcomes include witnessing my capacity as a therapist continue to blossom, and my ability to connect with my wife with presence and depth increase is very much cherished.