Somatic Psychology

Writing about this topic is one that has me just as frustrated as when someone asks me to tell them about the Forum (originally EST and now known as Landmark Education).  There are some things in life that you learn about but you find it is really difficult to explain.  If I were to teach it, I would need to immerse myself in the textbooks all over again and I still would have a hard time properly advising students in an academic setting.  Some things are just better left to intuition from my individual experience with the client.

Somatic experience is how we breathe or hold our breath, how we hold ourselves.  There is a spectrum between rigid and collapsed with which everyone stands, walks, moves and lives.  When my teacher told me this the first time at JFKU, I couldn’t figure our which side I was on.  This is because I think I am rigid, which means holding my body erect and strong, because I am aware of the shield I put around myself spiritually to protect.  However, as many of us survivors of abuse do tend to put up fronts, we are very collapsed and this is the way others will often see us.  I work on the body posture and how I and others hold themselves in therapy.  The goal is not to become the opposite.  The goal is to be conscious of this process and to grow from the experience. 

A supervisor at work would get on me all the time about sitting up straight in my chair.  It really bothered him that I was so hunched over my keyboard when I typed court reports for my clients, as a social worker with Children’s Protective Services.  I completed this sentence so that you could imagine how easy it would be to collapse onto a keyboard when you are writing about abuse, violence, neglect, and speaking about the horrors imposed upon children.  There is a comfort found in collapsing.  The body is letting go, to protect us from the pain that we are dealing with.  Our body is nurturing us in the way we have unconsciously groomed it. 

Some people (we would naturally think of cocky men) have kept their postures strong and tall, very tight, very rigid.  Though these people are both men and women because the body is not sexist.  Rigid men are heroes, players, playboys and rigid women are bitches.  On the opposite spectrum, others tend to collapse and we generally look at them as victims.  Collapsed women we feel sorry for and men we call wimps.  In psychotherapy, I don’t see my clients as anything other than people who have requested my support.  I see it as a challenge to honor this request and hope that I can do something to help them feel better.

Back to the chair at work, the image I gave you of being collapsed over my keyboard.  If you are collapsed and try to sit up straight, as I would when the supervisor brought it to my attention, you will generally feel pain in your back.  This is because my body posture has formed over time and I cannot just “snap” it back into “shape,” as the cliché goes.  Neither can a very rigid person just “let their hair down.”  Naturally, I don’t try to “fix” someone in therapy either. 

Instead, I try to look at their breathing and holding patterns.  There I go again, going right back to the beginning of this blog post.  This is why it is hard to understand.  The way we have grown as human beings can’t be fixed but it can be healed through a conscious process —- slowly.

So I request of my clients to do homework.  “Think about your breath this week.  See where you might find yourself holding it.  What are you doing when this happens?”  Answers might be, “When I am having sex with my partner.”  But it might also be a simple as “When I am talking on the phone with my mom.”  Finding out this one simple answer helps to begin the process of healing our mind and our reaction to the things we deal with in the world.  The client might have come in to deal with job stress and we find that there is sex stress instead.  Or there might be problems with the partner and we learn that there is an unresolved conflict with the mother.  Our body does a good job of teaching us what we don’t want to say or are have blocked out.

I observe how people sit in therapy.  Sexual abuse victims will sometimes sit with their arms and legs crossed.  Anything to protect their body.  I have worked with young male victims who want to be unclean to keep people away from them.  The goal is not to clean them up and un-cross their bodies but to help them talk about what happened and watch as their body begins to unfold.  Sometimes quite literally.  It won’t stay this way but for some moments they are able to awaken and take a breath of fresh air.

The body can change just as we can re-form our attitudes and behaviors.  This is a timeless process that depends on the person and what they are ready to cope with.   Right now, I am erect in my chair and feel quite comfortable.  I can walk standing very tall at times, depending on how I feel, but other times, I revert back to the slumped down look.   The answer is not about walking tall but dealing with the conflict.  This is an ongoing process.  Since I have been working on my own personal growth for many years, I have learned that you can let go of the past over time but it will always be there. 

As a child, I felt rigid because I imagined myself a robot, doing what I was told, excepting what I had no control over.  Photos show me to be someone who was in charge but then we were supposed to stand up straight for the camera and smile! In my 20’s, I had extreme forms of post-traumatic stress disorder.  I was in such fear all the time. I walked tall and had a huge ego, in retrospect I have often thought I was a different person.  In my 30’s, I began to understand what PTSD was and slowly found that the symptoms disappeared and I collapsed more. Ironically, my physical health showed changes as I let go of the symptoms that protected me.  In my 40’s, I know what happened to me in my life but it is as if it were another lifetime.  I am still in contact with some of the people who caused this early damage but I am not a victim to them.  My health is good as I began to take control of it, but of course now I am dealing with older women symptoms, which is another story.  I have no idea what I will say ten years from now as I end my 50’s and go into my 60’s, but I am excited to learn this answer. I can only share my lifetime experience because I don’t work with clients for more than a few weeks to a few years.  As all well-known theorists in psychology have done, we revert to our own life to learn and teach.

In fact some forms of psychotherapy were from the depths of someone’s crisis as they tried to make sense of it.  Feldenkreis, a healing movement class that can be taken by trained teachers around the world, was developed by a man who was dealing with a seriously wounded knee that caused him to have to learn to walk again.  Viktor Fankl taught us about logotherapy and gave us an understanding about being a survivor after having been in several concentration camps including Auschwitz.  Whereas Wilhelm Reich was a lifelong experimenter in understanding the body and he is the first person attributed to pioneering the somatic psychology field.

I am not sure when the term Mind/Body/Soul, is it one or separate began to come into the public’s consciousness.  For me it would be at JFKU when my colleagues and I began having discussions about this in our study of body psychotherapy.  I first learned about it through metaphysics in the 80’s, but intellectualizing something and really having a sense of it are two different things.  I studied yoga from the time I was 15 years old watching Lilias, Yoga and you here in Columbus, Ohio on PBS/WOSU.  Prior to this I was fascinated with gymnastics and ballet.  However, I did not entirely understand the body and my postures until I began my graduate program in somatic psychology.  I knew you were supposed to breathe while doing the postures but it didn’t connect for me the real importance of it all.  Again, I was having PTSD symptoms for quite a long time, some still lingering into my late 30’s.

The mind/body/soul are one and this is not a debate.  You cannot chop up the three and have separate humans.  In psychotherapy, I am holistic, which means I look at all facets of the human being.  Their home environment, their religion/spirituality, culture/ethnicity, society they fit into or class, and their level of understanding about themselves and the world around them.  Everything that has shaped us is being presented to the world in the form of a body that I see in therapy.  Our worldviews are what we speak from, what I hear in therapy.  Our ethics and values, past lives come from our soul, some of which I come to realize in therapy.  Thus somatic psychotherapy is not an exact science but a theory, as it is with all modalities in psychology practice.  It is hard to explain as a result and because with each client and even with myself, I learn more and more each day.


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