When you empathically hear what a client’s body is saying and the client knows you’re right there meeting this body experience and having compassion for the difficulty behind it, the pain often begins to transform. It may sometimes deepen into an emotional release, in which held tears and choked-back sobs emerge, or the emotional distress naturally finds some peace.
Step 3: Listen to what pain or wound is being held in the body. At this point, the armor or guarding that occurs around the painful emotion will have started to melt, so the body is ready to speak its truth, to reveal the pain or wound that needs support and healing. To invite the body to speak, there are two key questions to ask:
1. What’s the message contained within the felt sense of the embodied emotion?
2. What else does the emotional body need?
When we ask a client’s heavy heart what its message is, why it’s here, we may get a response like, “The message is I’m deeply sad, and I’m here because I feel betrayed.” Or when we ask a client’s twisted gut what its message is, it may say, “I’m really frightened, and I’m here because my husband blows up in anger at times.”
These may be messages that a client has already reported to you, but the key difference with this approach is that you’ve helped the emotion be felt within the body, in the here and now, with you as a therapist who’s present as the client touches the pain. Just as you offered an “I hear you” when the body spoke in step 1, you can offer another “I hear you” here. Nonverbal acknowledgments, such as a nod of the head, a soft smile, or compassionate eyes can speak louder than words when they emerge from your heart.
At this point, once the body has spoken its truth, there can be a sense of completion with the process. Your clients will feel deeply heard and reconnected to themselves. However, you can pursue one more step if you’d like. This step helps regulate whatever remaining distress may be present as your clients uncover what their emotional body needs and then envision this need actually being met. This step involves saying something like “Now that you’ve heard the message from your body, ask it what it needs. Maybe it’s safety, love, understanding. Check in and see.”
Often messages—like “I need protection” or “I need to be held” or “I need love”—will emerge, at which point you want to help your clients visualize this need being met right now. You might say something like “Imagine that need being satisfied right now. Bring to mind a person, whether alive or passed away, real or imagined. Whoever or whatever it is, what’s important is that you receive a response that feels as if it answers your need. Maybe they hold you, or say something like ‘I care about you.’ Maybe it’s your golden retriever who nestles up with you and just loves you. Having heard the message from your body just a moment ago and having felt the body-sense of this emotion, notice how it now feels to have your need be satisfied. Notice if your body experience shifts, changes, transforms.”
The key is that your clients feel what it’s like in their body to receive what they need. This may take a real commitment to visualize something that could feel foreign at first as they work on an old trauma that was triggered by a current life situation.
If this is the case, I’ll often say something like “This place of fear that deeply needs safety and protection may not know that it’s really available, since it wasn’t back then, so have the adult part of you come forward to give the child part of you the safety it needs. Who do you know that can be with it now?”
A deep sense of relief, satisfaction, or well-being will often emerge here, since your clients have gained a new wisdom about what they need in life. They’re now empowered with the knowledge of what they need, as well as the body sense of how good it feels to receive it. In this way, you can provide clients with a new way of breaking old habits and stuck patterns, as well as a new means of communicating with the wisdom of their bodies.
Ultimately, through this process, the felt sense of the emotion can be acknowledged and supported in expressing itself in a bottom-up way that clients’ cognitive minds can hear.
Daniel Leven, RSMT, is founder and director of Leven Institute for Expressive Movement and a faculty member at Hartford Family Institute professional training program in Body-Centered Gestalt Psychotherapy. He offers his training and workshops at the Kripalu Center and at the New York Open Center. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org