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Case Study

Dancing with the Unconscious: An approach Freud never dreamed of

By Rob Fisher

As I opened the door to my office for our first appointment, Jane said a curt hello before I could greet her, and walked in ahead of me. There was a soldierly rigidness to her gait that immediately left me feeling a bit shut out. She greeted my smile with a slight scowl as she told me, without preamble, what had brought her to therapy: she was tired of being so alone in her life.

“Even when I’m with my husband, I’m alone,” she said. She’d tried talk therapies and appreciated the insight she’d gained, but added, “I just keep doing the same things I’ve always done to push people away from me.”

At 57 and a successful physician in a small town, she found herself returning to her house in the evenings to watch TV alone, while her husband tinkered in the garage. She routinely rebuffed kindly overtures of support from others without really knowing why—which enabled her to say, truthfully, that she got “very little help from anyone.” For instance, before dinner was complete, she’d jump up from the table and wash the dishes, feeling resentful as she preempted her husband’s help. She was almost entirely unconscious of the implicit, but ironclad, rules that dominated her somatic and emotional life.

She spoke with an air of independence, giving me the distinct impression that she suspected that I’d be only marginally useful to her, if at all. Her straight posture, stiff carriage, and severe mouth communicated—more than her words could—that she was struggling to rely only on herself.

As typically happens with clients in a first session, taking in Jane’s verbal pace, body language, and facial expressions, I found myself formulating some initial questions about the formative experiences and inner templates that had shaped her approach to life and her habit of removing herself from contact. What must her world be like that she walks with such purpose and doesn’t respond to my smile? What happened to her that made it a good idea for her to act so tough? I wondered.

Accessing Implicit Knowledge

The approach that guides my work, Hakomi Mindfulness Based Experiential Psychology, is a method originally developed by Ron Kurtz that draws on sources as diverse as Psychoanalysis, Bioenergetics, Gestalt Therapy, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Focusing, body work (including the Feldenkrais Method), Buddhism, and Taoism. Hakomi gently and safely encourages clients to use the power of their present emotional and somatic experience to explore the unconscious models of reality that dictate how they live and engage in relationships. It relies on body-based mindfulness as a primary tool to explore the implicit beliefs that organize life experiences and to address the attachment injuries that shape our emotional realities. People are adept at using words to dissemble, but the body is far more direct in communicating our inner states to those who are willing to listen. Through the way we move and hold ourselves, we reveal the internalized working models of our worlds and rules of self-conduct that are encoded in our brains, governing our behavior, perceptions, and feelings.

One such implicit rule Jane had learned early in life was never to rely on others. In her worldview, nobody could be trusted to give her what she needed or wanted. Her dismissive style and rigid posture were part of a self-reliant character strategy designed to protect her from the wounds of massive disappointment—not needing or depending on others was an attempt to save her from further injury. As I watched her caught in the tyranny of her toughness, I saw that, while she knew how to be strong, she didn’t know how to be connected to people. In some ways, her strategy of insulation was functional, but it was overused: it had become a life sentence of separation. Part of the job of therapy, as was apparent early on, was to make her somatically held knowledge consciously available to her, to then provide experiences in the present that would challenge her self-limiting beliefs, and, finally, to offer new options for perception and behavior.

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