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|Brain to Brain - Page 5|
Bettina, a 40-year-old woman diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, enters my office. Week after week, the content of her communication is the manifold deficiencies of her therapist, me: I'm not available enough, I don't care enough, I try to teach her things (rather than empathize with her pain), I don't sit close enough to her, I don't call her back between sessions in a timely manner when she's upset. She complains that there's never time to talk about her feelings—without recognizing that we spend most of our time talking about her anger at me! I notice that, even as I usher her into the office, my body is tense and pulled in. When we sit down, she points out that I've moved my chair back and away from her. My jaw is tight, and I feel defensive. My boundary muscles (the muscles across the midriff and down the sides) are tightly engaged—or "armored," as we say in Sensorimotor Psychotherapy.
Determined not to get led into a struggle with her, as I have in countless sessions, I deliberately relax my body as I feel it tensing in response to her criticism. It takes effort, but I begin to feel a new sense of lightness and freedom. I unexpectedly find myself laughing as she complains that I'm rigid. "Poor Bettina!" I say, "I'm truly a nightmare as a therapist for you, aren't I? You poor thing! I don't know how you put up with me." She relaxes slightly, and a tiny smile plays on her face. "I don't know how I put up with you either. I'm glad you appreciate that," she responds.
Although my body tenses slightly at that last remark, I relax it again. More words come to me spontaneously: "It's just too bad that you came to me at this stage of my career: I'm pretty set now in my ways of doing psychotherapy. I'm an old dog that can't learn new tricks, and it's so hard on you." Now we're both smiling and laughing.
The rest of the session proceeds smoothly. Both our bodies are relaxed, and there's a sense of connection between us, the kind of connection for which she yearns. I remind myself to pay more attention to my bodily responses than to her words next week. I'm aware of feeling warmth toward Bettina that's both new and refreshing.
Neurobiological regulation in psychotherapy requires right-brain-to-right-brain communication. It requires therapists to attend more closely to the impact of words and body language on clients' nervous systems and somatic experiences. My brilliant words will fail to be heard if I dysregulate the client as I utter them. Instead of overattending to clients' stories, I've learned that I must pay equal or greater attention to clients' nervous systems and bodily communications. This is an art that most of us instinctively express when we relate to babies and small children, as I did with Ruby, or when we play with a puppy or scratch a kitten's tummy. Without conscious thought, we experiment with the language and body language that engages small, sentient, sometimes furry, beings until they respond positively. Why not bring that intuitive ability into the office?
Janina Fisher, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and instructor at the Trauma Center in Boston. She's a faculty member of the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute, an EMDR consultant, and a former instructor at the Harvard Medical School. Contact: email@example.com; website: www.janinafisher.com. Tell us what you think about this article by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at www.psychotherapynetworker.org. Log in and you'll find the comment section on every page of the online Magazine section.