The Body Isn’t Just Another Therapeutic Tool
Body-oriented approaches used to be seen as the whacky fringe. Now, many therapeutic approaches are taking somatic processes seriously. But, suggests Michael Soth, there is a vast difference between ‘having’ a body and ‘being’ a body, between ‘using’ our bodies and ‘inhabiting’ them. To work effectively with the body, he argues, we must be mindful of the conflicted relationship between psyche and soma, and of the external relational dynamics between client and therapist.
The last 20 years have seen an increasing recognition of the significance of the body in the talking therapies. Partly inspired by modern neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology, many therapeutic approaches are now taking right-brain and body processes seriously, especially in terms of non-verbal communication, interactive regulation and ‘implicit relational knowing’. The somatic trauma therapies in particular have seen a surge in credibility and popularity, based upon their effectiveness in addressing the hyper- and hypo-arousal states fuelling trauma symptoms directly, without getting lost in the verbal narrative.
These developments throughout the discipline must be welcome to those of us who have been working towards the embodiment of the talking therapies since the 1980’s, when body-oriented approaches were seen as the weird and whacky fringe.
Re-integrating the body
However, as I have suggested previously (Soth 2010), re-integrating the body after it has been excluded from psychotherapy for 100 years is not a smooth affair: “Are we doing justice to the body (the spontaneous, vibrant, alive body that we had in mind all along, as the embodied ground of a subjective sense of self) when that body is becoming another therapeutic ‘tool’?”
In a culture where the body is already suffering alienation as a narcissistic fashion accessory, we want to be sensitive to the distinction between objectifying and subjectifying psychotherapeutic interventions. There is a fundamental philosophical gulf and paradigm clash between ‘having’ a body and ‘using’ it versus ‘being’ a body and ‘inhabiting’ it.
Recent attempts to include the body in psychotherapy, in their urge to be ‘effective’, often seem to lack historical awareness of the origins of body-oriented psychotherapy and its roots in Reich’s challenge to Cartesian dualism. When we bypass these underlying paradigm issues, we often fail to ask the question: “effective for what?”; “whom (or what aspect of the psyche) does it serve?”
Without deeper investigation of the ‘hard problem’ – i.e. the relationship between ‘body’ and ‘mind’ within a context of degrees of disembodiment as a default given for many of us – techniques which attempt to just simply graft the body onto established talking therapy practice are bound to remain haphazard, limited and ultimately counterproductive.
‘Using’ the body as a therapeutic tool or technique, however impactful and effective in and of itself, often nudges the therapist towards a relationally oblivious one-person psychology doctor-expert stance, unless it is complemented by an awareness of the unconscious meanings, transferential implications and relational vicissitudes which are potentially enacted via body-oriented interventions. To work effectively with the body, we must be mindful of the relational dynamics occurring simultaneously in two dimensions: the external (interpersonal, horizontal) relational stance we find ourselves taking as therapists in relation to the client’s internal (intrapsychic, vertical) always already conflicted relationship between body and mind.
Habitual internal conflict and the bodymind system
Before intervening into the complexity of the bodymind system, we need to understand its underlying conflictedness – the way mind and body are trapped in an antagonistic and oppositional dynamic characterised by repression and dissociation. Otherwise, well-intentioned techniques can easily backfire and lead to therapeutic ruptures and enactments.
Over the last 85 years, the body-oriented tradition has generated a multitude of powerful techniques, accessing, facilitating, following, amplifying and working with spontaneous processes in the bodymind. But their effectiveness depends crucially on two containing relational factors: an appreciation of both the internal and the external relational system as the context within which a therapeutic intervention occurs and is delivered and is being received.
Any technique we use needs to be embedded in…
1. A bodymind understanding of the external client-therapist interaction as a ‘relational container’ which can break and rupture via enactment; and…
2. An appreciation that we are intervening into a complex bodymind matrix of internal relationships, the inner world of the client’s internal objects.
We need to take into account that these two relational universes – the internal and the external – will become conflated and mixed up with each other through unconscious processes such as transference, projections, introjections and projective identifications. These processes will give multiple unintended ‘meanings’ to our interventions, and make their effects unpredictable.
By bringing together the bodymind expertise of the body-oriented tradition and the relational expertise of both humanistic and psychoanalytic traditions, we can develop a 21st century embodied-relational way of working that views the whole client-therapist relationship as a complex bodymind intersubjective system (see this graphic for a summary of this re-integration of the traditions).
Rather than a meeting of minds, we are involved in an encounter between two bodyminds, both with spontaneous/involuntary and reflective/voluntary impulses and faculties, creating a dance and dialogue across the physical, emotional, imaginal and mental dimensions of experience.
The Embodiment of Relational Stances, Spaces & Modalities, a series of workshop weekends led by Michael Soth, will take place in Devon on the 14th and 15th of September 2019, and the 8th and 9th of February 2020.