Loneliness: a Body Psychotherapy Perspective
What can a deep and persistent feeling of loneliness tell us about a client’s inner world? How might we think about our role as therapist when working with an isolated client? To mark the start of Mental Health Awareness Week 2022, body psychotherapist and author Kathrin Stauffer shares her take on the theme of loneliness – and explains how both physical and non-physical contact can help is enquire into the nature of our client’s isolation.
Loneliness is a subjective experience. As a therapist I have learned to take it seriously when my clients say they feel lonely, and not to try and argue that I’m here and making good contact and giving them unconditional positive regard, so how can they be lonely. Rather, this statement tells me that my client can’t feel me being there, and can’t receive my affectionate feelings or my empathic presence.
Most people feel lonely sometimes and sometimes not; for a minority, loneliness is a feeling that pervades all of their lives. It is important to acknowledge that these people haven’t done anything to deserve their loneliness and usually don’t need to ‘just’ learn social skills in order to get better. There is always a reason for the loneliness, and therapy is there to help understand this reason. Moreover, I consider it to be my task to find, and contact as far as I can, such a client in their loneliness. To guide me, I have an experience of a therapist finding me and how the feeling of being found laid the foundation stone for being able to leave this all-consuming state of loneliness behind most of the time.
When somebody has a deep and persistent sense of loneliness, I may speculate about their history that has created this isolation. Often there is a lack of Attachment in the early period of their life so that their internal working model of the world becomes ‘I am on my own, there is nobody there for me’. Once such an internal working model is established, it can be almost impossible to overwrite.
There are other possibilities: the person may have been parentified to the point where they can only ever give and never receive. This is also a state of desperate loneliness, and sadly many therapists suffer from it. Or good contact may have been, at some period in the person’s past, impossible to separate from invasion or abuse, so that it just becomes too dangerous. In such a case, loneliness is a gift and means that just for now, there isn’t anybody there who can hurt me or confiscate me in some way.
In body psychotherapy, we pay a lot of attention to the quality of contact. We do this by noticing how we feel as well as being alert to how the client feels. We do not ever take it for granted that when we make contact, this will be experienced by the client as contact and as a good experience. Rather, how the client experiences what feels to us like contact becomes itself the subject of a therapeutic inquiry, and a source of information about the client’s inner world. Contact for me may feel like invasion for another person, or it may feel like nothing at all if the other person is used to more forceful contact.
This kind of inquiry needs to happen both for physical contact and also for non-physical contact.
In the case of physical contact (touch), it is perhaps easier to experiment with different kinds of contact and get a sense of what good contact is going to be in the relationship between me and a particular client. When I touch a client, I may get a sense of being met, a sense of ‘yes’ to the contact. Or I may experience a sense of withdrawal, or a sense of freezing, or a sense of being pushed away, be it ever so slight or indirect. Most people are able to experience these differences if they focus on the quality of the contact.
Body psychotherapists take these qualities of contact as a measure for how a client is able to make and allow contact with others or not. They can help us understand the inner world of the client better and also help us communicate this understanding to the client in a form that the client can make use of. In this way, touch becomes an experiment that does not in itself ‘heal’ the client but serves as an instrument for fine-tuning the way that I can reach the client and make contact with them in their loneliness.