Therapy is not all about talking about the past, as many incorrectly assume. Rather, the psychotherapist’s goal is to work with the client in the here and now, while both therapist and client observe how past experiences inform the present moment. Psychotherapy works best when the past is being re-experienced in the present, in a safe and non-judgmental space. It is not about just talking about the past, but feeling the accompanying body sensations and emotions as fully as possible, and experiencing the energy and dynamics of the relationship between the therapist and client. As the client-therapist relationship grows, and the client is able to trust the therapist to maintain a safe environment, the client can re-experience the past more fully, and can then learn from and heal past wounds and transform the present.
For example, a client I will call “Joan” came to see me after the death of her father. Joan’s grief process was complicated by the difficult relationship she had with her father. It soon became apparent that Joan had a hard time in relationships with others, including me, as a result of her father’s domineering and controlling personality and her resulting lack of trust in herself and others. Joan’s lack of a sense of safety and trust was apparent in our sessions together and in the dynamics of our relationship. Joan constantly questioned my motives and often threatened to quit therapy. She would get inordinately angry when she felt I was not listening to her, and resisted seeing her father as anything but perfect.
I knew from my own work that fear of judgment and abandonment are also core issues for me, as they are for many people. As a result, it was difficult for me to stay present with Joan, especially when she threatened to leave or criticized me. I often felt like I was walking on eggshells with Joan, afraid to say or do something that would set her off. I found myself becoming defensive, and tended to retreat into intellectual theories, trying to sound smart and look good. When I was able to slow down, take a breath, simply observe my experience and not react, I was able to choose a more authentic and skillful approach to my work with Joan.
I knew that staying with Joan’s experience of pain and confusion, and being a calm, compassionate and consistent presence in the face of her anger and threats, were the keys to helping Joan heal. This was a long and exhausting process for both of us. Joan finally came to realize that I wasn’t going to abandon her, no matter how much she fought to keep me at a distance. As Joan gradually felt safe opening up to me, she was able to acknowledge that her father was not perfect, and that he did not provide her with a sense of safety and security in the world. Like me, Joan tended to retreat into intellectualizing and analyzing, asking me “why” I thought her father was that way, and “why” she reacted the way she did. Joan would revert to over-intellectualizing and anger when her pain and vulnerability felt too raw and scary for her.
Giving Joan intellectual answers to her “why questions” was not what she needed. Instead, I continued to work on my ability to stay present and open with Joan, and we worked together on enhancing Joan’s ability to stay present and open with me. I encouraged Joan to notice when her anxiety with me increased and what triggers led to her urge to lash out. We focused on what she felt in her body: where the anxiety manifested physically, and what her body was telling her when she became anxious.
Staying in the body is a great way to directly experience the here and now. We Westerners tend to believe that our thoughts and mental processes are of more value than our bodies, but our bodies are far more useful in helping us access the truth. Joan eventually was able to get out of her head and into her body. She learned that she experienced tightness in her stomach when she became anxious. I asked her to fully experience that sensation by describing its shape, color, texture, temperature and other features. When Joan had a clear experience of that, I asked Joan what the sensations in her stomach were telling her. She saw that the message from her body was “run away, fight back. If you let yourself open up and be vulnerable, you’ll be attacked. You’re not safe.”
Joan’s increased ability to stay present in her body provided a number of important tools for her. She was able to tap into that feeling more quickly, and with a sense of curiosity instead of immediately striking back in a vain attempt to avoid her pain, anxiety and fear. The more quickly Joan could feel that sensation, the more she was able to choose whether she really needed to fight back, or to breathe into the sensations and allow herself to open up. As Joan started to open up, her awareness became more panoramic. She was able to slow down and experience the ebb and flow of energy between her and those she interacts with, and was more able to read others’ body language as well as her own in order to more ably attend to what was needed in that very instant. Working together in the here and now of the therapy session, Joan and I have co-created a workable and authentic relationship.
One of the many gifts of therapy is what I learn from my clients, and my work with Joan made me realize that I must remain vigilant in staying open despite my fear of being judged or left. I became aware that when I felt Joan was about to attack me or denigrate what I would say, I felt a quickening my heart pound. I learned to breathe into that feeling and was more able to be present with Joan. As I became more authentic and vulnerable with Joan, she felt safe to be authentic and vulnerable with me. We can now appreciate each other and our shared humanity more fully, despite our pain and confusion at times.
Joan still has a long way to go to heal her shame and fear. The more Joan is able to stay with me in the present moment, the more she is able to do so in all of her personal and professional relationships. Joan is learning to slow down and open her heart to others without fear, and to be open to all that is available to her in the present moment.