By Jen Sermoneta, with Deborah Fox and Tom Holman
Sometimes there’s a kind of heavy deadness in the therapy room. Usually it passes gradually and almost invisibly. But, occasionally, the mood shifts more suddenly into a vibrant feeling of coming alive.
We asked members to tell us about moments when the relationship came alive. Here are three responses.
Deborah Fox writes,
A couple is struggling with their sexual relationship. The subject at hand this session is that Kay invites Jim into sexual encounters in a not-very-inviting way. She tends to look at her watch and say, ‘Hmm . . . I guess we’d better do this, our session is tomorrow.’ She’s been hard-pressed to be able to be more ‘inviting’ or to figure out why it’s so hard for her. She knows Jim would be receptive. So, as she tells me about it, it’s a shoulder shrug kind of vibe. She then cocks her head, chin down, and mumbles something I can’t remember. Having completed a year of Somatic Experiencing training, I feel an uptick in my energy because I suspect her head movement has significance and perhaps could open up an emotional path. ‘Would you put your head in that position again,’ I say, followed by, ‘As you’re holding your head in that position, what do you notice/what comes to mind?’ Very quickly she responds, ‘I’m feeling like I did when I was mocked by my older brothers.’ I feel excited at the possibility of opening this emotional door, wherever it may lead. We then take a deeper dive into how vulnerable it makes her feel to open herself up to approach her husband in a soft or sexy or fun manner.
Here, Deborah describes how her attunement to a movement of the body leads to an embodied memory. This works like a key to unlock Kay’s ability to consciously connect to her own puzzling behavior. As I read Deborah’s description and try-on Kay’s gesture, I feel shame, subservience, and a desire to escape pain or danger. But Deborah notes that “we can’t interpret any particular body movement (even though we may be tempted to!) at the likely risk of having an agenda that’s not helpful. Instead, simply observing and then following a body movement or gesture can give us access to emotional experience and healing that is ‘beneath’ words or consciousness.”
In a separate example, an anonymous member writes:
Jordana comes in feeling ‘distracted’ and ‘agitated’ by pain and stressors, looking very droopy, and clearly not feeling connected to me or our work. She says, “It’s all getting in the way of working.” I make a few unsuccessful attempts to empathize, explore, and embrace her experience, but she still looks flat and distant.
Then I feel sad, and maybe something shifts in me. As if also reassuring myself I say explicitly, ‘Do you know Kafka’s story about the leopard? The leopard keeps showing up at church, so they make him part of the service. It’s totally okay with me if your agitation, distraction, and pain are a big part of our work.’ Her eyes suddenly focus brightly on mine, she sits up straight and strong, smiles at her realization, and says, ‘I have so much anger!’ We connect, the session flows, and we easily explore her anguish: she doesn’t feel her medical team is helping her enough, but simultaneously feels ‘bad’ for that anguish, as if she were ‘being too demanding’ and ‘shouldn’t act spoiled.’ The combination of feeling neglected, but also guilty for feeling it, had resulted in feelings of stuck anger and pain.
In this example, Jordana did not seem to experience the therapist’s first attempts at empathy and reflection as being true permission to explore or hold her troubling feelings; they seemed to feel more like an attempt to solve her feelings. Once the therapist shifted internally and Jordana heard, both implicitly and explicitly, that her feelings were welcome to take up space she could use their time together to articulate and explore them.
A third member, Tom Holman, describes how “vulnerability and humanity” vitalized his relationship with residents in a psychiatric program.
In the 1970’s, between undergraduate and graduate schools, I worked at a psychiatric halfway house. The work included two 24-hour shifts per week. The program’s 20 or so residents mostly had diagnoses of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Almost all had been hospitalized at least once, some for very long periods of time. I was not a therapist, but someone who helped the residents go through their everyday lives in as healthy a fashion as possible. I didn’t know much about psychology or psychotherapy. I was aware of Freud’s book, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, and, during that time, I thought of writing a companion piece, “The Everyday Life of Psychopathology.” In so many respects, their everyday lives were not so different from mine. While they were all quite ill, sometimes suicidal or psychotic, I got to know them in a way that a therapist would not. Although some could be scary at times, I liked them, and liked some of them a great deal.
One of my duties involved the evening meal: helping the residents prepare dinner; eating dinner with them and socializing; and helping them clean up. At one of these dinners, I had an experience that I never want to forget. Dinner was in full swing, and a young woman was complaining of having a painful ear infection. I remarked that, with ear infections, it was important for the fallopian tubes to drain. At this the whole room burst into laughter. I remember being mortified, and blushing to some vivid shade of red. I smiled sheepishly, and what could I say after that? A whole room full of mentally ill people were laughing at me, and, well, who wouldn’t laugh at that Freudian slip? The psychopathology of my everyday life had met the everyday life of psychopathology. After I accepted the laughter and a little ribbing with good grace, the episode was over. I was grateful that no one teased me afterwards or took advantage of my humiliation. They might even have liked me a little more after that. My ‘alive’ moment came in realizing our common humanity, in understanding the necessity and benefit of being vulnerable.”
In Tom’s case, his being human and fallible, and the benign absurdity of his small mistake, contribute to a shared experience of laughter and lightness. As in the other members’ examples, there are multiple levels of awareness at work, and the patients’ ability to know what he meant, and enter his mind, is enlivening.
In the three examples here, the dramatic shift to aliveness happened because we became implicitly or explicitly aware of a feeling or a meaning in a new way. In noticing our own experience, suddenly we have the opportunity to shift into togetherness and vibrancy. These moments of vital togetherness seem to be a kind of reciprocal knowing- where we know our patients and they, in turn, know something about us.
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