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How to spot it and what to do next - a step-by-step recipe book (for processing the therapist’s dilemmas)
Three things stood out from a recent OTS training workshop and the work we did in the small groups (as born out by some of the feedback):
- as therapists we don’t always know when we are in conflict;
- when we do know, we often hit a blank wall - what to do or how to understand what’s going on;
- in order to avoid the discomfort of the conflict, we take refuge in default therapeutic interventions, routine manoeuvres and habitual stances, i.e. mechanisms which dilute the necessary charge and tension in the relationship - in doing so, we abort the therapeutic process or precipitate ruptures in the alliance.
Some of the feedback was: ‘It is scary to feel like you don’t know what to do as a therapist, so it can be a relief to not know you are in conflict.’ (this is rather reminiscent of Bion’s statement: “In every consulting room there ought to be two rather frightened people.”)
Being aware of and acknowledging our internal (countertransference) conflict as therapists usually feels like we’re losing our therapeutic position and that we are failing. In order to avoid the inherent sense of feeling powerless and vulnerable, we resort to our ‘habitual position’ as therapists, trying to shore up our shaky therapeutic position.
One of the most common manoeuvres is to ask more questions of the client in the hope of 'eliciting further information' or ‘getting somewhere else’, where we can feel on safer ground. However, in doing so we then manage to fall into two further pitfalls:
- by trying to ‘move on’ or ‘hold on’ to our therapeutic position, we give the implicit message to the client that we can’t bear their pain, and can’t sit in it with them;
- because we are doing so defensively, prematurely and without awareness or preparation, our interventions precipitate us further into enactment: we fall down on one or the other side of our conflict, and fail to ‘hold’ the conflict, or to catch the rupture we are entangled in.
This training day will develop your capacity to be aware of your conflict as a therapist and learn to ‘sit in it’ without being overwhelmed by pressure, fear or shame. It then becomes more possible to extract the precious information which the therapist’s conflict contains about the relational dynamic and the client’s inner world.
Format of the day:
Lunch: As usual we will arrange a bring and share lunch in the week before the event.
A 1-day CPD workshop with Michael Soth
exploring differentiated bodymind awareness of client, therapist and the relationship between them
This workshop will be an opportunity to explore how your embodied experience and perception contribute to your way of working as a therapist.
- How much of your awareness - when you are engaged in the relationship with a client – is attentive to the process between the two bodies (or better: the two bodyminds)?
- From your moment-to-moment perceptions of the two bodyminds, how do you extract meaningful information relevant to the therapeutic process?
- How can this information help us to deepen the relationship and the process and make it more effective?
- How can it give us a context for making therapeutic decisions about whether or not to touch or be touched, and if so, how?
The neglected bodies in the ‘talking therapies’
Over the last 20 years, a variety of influences from infant research, trauma studies and neuroscience have given us hints and ideas that all cognition is embodied and embedded, and relies on non-verbal and implicit processes. This has major implications for the therapeutic relationship and the talking therapies. There has been an increasing recognition in principle that the bias towards the left-brain verbal-reflective mind is to the detriment of the connection and coherence, the depth and effectiveness of whatever therapy we practice.
How to work with the body in practice?
However, it is one thing to appreciate and validate ideas like implicit relational knowing, right-brain-to-right-brain attunement and the embodied dance of primary intersubjectivity between infant and caregiver. It is quite another thing to apply these ideas in the nitty-gritty of everyday practice, with a complex, contradictory, inhibited and inhibiting client sitting right in front of us, who is nothing like a spontaneous, cuddly infant. In the heat of the moment, we are likely to retreat from the confusing and overwhelming mixture of the client’s and the therapist’s multitude of bodymind signals, and resort to the supposed safety of received wisdom: in our profession that predominantly still means a disembodied therapeutic presence and disembodying contact.
Embodied Relating - the ground of psychotherapy
However, whether we are aware of it or not, pre-reflexive and non-verbal bodymind processes shape and structure our consciousness and our presence and behaviour as therapists. For better or worse, it is largely these processes neglected in the ‘talking therapies’ which determine the atmosphere of the relational container we are co-creating a whole lot more than our thoughts and intentions. The therapeutic space we offer is only minimally affected by our models and theories and our left-brain cognitive rationales and reflections. Although in principle embodied relating is now recognised the ground of psychotherapy (see: Nick Totton’s 2018 book “Embodied Relating”), the return of the repressed body is not a smooth affair (see: Soth, M. (2010) The Return of the Repressed Body - Not a Smooth Affair. UKCP Journal 'The Psychotherapist', Autumn 2010).
Our ambivalent relationship to the body
The idea of embodiment is largely misunderstood, and in conscientious therapists’ minds often becomes another ideal or requirement to live up to or another stick to beat oneself with. This professional pressure occurs on top of whatever ambivalent relationship we may personally have with our own body. After all, therapists themselves are not free from the cultural struggles around the ‘hard problem’ of the mind versus the body, each of us identifying with as well as against our bodies in degrees, generating a wide variety of suffering in relation to our body, including fears, compulsions, entitlements, shame and hatred.
It is not the idea or any philosophy of the body, but attention to the complexity and paradoxical nature of actual embodiment and disembodiment as process that can become liberating, expansive and creative for therapists, lending our work depth, impact, joy and authority as well as sustainability. Whilst ideas from neuroscience may awaken and validate our interest in bottom-up embodied process, they do little to help us access our own ‘implicit relational knowing’ or translate such knowledge and insight into everyday practice.
The idealised body - a healthy mind in a healthy body?
The only way of effectively investigating, evolving and stretching our bodymind sensitivities, perceptions and awareness – as people and as therapists - is in the here & now through experiential engagement. This is not an enticing prospect for everybody, although experiential learning is generally accepted as an important principle when it comes to the bodymind.
Historically, body-‘experts’ have a habit of taking their embodiment agenda for granted and as a result often take a somewhat missionary position in dispensing their wisdom. The body-oriented traditions have had a tendency to pursue an idealised image of the body, along the lines of the Roman saying: ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body’, which easily becomes a dangerously normative imposition (in fact, the European, and especially German, origins of these therapeutic traditions are uncomfortably mixed up with Fascist ideas of racial supremacy).
However, embodiment does not necessarily imply a perfectly fit or manicured or gym-trained body. We also want to be embodied in our pain and desire, in our limitations and vulnerability – something often neglected in a dominantly narcissistic culture, where the celebrity appearance of the body becomes an objectified fashion accessory or an advertisement for the self. Embodiment in psychotherapy is not meant to be a branding exercise by which the mind in top-down hubris imposes its goals (however noble they may be in the therapeutic realm) onto the body – embodiment is not only about having a body, but being and inhabiting the body we are.
Format of the workshop
So for the purposes of therapists’ CPD learning, to clarify the safety and parameters of the relational space we are entering into for such a workshop becomes as important an issue as for a client entering into therapy.
For this 1-day workshop we will focus on a simple distinction between spontaneous versus reflective processes throughout the bodymind, and how the tension between the two plays out in the relational dynamic between client and therapist moment-to-moment. We will use the diamond model of diverse relational modalities (Michael’s further evolution of Petruska Clarkson’s ideas) to bring a neglected relational perspective to the question of touch between client and therapist, i.e. different kinds of touch corresponding to different relational spaces in therapy.
Lunch: As usual we will arrange a bring and share lunch in the week before the event.