Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Feeling-centered therapy

Many of the previous blog posts have mentioned, referred to or assumed my affinity for feeling-centered therapy.  Or maybe the biggest emphasis has been on my disagreement with the rationale and practice of cognitive therapy.  So here I’d like to say a little something about working with people feeling-wise, beneath their thoughts, their philosophies, their reason, even beneath their strength and motivating energies.  I’ll be talking about my own insights and practice, not the historical ground I stand on, which features primal therapy and Freudian concepts of repression and unconscious motivation.

As I’ve said or implied before, I believe that people are dysfunctional not because of their bad thoughts, corrupt genes, wrong religion, bad behaviors or unbalanced chemistry, but because they have been hurt, most typically by other people.  I’ll add that I believe this view would be universal if truth-seeking were an instinctive part of humanity’s blueprint.  Then, people would not hide from the facts that they have been damaged by powerful, often dear and needed others in their most formative and vulnerable years, the damage has become entrenched not resolved through time, and the hurt is passed on to the next generations.

I believe that cognitive therapy approaches, while more respectable than the grand embarrassment of behaviorism, are little more than the codifying of the self-medicating defenses of denial, rationalization and intellectualization.  James Gilligan, prison psychiatrist for over twenty-five years, has stated that the worst criminals are born of the worst childhoods.*  Were a serial killer-rapist to claim, “My parents abused and abandoned me, but I’m a survivor not a victim!”, or “As Nietzsche said, ‘That which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger’!” or “Let’s not catastrophize, it could have been much worse,” or “I realize I don’t have to be perfect,” he’d not only be purveying absurd denial and intellectualization, but would also be successfully applying the method and tools of cognitive therapy: reasoning with a self-affirming tilt.  In this extreme example, we can see the delusional nature and self-soothing impetus to specious though hollowly valid reasoning (were any of the gentleman’s statements wildly untrue?).  But would this reasoning be any less empty if offered by a depressed, or anxious, or codependent parent who spends more time with his parents than with his wife and children, or who kowtows to her friends, or who is intolerant of his child’s silliness, or who can’t focus on her work, or who feels guilty for not being a good enough daughter?  Thinking and reasoning are helpers that become deceivers in the wrong hands: clear lenses in a healthy individual, tinted lenses in a pain-bent one.

“Feeling-centered,” only a handle, is an inaccurate, two-dimensional term for a four-dimensional psychology.  Our goal is to reach the core of holistic – cognitive-behavioral-somato-emotional – injury at its most direct access point: feeling as emotion and emotionalized body sensation (what Eugene Gendlin named the “felt sense”).  Thus feeling process is ultimately identical to descending into one’s history, down to the points where injury first occurred.  It is depth process, space and time process.  When we find injurious pain, we have reached the source of all later dislocations of our true and life-directed energies, dislocations that manifest as errant behaviors, blind struggles for worth or vengeance, destructive philosophies, shut-down and frightened hearts.

One could say that any avenue which sets aside escapist thinking and reaches root psycho-biological truth is a part of feeling-centered regressive therapy.  There are techniques, such as Empty Chair, that help a person remember (while conscious, not hypnotized); that disable defenses and center one in a single feeling-state then magnify that feeling to where it overflows pain and tension from the body-mind.  Nathaniel Brandon’s sentence completion and Death Bed Situation (see blog post Friday, October 4, 2013) can unearth completely forgotten but identity-forming emotions.  Gendlin’s Focusing process identifies those subtle and amazingly complex body-based sub-emotion states that can only be described in poetical or action-type phrases.  For example, at age seventeen I knew I'd be going off to college to major in philosophy.  Had I Focused on the body-feeling of “philosophy,” or “I’m going to study philosophy,” I would have read terrible meaning-sensations of deadness, abandoning of my life, self-imprisonment in an ivory tower of useless ideas.  Yet Focusing deeper, I would have reached feeling sensations of an abortive child, not able to be a college student, not able to be an adult.  Vereshack’s technique of body congruence recognizes that we are defended by virtue of sitting upright in a chair: That posture reinforces the adult persona with its tendency to linear, “daytime” thinking.  Better, if possible, to lie on a mat undefended, or to let body position conform to one’s feeling: fetal, contorted, hunched, enraged.  His technique of sound congruence allowed a brilliant scientist to groan and growl, guttural and visceral, like someone in a horror movie being tortured – one with his past abuse pain, finally sanctioned.

Besides technique there is atmosphere: what creates a “room of truth.”  I confront euthymic (fake happy) laughter and the intellectual persona – help the child come out; dim the light to foster an introspective mood; encourage her to take her time finding a feeling where it doesn’t seem to exist but must.  Psychoeducation about her unmet need for empathy – to be “seen” for who she is – can be very poignant and evocative of emotional memory.  And there is momentum, where too often the client may lurch onto the dry land of conversational counseling, may need my own silence – no conversation – as encouragement to descend into her depths again.

In addition to all these factors, and more, is the underlying “ether” of the client’s acceptance of being somewhat undone in order to be remade.  That’s quite a drastic notion, but really not bizarre when we consider the mess, or the wrong that people feel their life is.  Nevertheless, I find that most people do not want the intense work necessary.  That leads me to go where they want to go, but with occasional reminders that there is an ocean beneath their boat, and sharks and treasures in that ocean.

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* James Gilligan, M.D., Violence, 1996, Random House / Vintage Books.  “In the course of my work with the most violent men in maximum-security settings, not a day goes by that I do not hear reports – often confirmed by independent sources – of how these men were victimized during childhood.  Physical violence, neglect, abandonment, rejection, sexual exploitation and violation occurred on a scale so extreme, so bizarre, and so frequent that one cannot fail to see that the men who occupy the extreme end of the continuum of violent behavior in adulthood occupied an equally extreme end of the continuum of violent child abuse earlier in life” (p. 45).

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Comments are welcome, but I'd suggest you first read "Feeling-centered therapy" and "Ocean and boat" for a basic introduction to my kind of theory and therapy.