Wednesday, June 4, 2014

"Down Boy, Damn You" *

I’ve recently looked up synonyms for “valiant.”  Indomitable, plucky, gritty, doughty, undaunted.  These are qualities that have never been mine except as they apply in one unusual arena.  When I have a physical ache or pain – back, chest, headache – I get angry at it, tell it to get the hell out of my life, and give it a good open-handed whack.  My attitude is fierce and fine and imperious, laughing at danger, transcendent of these pitiful gnats that imagine some right to cause me harm.

I am a plucky and doughty man, and for the last couple of decades I have always won the fights: the pains disappeared quickly and did not return . . . until some new time and circumstance, much later, would draw them back.

I am the living proof of holistic, psychosomatic medicine.

What I’m doing is not “mind over matter.”  There is no suppression of feeling.  In fact it’s the opposite.  I take the psycho-emotional energy behind the physical pain – I know there is nothing wrong with my back or heart or head – acknowledge and caringly empathize with its darker meaning, then defeat it with the power of the deeper, more positive meaning of my life.

This may not be the literal meaning of psychosomatic psychology, an idea that has had generational incarnations from Freud and “hysteria” to Franz Alexander, to Reich’s character armor and Lowen’s Bioenergetic Analysis, to Janov’s “malignant despair” and the entirety of Primal Therapy, to John Sarno, W. Douglas Brodie and the “cancer personality,” to Rolfing and craniosacral therapy and Bernie Siegel and Caroline Myss and the New Age.  Dr. Sarno** heals back, neck and migratory pain by teaching people to call the bluff on their physical symptoms:

Dr. Brodie names these characteristics of the cancer-prone person:

“1. Being highly conscientious, caring, dutiful, responsible, hard-working, and usually of above average intelligence.  2. Exhibits a strong tendency toward carrying other people’s burdens and toward taking on extra obligations, and often ‘worrying for others.’  3. Having a deep-seated need to make others happy.  Being a ‘people pleaser’ with a great need for approval.  4. Often lacking closeness with one or both parents, which sometimes, later in life, results in lack of closeness with spouse or others who would normally be close.  5. Harbours long-suppressed toxic emotions, such as anger, resentment, and / or hostility.  The cancer-susceptible individual typically internalizes such emotions and has great difficulty expressing them.  6. Reacts adversely to stress, and often becomes unable to cope adequately with such stress.  Usually experiences an especially damaging event about 2 years before the onset of detectable cancer.  The patient is not able to cope with this traumatic event or series of events, which comes as a ‘last straw’ on top of years of suppressed reactions to stress.  7. Has an inability to resolve deep-seated emotional problems / conflicts, usually beginning in childhood, often even being unaware of their presence.***
Roseanne, a case history in The New Primal Scream, ended her physical anxiety:

“I used to be assaulted by terrible anxiety attacks.  Since the age of fifteen, I have lived in the dreaded fear of having a heart attack.  Every time I had the anxiety attacks I would feel panicky, weak, sweaty, and become pale and sometimes faint.
“There are no words to describe the loneliness and helplessness I felt in those moments.  I would feel that there was no hope left for me.  I was bound to suffer.  Those attacks became the symbol of my hopelessness.
“I don’t have the attacks any more, and the reason is simple.  I don’t build up overwhelming stress and anxiety.  If something hurts me now, I cry or get angry.  I react to it and let it out instead of keeping it in like before.  My chest used to be a pressure cooker.  My unexpressed feelings would create so much pressure in my chest that I would actually experience the symptoms of a heart attack.  All those feelings inside me trying to get out, pushing against my chest and making me feel ‘I’m going to die . . . without love.’
“Now I let the stream out.  It has felt so good to cry about my father – the need for him to talk to me, to touch me, and help me, all the things I had been deprived of.  Every time I cry about my needs I get more in touch with myself and I become less tense.  It sounds strange, but the truth is that feeling the pain actually helps me to reduce the stress, strain, and awful anxiety in my life.”****
The idea that psyche and body are not merely interconnected, not merely fused, but are identical has been a part of my therapy for so long that I assume it when talking with clients.  Young men who double over and throw up instead of go to work or stand up to their fathers are shown the sources of their anxiety and the regressive dependencies that keep it locked in.  In colorfully apropos situations I’ll mention Lowen’s observation that Narcissistic Personality-disordered men’s faces often look much younger than their years: The vicissitudes of life waft over them owing to their teflon majesty.   Women who, for all intents and purposes, get a splinter in their pinky toe that in a matter of months metastasizes to full-blown Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) are introduced to psychosomatic process.  I might therapeutically lie and suggest that their loveless, sexually abused and unstable childhood has exacerbated the pain of a bona fide medical fibromyalgia, rather than state what’s more likely: that it birthed the whole psycho-shebang.

Psychotherapy is often physical.  A young woman’s spirit was released when she kicked the side of my desk: This was the condensed experience of two decades of mother’s mental abuse being answered.  Clients lie back in the chair with eyes closed, better to simulate the death bed or the childlike sloppy or defenseless carriage.  I have referred men and women to Krav Maga, the “aggressive” martial arts skill set that might strengthen an anxious victim character.  Talk about rage and high blood pressure, anxiety and a lump in the throat and crushed chest, stress and heart disease, leg tremor and OCD as the tension that leaks when a child holds all her feelings inside in an emotionally censored and embarrassed home – and people begin to understand.

What does it mean to say that psyche and soma are one?  Ask pretty much anyone but Descartes and those psychiatrists who believe a child’s inability to sit still is a brain disorder not a family disorder.  Read Alice Miller’s The Body Never Lies which shows that conformity to the Fourth Commandment – Honor your parents – can lead to such deep repression of pain that it can kill.  Ask massage therapists who, touching a client’s shoulder or mid-back, might unearth a buried spring of memory tears.  We sense that emotions animate the body or are deadened along with the body.  We may have heard our mother – as I did – predict an eventual cancer, somehow in touch with the breast’s response to depression and a marriage that “followed the path of least resistance.”  Some of us know that nothing can move the body an inch – into a sunny day, to a walk in the park, to a kitchen sink full of dishes – not encouragement, not even the will or desire, if meaning is gone.  Meaning is physical.  Psyche is soma.

At this point, it may help to picture the psychosomatic individual as a listing ship floating out to sea, far from home and berth and upon its own solitary fate.  The captain doesn’t know where help is, and little repairs are made that don’t heal the deeper structure.  But he is valiant, and always hopes for relief and to return home.  If he knew that he’d been set to sea from a poisoned homeland and corrupt berth, he might be lost forever.

Clients fear the idea of psychosomatic illness because it turns them into too much energy, like the explosive fission of uranium.  What was body, a blameless impersonal repository that they inhabit, becomes psyche and its meaning that they are and must face.  And this carries them to the damaged berth of their childhood, and to their parents’ faces.  They become the pure energy of pain and revelation.  They become a ship that has never left home.

The disease whose remedies didn’t work

There is a seeming paradox, I believe, in psychosomatic therapy.  One must transcend the physical symptom by collapsing before the emotional meaning of it.  A young man, plucky, smiley and formerly anorexic, suffered a digestive disorder that was not curable by its known remedies and that reduced him to eating only two foods.  He had always identified himself as a perfectionist and thought it was a good thing.  His legendary parents and childhood were exonerated of all harm.  Eventually, however, they were not.  The way the mind, sending emotional distress into the body and whitewashing its thoughts, turned, was through the physical emotions that inhabited the same molecules as the armed guards restricting his food intake.  He realized, by Focusing,***** that the mantra he had always heard and appreciated – We just want you to try your best – actually meant We don’t care what you do.  His parents’ gentle acceptance was neglect, indifference.  When you can feel the truth, things change inside.  Pain or fear reduces to tears that wash away tension or flow into caring hands.  Or to anger, that expressed, strengthens the backbone and girds the stomach.  The body becomes no longer separate, abandoned and sickened.  It becomes the healed spirit.

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* Line taken from the Sarno 20/20 John Stossel episode linked.

** John E. Sarno, M.D., The Divided Mind: The Epidemic of Mindbody Disorders, HarperCollins, 2006, p. 135.

**** Arthur Janov, PhD, The New Primal Scream, Little, Brown Book Group, 1991, p. 201.

***** Eugene T. Gendlin, Ph.D., Focusing, A Bernard Geis Associates Book, Bantam Books, 1978.  “An original, innovative, exciting book.”  – Carl Rogers, Ph.D.


  1. Fascinating blog. My pain did not begin until my world collapsed at the revelation of the horrors of my childhood. I have done all the therapy, mental & physical, and still have a broken body. I have delved the abyss and returned, and still I have a broken body. What do you do when the standard answers don't work?

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    2. I'm sure I'm pretty dumb about psychosomatic process. With that proviso, here are a few considerations. There seems to be a body paradox that could be described as -- The psyche doesn't like it when we half swallow or half throw-up our emotional pain. It wants us to go either all-in or all-out. Cancer support groups reportedly can extend cancer sufferers’ lives – and they are mostly suppressive of emotional pain and anger and encouraging of positive emotions: love, support, camaraderie. However, if Brodie’s “cancer personality” theory is correct, along with Janov’s Primal Therapy, then the opposite of pain suppression – that is, the expulsive release of feeling – is most healing. How can these conflicting views both be right? If we repress pain beneath strength and bond and positivity, we live longer (which I suppose must be somewhat related to “healing”)? And if we release that pain, get emotional justice, we heal and live longer? I don’t know. I’m on the side of releasing pain through abreactive grief, rage, tears, along with knowing the full truth and expressing it. My idea for you – completely theoretical – is that when someone becomes aware of his or her trauma, but can’t DEEPLY exorcise it through long weeping, others’ validation, etc. (see Chapter 15, The New Primal Scream, “The Role of Weeping in Psychotherapy”), the body pain and injury erupt and even worsen. That idea is evidenced in the situation where one client says “I was able to get my anger out – she really listened and accepted what I said – and I feel much better,” while another client says: “I don’t want to start getting angry – it just makes me feel worse.” This second client is expressing his anger but is not really releasing it, which often but not always means giving it to an accepting other. Note the child wisdom, via Aletha Solter: Don’t let your child cry alone if she’s been reprimanded. The tears can’t be the healing kind, can’t be “successful,” because their chemistry is fused with abandonment feelings.


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.