Bodywork: When Talk Therapy Isn’t Enough

by Stephen D. Rockman, Ph,D., M.F.C.C., Psychologist, Certified Bioenergetic Therapist

John and Sue have been in couple therapy for six months. Although their communication skills had improved, their relationship was largely unchanged. Both seemed to have a deep hurt and anger toward each other which made contact and closeness near impossible. Both felt discouraged and had doubts about salvaging the relationship. Each partner had secretly contemplated divorce.

Even psychodynamic insights (of which both parties were capable) had limitations. Sue was aware that she had a great deal of anger toward her verbally abusive and emotionally distant father. She was able to see the relationship between those feelings (the original wound) and the rage she currently felt toward John. John realized that his wife’s anger toward him tapped into his childhood experiences. Being very overweight as a boy, his peers were cruel and merciless with their taunts which frequently led to physical attacks. Like most of us, John repressed these painful memories, which evoked feelings of shame, sadness and humiliation. These very early issues in Bioenergetics are referred to as core issues. These wounds, or core issues, are at the root or core of our personality. We develop layers of defenses to protect ourselves.

After much frustration and feelings of desperation, each agreed to try body therapy. (Many people are apprehensive to participate in therapy which evokes strong emotions.) Through Bioenergetic exercises, John was able to get in touch with a deep rage which stemmed from childhood. By hitting the couch with a tennis racquet, he able to release his anger. After several minutes of hitting, John broke into deep sobs. He had not cried this deeply ever as an adult. The deep crying had a very positive effect on John’s demeanor. In essence, John softened, as was evident in the softness in his eyes. His wife noticed that he did not seem so "scary" to her anymore and she responded favorably. (People who cannot release their rage are perpetually angry. Others sense their hostility even when they do not speak.) Emotions that are not expressed become stored in the body as chronic tension. Wilhelm Reich coined the term character armor to describe this phenomenon. Most people are totally unaware of these tensions.

Sue also benefited by doing Bioenergetcs. After years of holding onto her rage toward John, she was able to release some of it by kicking the couch. (Kicking while lying on the couch is a very powerful Bioenergetic technique. The patient literally has a temper tantrum.) Like John, a deeper sobbing followed the release of rage. For the first time in months, she was able to have tender feelings toward her spouse. Although their problems aren’t resolved, this couple made a huge breakthrough. Like all couples, they still have their arguments, but the "cold war" had ended. They had both softened.

Recently, I had the good fortune to use this method with a 16 year old girl. Depressed and withdrawn, Sally shared the losses that she had endured during childhood. Her parents were divorced when she was only seven. She loved her father, but felt abandoned by him when he remarried and started a new family. His visits with her became less and less frequent. Birthdays would come and go without even a phone call. When her mother remarried, she became jealous of their relationship. She had lost her father and now she was losing her mother. The anger that she felt toward her father fueled dislike toward her stepfather. Although family therapy was somewhat useful in setting boundaries, getting needs negotiated, etc., real change came only after the bodywork. Sally was aware of the anger toward her father and stepfather.

Sally’s insight led her to see how her relationship with boys was being effected. Despite being very pretty, she had no dates. She admitted that she was afraid of having her heart broken again. My goal was to help Sally verbalize her anger. An anger letter (not sent) to her father, which she wrote at home and read at our session, helped start this process. She was able to hit the couch with a tennis racquet. I was impressed with how freely she was able to yell and express her rage. (Yes, our office is sound proofed.) Sally has felt a tremendous sense of relief that someone finally sees her and supports her feelings. She looks forward to the sessions and is making great progress. She’s more able to verbalize her anger, she is coming out of her shell, and after a year of estrangement, she has decided to visit her father. Like all families, there are no miracle cures. Sally’s work has just started. She needs to do more anger work and she needs to cry deeply. Crying is the emotion that heals. Sally has much to cry about. Most people in our culture have learned to hide their sadness first from others, then from themselves. Most people are truly disconnected from their real selves. Especially today in our culture, people are more narcissistic.

Success, material wealth and prestige are what is valued in our culture. Alexander Lowen, the founder of Bioenergetics, frequently makes the distinction between "doing" and "being". "Doing" is a process which greatly involves the ego and our will. Whereas "being" involves us being in touch (aware) of our feelings and perceptions in the here and now. The more emphasis placed on just "doing", ego and self control, the less freedom we have. Pleasure is centered in the body not the ego. We have forgotten how to play, how to cry, how to feel and how to live.

Bioenergetics is a type of therapy which emphasizes "being" over "doing", self-expression over self control, "letting down" rather than rising above. The therapist helps the patient learn to connect with his feelings and give in to the natural movements of the body while giving up control of the ego.

Developed by Alexander Lowen in the mid 50’s, Bioenergetics is practiced internationally, (Europe, South America, Australia, as well as the United States and Canada). Dr. Lowen is alive and kicking (no pun intended) at the youthful age of 87, he still lectures, writes and conducts therapy. He is the author of twelve books; his latest book Joy was published in 1995.

The example cited above are not unusual for this type of treatment. I have treated hundreds of patients with this method. Although Bioenergetics is not for everyone, (some people are too fragile, not open, etc.), it can be a powerful method of treatment, especially for people who are "stuck".

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