Nell and Harry had been married for five years, and in “talk therapy” (their words) for three years. They came to me for consultation at the suggestion of their frustrated therapist who said she had exhausted her toolbox with this volatile couple. Both therapist and clients reported that their attempts to avoid the “blow ups” that happened sometimes several times a day had failed. Husband and wife were prone to blaming each other. The plan they had agreed to follow in therapy when they started to fight (such as “Take 5” or “Count to 10 before speaking”) was typically used by one against the other (“You counted to 10 but then kept yelling” or “You didn’t even try to calm down when you took a time out”). On the brink of calling it quits due to a particularly heated argument the night before, yet hoping for something miraculous to save their marriage, this couple entered my consultation room.
A concept foundational to a Sensorimotor Psychotherapy approach is that much of our communications to others occurs implicitly through our bodies (Ogden, Minton & Pain, 2006; Ogden & Fisher, 2015). In response to whatever is going on, internally or externally, we relax or tighten our muscles, change our breathing, pull away or lean forward, make eye contact or avert our gaze. We rarely think about or even become aware of these automated adjustments but nonetheless, they have a powerful influence on ourselves and on others. As Nina Bull (1945) described, such “motor attitudes” are “the preliminary motor set, or posture of the body” that precedes and paves the way for particular emotions. Thus, the body continually reveals and even broadcasts our inner state to a sensitive other, typically before we are aware of it, whether we intend it to or not. For a couple in trouble, these non-verbal transmissions, which are implicitly perceived and reacted to by the other, are almost always at the root of their distress.
Nell and Harry were no exception. I wanted to bring their implicit, body to body conversation to their awareness, so I asked them to remember the argument from the previous night, and then notice what changed in their bodies. All visible movement ceased for Harry — he became very still, alert, and watchful, saying the stillness was a preparation to fight or flight. Nell felt panic rising up from deep within her as she remembered their argument, accompanied by what appeared to be an aggressive motion of leaning forward with arms and hands tensed. When I asked Harry what happened inside him when he watched Nell make this motion, his fingertips lifted from their resting place on his lap, palms facing outward toward Nell in a protective gesture. He interpreted Nell’s movement as attacking, which she realized was her own defense when she felt panic. The implicit communication was clear: their argument, of course, made each of them feel unsafe, and each reacted with instinctive defenses that were not conscious.
I asked them to hold the physical stance that emerged when they remembered their argument, and notice this non-verbal conversation. Nell said if her bodily stance could talk, it would say, “Why can’t you….” The sentence was left unfinished, which highlighted that the specific content was less important than the underlying implicit phenomena that drove the content. Harry said he just wanted to pull away and protect himself.
Both patterns, of course, stemmed from childhood attachment dynamics. Nell, who grew up in a large family with several brothers, had learned that the only way she could be heard was to be loud, aggressive and demanding. “Otherwise, I just get run over,” she said. Harry, an only child, remembered trying to “disappear” in an act of self-preservation during his parents’ frequent verbal arguments. This information was not new to either of them—in fact, they said they had explored these issues “over and over” in therapy. But still, their arguments continued to escalate. In spite of their insight and reflective capacity, the unsafety of the past was recreated through habits of movement and posture under stress, and these procedurally learned patterns were based on unconscious assumptions that the future would be the same as the past.
Allan Schore (2003) has taught us that the right hemisphere is dominant in governing human behavior, underscoring the powerful influence of implicit emotional and body processing in human existence, in contrast with explicit, cognitive processing. However, the “implicit self” is often in conflict with the “explicit self.” As one client said, “I know I’m safe but my body’s got a different reality I don’t even agree with. It’s always reacting as if I’m in danger.” Similarly, the automatic engagement of the “motor attitude” that both Nell and Harry had learned in childhood in response to very different family situations belied their explicit assessment of the current situation with each other, as well as their conscious desire for resolution and connection.
At this point in the therapy hour, I felt we had two choices: One, to delve more deeply into the origins of their interactive pattern, or two, to find a way to change it without exploring their early attachment relationships. I chose the latter. Since Harry had voiced that he did not actually “want” to withdraw, I thought that he could more easily change his pattern than could Nell. At the same time, it seemed to me that Nell’s aggressive stance was really a plea for connection. So I suggested another “little experiment” (Kurtz 1990) to be conducted slowly and mindfully. I asked Nell to make her gesture of leaning forward aggressively, and to say the words, “Why can’t you…” and I asked Harry to inhibit his impulse to withdraw and instead to lean forward and reach out towards Nell with his arms, palms up in a receptive, non-threatening gesture. Both were instructed to be sensitive to their internal experience.
Nell’s body immediately softened, tears came to her eyes, and she took a deep breath as she reached back to take Harry’s hands. Smiling through her tears, she said that to connect was all she ever wanted from him. Harry reported that the action of reaching out felt strange and vulnerable to him. However, he was delighted at Nell’s response and realized his reaching out to her elicited exactly the response he desired. Underneath their patterns of withdrawal and aggression was a deep longing for closeness and intimacy with one another.
In order to alter their implicit body to body conversation and resolve their damaging relational pattern, one of them had to take the risk to change his body’s habitual actions. Harry did so by reaching toward Nell when they started to argue rather than withdraw. He said he wanted to practice reaching out at home whenever they started to fight; this combined with Nell’s immense gratitude to him for being willing to seek proximity instead of pull away,was enough to change their dynamic. Their arguments no longer escalated to blow ups. They felt they had a concrete tool–something simple to do that helped them connect when they started to argue. Of course, in the next session, Harry’s feelings of vulnerability needed attention, but that’s a different story…
Pat Ogden, PhD, is a pioneer in somatic psychology and the Founder and Education Director of the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute, an internationally recognized school specializing in somatic–cognitive approaches for the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder and attachment disturbances. Her Institute, based in Broomfield Colorado, has 19 certified trainers who conduct Sensorimotor Psychotherapy trainings of over 400 hours for mental health professionals throughout the US, Canada, Europe, and Australia. The Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute has certified hundreds of psychotherapists throughout the world in this method. She is co-founder of the Hakomi Institute, past faculty of Naropa University (1985-2005), a clinician, consultant, and sought after international lecturer. Dr. Ogden is the first author of two groundbreaking books in somatic psychology: Trauma and the Body: A Sensorimotor Approach to Psychotherapy and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy: Interventions for Trauma and Attachment (2015) both published in the Interpersonal Neurobiology Series of W. W. Norton. She is currently working on a third book Sensorimotor Psychotherapy for Children, Adolescents and Families with colleagues.
Her current interests include developing training programs in Sensorimotor Psychotherapy for children adolescents and families with colleagues, Embedded Relational Mindfulness, culture and diversity, couple therapy and working with challenging clients and the relational nature of shame.
Bull, N. (1945). Toward a clarification of the concept of emotion. Psychosomatic Medicine, 7(4), 210–214.
Kurtz, R. (1990). Body-centered psychotherapy: The Hakomi method. Mendocino, CA: LifeRhythm.
Ogden, P., & Fisher, J. (2015). Sensorimotor psychotherapy: Interventions for trauma and attachment. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Ogden, P., Minton, K., &Pain, C. (2006). Trauma and the body: A sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Schore, A. (2003). Affect regulation and the repair of the self. New York: W. W. Norton