We live, love and feel with our bodies: Can psychotherapies that do not include the body be successful then?
by Steve Hofmann
Although many of my clients have learned to rationally reflect and understand their problems in previous thera-pies, a lot of them have not experienced change on a deeper, emotional level. A profound transformation is actually only possible, if, in addition to working on one's own unconscious limiting attitudes and relationship patterns, the body and its feelings also are included in the therapeutic process.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich discovered that the body plays a crucial role in a person’s attempt to armor and protect themselves against unwanted feelings. By unconsciously tensing up the body and shallowing our breathing, we disconnect ourselves from painful or discomforting sensations. At the same time, this closes our hearts and we cut ourselves off from our relationships with ourselves, with others and reality at large.
Reich's student Alexander Lowen, the “father” of Bioenergetics, was convinced that a person could only change by working through their physical and emotional blockages, and by becoming aware of repressed early childhood feelings and memories which led to these defenses in the first place.
It's the attachment, stupid
Every child depends on his contact and emotional attach-ment to their parents or primary caregivers. This bond – or attachment, as it is called in psychodynamic psychotherapy - is just as important for a child as food, clothing and the air to breathe. If parents can react to these attachment needs in a good enough manner, they enable their child to develop into a healthy, functional personality that is able to deal with her emotions and function in the world.
If parents fail in this difficult and complex task too much, the child will make tremendous efforts on his part to connect with his parents. These efforts may involve giving up one's true feelings, one’s will and in very severe cases even the whole self. The child then develops what is called a false self, a persona that is adjusted to its dysfunctional environ-ment and its specific challenges.
An example: Toddlers that are left alone to cry can be observed to eventually become calm and seemingly adjusted. By resigning and accepting that nobody will come to comfort them, they ensure that the parents will continue to take care of them (when they quit crying, the parents will take care of them again). Later, they may have problems asking for help and may suffer from inexplicable fears or rage. The physical expression of the original feelings may be blocked on the surface, but the original emotional excitement is still fully present at the core of the body.
Early on in his therapist career, Alexander Lowen recognized how parental failure shapes the personality of the child and later adult. Based on Wilhelm Reich's writings he developed his own character theory. He described five different personality or character types, each of them with specific psychological and somatic traits that have their origin in parental failure at different stages of the child’s development.
I have no right to exist - the schizoid structure
The main issue of people with a schizoid character structure is their right to exist. Already in the womb or around birth, schizoids experience that they are not wanted. The child interprets this as a denial of his right to even exist. E.g. during one session, a client of mine recalled being nearly drowned in the bathtub by his mother when he was a baby.
Schizoids often are born by mothers who covertly or openly rejected or outright hated their child. This rejection creates immense fear and terror in the infant. Early on in life these people get to know the world as a frightening place and therefore withdraw into themselves. Deep down they are ashamed to even exist and feel like they don't belong anywhere. Their unbearable early experiences of rejection or destruction often cause them to completely disconnect from their emotional life.
For this lack of feeling they compensate by trying to understand the world with their minds. Because of their highly developed intellectual abilities, schizoids often choose jobs that require logical thinking. A popular example of someone with severe schizoid traits is Sheldon Cooper from the series "The Big Bang Theory". The therapeutic goal of working with schizoids is to use bodywork to get them out of their heads and into their bodies and feelings. They must be supported in (re-)claiming their right to exist on this Earth.
"I can't get enough" - the oral structure
While people with a schizoid structure shy away from contact with other people, orals love to make contact with others. The reason why they like to talk so much is that their needs were not sufficiently listened to during the first years of their life.
Because the mothers of these people were unable to adequately adjust to the emotional needs of their children, they grow up with a sense of a great inner emptiness.
The central theme of oral people is to have and adequately express needs. Their unconscious belief is: If I show myself weak and dependent, I will get attention.
The basic deficiency of early childhood was that parental care was never sufficient enough to meet the needs of the young child. In adulthood, oral people try to get these unmet needs met in hindsight. However, what they get is never enough for their hungry inner child. The desire to be retrospectively compensated for the deprivations of childhood cannot be met, which always leads to new disappointment.
The therapeutic goal in working with people with an oral structure is to help them overcome their fear of being alone and to get them onto their own two feet.
"I'm not enough" - the masochistic structure
Around the age of three, people with a masochist personality structure experience that their striving for more autonomy is being crushed. Their little souls are smothered instead of mothered. The child is overwhelmed by this harsh upbringing style and thus prevented from further development. It reacts with rage and anger, which it has to suppress in order not to risk losing the love of his parents: The little child gets broken and learns: "If I submit to your will and conform, I will be loved."
The central problem of this structure is the conflict between the pursuit of autonomy and the desire to be loved, since the parents' love could only be had at the price of self-abandonment. Even though masochists present themselves as nice and loving on the outside, they are seething deep within. However, they never show their anger openly for fear of punishment. Rather, they have the tragic tendency to express their anger by regularly failing (self-hate, self-punishment) or disappointing others (anger against others, punishing others).
With the help of Bioenergetic therapy and exercises that help them to access and express negative feelings such as anger, masochists can learn that they can stand up for themselves and still be loved.
"I must win" - the psychopathic structure
"Stay away, I'm afraid of love" - the rigid structure
Psychopaths love to be in charge, they strive to be perceived as strong and successful. They see themselves in a constant struggle against the world.
They do everything they can to be one up in order to avoid that others can put them down or humiliate them, like their parents did when they were a child. While other people strive for love and pleasure, people with this structure primarily seek to gain power.
As long as they are the more powerful ones, they feel safe and not as small, powerless and betrayed as when they were children. This also shows itself in their physical appearance: The upper body appears powerful and puffed up, while the legs are small and slender. A prominent film example is Sylvester Stallone's film figure Rambo.
The deepest fear of people with a psychopathic structure is to be defeated, manipulated, and humiliated. On their therapeutic journey, they need to get back in touch with their soft, vulnerable and hurt side. In therapy, they can learn that there are people whom they can trust. Thus, the desire for power can gradually dissolve and give way for the desire for love and connection.
"Stay away, I'm afraid of love" - the rigid structure
Of all the character structures described here, the rigid structure has suffered less damage and usually functions pretty well, both when it comes to relationships, everyday life etc.
People with this structure learn very early on in life that they have to achieve in order to be loved by their parents. Even as adults, they seek love and approval, and will do whatever it takes to achieve more and more. The tragedy behind these often very successful individuals is a deep wound to their hearts. This comes from the fact that their parents did not love them for their own sake, but for their successes or external factors like physical beauty. The fear of falling in love is therefore intolerable.
Therefore, sexual desire and feelings of love are kept separate: They cannot love the person they desire; they cannot desire the person they love. Over the course of Bioenergetic therapy, rigids learn to tolerate their fear of falling in love and being rejected. This allows their feelings of love and their sexual feelings to amalgamate, which enables them to be sexually attracted to their love partner.
Bioenergetic Analysis - learning to live with one’s feelings
For thousands of years, physical and mental suffering have been interpreted as an expression of disorders or blockages of the flow of an innate life force energy.
Bioenergetic Analysis is part of this tradition and integrates bodywork and breathwork into a holistic understanding of the human being as a complex physical, mental and emotional unit.
We can only live our full potential, if the suppressed energy is activated, and if physical, mental and emotional blockages are dissipated. Overall, the goal is to heal the person’s relationship with reality. Bioenergetics provides a great variety of physical exercises to activate, release and integrate the blocked energy and feelings. This can touch people to a degree that is not possible in purely verbal therapies.
Already Wilhelm Reich observed that through bodywork his clients were able to remember situations in their childhood which led them to close their hearts and halted their psychological maturation. By encouraging clients to explore and express even their darkest feelings and thoughts, they gradually gain control of their emotions and their lifes. Because to live means to feel and presents us with the challenge to live with our feelings instead of against them.
About the author: Steve Hofmann is a Certified Bioenergetic Therapist (CBT), counselor for psychotherapy (German: Heilpraktiker für Psychotherapie), Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE) provider, and coach. In addition to individual Bioenergetic therapy, he regularly offers workshops and groupwork. He lives and works in Berlin (Germany).
Tel.: +49 (0)176 25394675