May SIG Update: Somatic SIG

Daniel Factor
Somatic SIG Chair, LA-CAMFT

Have you heard it said that transformation requires something to die off for something new to emerge? Well I have, many times and in many ways, and while I understand the metaphor, I think it can be misleading. For example, becoming a Somatic Psychotherapist has transformed me, but nothing needed to die off for this to occur.

My more favored explanation of transformation comes from the transpersonal thinker and author Ken Wilbur, who uses a diagram of concentric circles—like growth rings of a tree—to describe stages of human evolution, with each new wider circumference encompassing and integrating all preceding stages. Wilbur clarified that the current widest ring denotes a state of consciousness, one whose expansiveness attenuates the influence of the prior growth rings, but that prior rings do continue to play a role. This makes sense to me, and I think sheds light on the ongoing changes within of our profession.

Advances in the science of our human organism continue to transform and inform the practice of psychotherapy. And it is with the body/mind focused—or somatic therapies—where the applications of these advances are right at home. But this transformation doesn’t require that prior ways vanish and die off, too. Furthermore, despite how it may appear, the transformation is not entirely new.

Some may say that today’s somatic psychotherapies facilitate new ways to achieve change. But that view is just not accurate enough—as the body/mind connection was always part of any process that achieved a change, it’s just that we know now with greater clarity and precision how true this always was. It is fair to say, though, that long ago there was a knowing about our body/mind connection within our field, only the knowing was not yet in its fuller scientific form, and that this prior knowing was an effort to expand the consciousness of the field, yet it was being constrained by the cultural context in which it was formed.

With increased scientific accuracy, older body based therapies have found a voice to free it from the older constraints, and newer ones have refined and added to the foundation already there. A major tenant of Somatic focused therapies has always instructed to rely less and less on analytic inference and more and more on the body’s innate wisdom and capabilities to lead the way. Pausing to consider this, it doesn’t take much imagination to grasp why the constraints were applied!

From a clinical practitioners perspective, this is the real change that can occur: that is, reliance on the power of inference for what it true, provided by an ‘expert’ analyst who knows before the client does, can give way to the client’s own direct experience of what is knowable within, and that this is what leads their process of change. The transformation occurs first in the clinician in order to make more room for the client.

Somatic psychotherapy is very contactful in all the familiar Rogarian ways. But, as Eugene Gendlin stated to Rogers back in the 1960’s, its not enough for the therapist to reflect the client’s experience, as it is more essential that the client have a direct experience of themselves, and more specifically in such a way he called a “felt-sense”. This term—felt sense—has been reused by many since Gendlin first offered it, and I would encourage those with an interest in discovering what he was writing about to read his own words! I think you will be surprised and enriched for doing so.

Being a somatic therapist does not vanquish other ways, but while using specific somatic interventions, other ways are attenuated, temporarily or not depending on the moment-to-moment process in the room, and the flexibility of the clinician to adapt their approach accordingly.

I consider it a skill to be able to move between different ways of working with a client, and when discovering somatic ways I immediately knew I had found a missing piece to what had come before. Initially it did take some getting use to, and there are many particular distinguishing details to learn—and many of those details are shared among the variety of somatic (and other) models, with some very important differences among them to be understood, too—but the core learning transformed my understanding of where change can be found.

A truly fascinating discovery I noticed early on is that when clients accept the invitation to work somatically, what so often emerges from them can still be described in psychodynamic or analytic terms. With no interpretation or suggestions by me, the origins of their shame come pouring out with all its introjected beliefs; and greed and envy and jealousy, hatred and murderous rage, sex and death drives and wishes—all the classic analytic content of the repressed mind—flow forward as if scripted by the great historical theorists, yet spoken by the client in their own words. Witnessing this confirms the efforts made by other models such as Gestalt and Hakomi to relanguage the old scripts that led to the ‘golden road’ of pathologizing.

Working somatically readily reveals that the body/brain/mind—the whole Person—are hungry for digesting and relational growth, hungry for their capacity to be met with the needed nourishing opportunity to do so, needing mostly confirming assistance and supports to restart what was left unfinished, to reprocess and release what was originally indigestible, giving life to implicitly held living capabilities.

Viewed as a transformative contributor to the current consciousness of our profession, Somatic Psychotherapy asks us to bring in more of the person, so that the art of psychotherapy can come ever closer to finding and enabling their capacities for living a fuller life.

Daniel Factor, LMFT, TMR Level 2, EMDR Certified