Conversations about somatic psychology, relational therapies, mindfulness and trauma therapies.
David Allen: The implicit pressures that shape our clients
To be effective, therapy has to address the implicit pressures that shaped our clients and continue to shape them. This includes the implicit messages people derived from their upbringing (e.g. parent implicitly encouraging child to act out while explicitly not doing so). This also includes the social milieu which exerts implicit pressure for them to keep conforming.
David M. Allen, MD, is professor emeritus of psychiatry and former director of psychiatric residency training at The University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, TN. He has carried out research on personality disorders, is a psychotherapy theorist, and is the former associate editor of the Journal of Psychotherapy Integration. He is the author of “Coping with Critical, Demanding, and Dysfunctional Parents: Powerful Strategies to Help Adult Children Maintain Boundaries and Stay Sane“, “How Dysfunctional Families Spur Mental Disorders” and other books, as well as numerous journal articles and book chapters.
Published October 2020.
Understanding social myth: Why it’s so hard to find common ground & how to do it
The other day, I saw a poster. It’s the iconic picture of Rambo with bulging muscles and a bazooka. But, instead of the head of Sylvester Stallone, it has the head of Donald Trump. The caption goes, “Trump. No Man. No Woman. No Commie Can Stump Him.”
My first reaction was to think of it as satire, making fun of Trump’s exaggerated opinion of himself. But, no, given the context, this was meant as a prideful statement by one of his followers.
Do his followers not know that he is obese and averse to exercise? Is it possible that they don’t know that he avoided the draft? How could they believe in something that is so far from the truth?
Pausing for inner experience
I pause a moment as I’m pondering these questions. I pay attention to my inner experience. I notice that what this brings up for me is some mixture of outrage and smugness. Outrage: how dare they represent something that is so far from the truth? Smugness: the sense that I am more in touch with reality than these people.
I know that, if I stay with my sense of outrage and smugness, all I do is reinforce my preconceptions. So I try, for a moment, to shift into a different perspective. I tap into a sense of curiosity about what this picture might mean to the people who proudly display it. Does one need to take it as literally true to be inspired by it?
Probably not. We, human beings, have the ability to use symbolic thinking. We use metaphors. Sometimes, the metaphors we choose are very carefully related to the topic. Occasionally, we voluntarily choose metaphors that present a stark contrast to highlight an aspect that is especially important to us. For instance, I remember how Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa liked to use the metaphor of warriors to reflect the quality of courage. Mindfulness practitioners are certainly not warriors in the typical sense of the term. They are not belligerent, far from that. The warrior metaphor serves to draw attention to their hero quality.
But what if the metaphor is so over the top that it loses any power? When Vladimir Putin displays pictures of himself bare-chested, it is consistent with his background as a sportsman, a judo practitioner. But what could the man who avoided the draft because of bone spurs possibly have to do with a Rambo-like figure?
Calvin & Hobbes
To better understand this, I find it helpful to think of one of my favorite comic strips, Calvin and Hobbes. Calvin is a little boy, and Hobbes is his tiger. Clearly, for Calvin’s parents and all the other characters in this strip, this is what Hobbes is: a stuffed animal, a toy. But, whenever Calvin interacts with him, Hobbes is represented as fully alive. A magnificent, powerful tiger. More than that, a tiger who is also able to speak and play with Calvin.
You could say that all of the stories take place in Calvin’s imagination. So what? Saying that misses out on what gives these stories their charm. They don’t just talk about the fantasy world of the kid. They draw us into it. To enjoy the story, you suspend disbelief that this is a stuffed animal. You see and experience Hobbes as a full-fledged character, not a toy but an animal. Actually, an animal who is also a person. But also a stuffed toy, because the story works on many levels. You have to follow it on all the levels as it unfolds.
The story that unfolds does not have an “as if” quality. It would be boring if it were possible to reduce it to what’s happening in Calvin’s imagination. What makes it captivating is that it is also happening in our imaginations. The power of good stories is that they draw us into the world of fantasy. What makes a story enjoyable is not how closely it hews to literal truth. It is how it captures something compelling that literal truth cannot capture as well. It is akin to how a simple drawing can capture a sense of a p...
Merete Holm Brantbjerg: A gentle, resource-oriented approach to stress & trauma
Merete Holm Brantbjerg talks about working with low energy states and our “invisible parts” in the context of Relational Trauma Therapy.
Merete Holm Brantbjerg developed Relational Trauma Therapy, a psychomotor and systems-oriented approach. She is an international trainer, group leader, and therapist based in Denmark. See website.
– PDF of ROST presence skills.
– A resource for clients: Video and PDF transcript of Merete Holm Brantbjerg for the general public.
Published August 2020.
Eric Wolterstorff: Society under sustained stress
In this conversation, Eric Wolterstorff draws on a systems approach to describe how the pandemic has elicited a “stress chain reaction.” He sees a parallel with the model mapped by Murray Bowen in the context of family dynamics. He also talks about how to dampen the chain reaction each time it passes through you. See also PDF transcript.
Dr. Eric Wolterstorff works at the intersection of psychology, trauma, culture, and group behavior (“A Speculative Model of How Groups Respond to Threats,” 2003). In the 1990s, Wolterstorff helped formalize Peter Levine’s work and placed it in the context of a memory-systems approach to healing trauma. He studied the work of Murray Bowen and Arnold Mindel, and created an approach to working with trauma and transference (Wolterstorff and Grassmann, “The Scene of the Crime,” 2014). With Glen Strathy, he is writing Better Parents, Better Children (2021) based on the work of Lloyd DeMause. He leads Sovereignty First, a social-impact LLC that helps organizations generate solutions to big problems that cross sectors, borders, cultures, & factions. He advises Cooperative Capacity Partners, a social-impact LLC that increases power-sharing, cooperation, and performance in global public-sector partnerships. Wolterstorff lives in Boulder, Colorado, with his fiancée, Jodi Simon, and her son, Liam. See website.
Published June 2020.
Basic assumptions: What we do and why we do it
The giant “pause” that we are going through due to COVID is an opportunity to reflect on what our basic assumptions are as to what we do and why we do it. I am sharing my thoughts with you in the hope that they will stimulate you to formulate your own.
What is it that we aim to achieve in therapy? Often, but not always, the desired outcome is lasting, sustainable change. For the purpose of this article, I will be assuming that this is the desired outcome.
How do we accomplish that? I see therapy as a transformative experience, which leads the client to learn new patterns of responding to life’s interactions.
We can conceptualize this as a rewiring of neural circuits. If we were able to see the wiring, we would presumably notice the change. In any case, the transformation is not an abstraction. We can very much see it in the way it manifests. Essentially, the client is now reliably able to be responsive, rather than reactive, in situations that were triggering them.
The notion of responsive vs reactive has a correlate in which circuit of the autonomic nervous system is involved. Under threat, the ANS networks are activated in a specific order, ranging from most sophisticated to most primitive. See polyvagal theory diagram.
These self-states are readily observable phenomena: in the course of therapy, we can track the client’s somatic experience to monitor where they are on this roadmap. We can also coach the client to improve their somatic awareness.
Within this framework, the notion of “meaning“ is not a philosophical concept: it reflects the experience we have of a given circuit in the ANS. That is, in dorsal vagal mode, the experience is that of an overwhelming threat. In sympathetic mode, it is that of fighting or fleeing threat. In social engagement mode, we have access to many more nuances of meaning.
Looking at change within the context of the autonomic nervous system reminds us that what we are dealing with is the human ability to manage interaction. This is a relational perspective, as opposed to a “one-person psychology”. Hence the following implications:
– We therapists are not outside observers but human beings engaged in an interactive process with our clients. Tracking our inner experience is a necessary part of this process.
– The therapeutic interaction requires fostering the safety and relationality that facilitate the social engagement mode, where experience can be assimilated.
– The changes will only be lasting to the extent that external factors, such as family pressures, or social pressure, are addressed.
Published May 2020.
Dave Berger & Joshua Sylvae: How COVID-19 is affecting our work as therapists
In this conversation, we talk about how the coronavirus and social distancing are affecting our work as therapists. We discuss practical details, such as how we use video-conferencing, as well as putting things in a larger context.
Dave Berger, MFT, PT, LCMHC, MA, SEP is a senior faculty member of the Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute and on Dr. Peter Levine’s legacy faculty with Ergos Institute. He teaches SE and his own BASE work, Relational Bodywork and Somatic Education for trauma practitioners, internationally. As a somatic psychotherapist, physical therapist and bodyworker he understands the broad range of knowledge and skills required of a trauma practitioner. See website.
Joshua Sylvae, PhD, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist from Oregon City, OR. His therapeutic focus is on trauma healing and somatics, and he is a faculty member at the Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute as well as Peter Levine’s Ergos Institute of Somatic Education. He is also the Executive Director of the (r)evolve Foundation, a 501(c)(3) educational nonprofit dedicated to illustrating the many ways our modern world fails the human organism, our inherent tendencies toward regulation and wellness, and how to become more resilient and less destructive in our interactions with each other and the Earth. See website.
Published April 2020.
Customer ReviewsSee All
I am a geek and psychotherapist and I am loving the condensed versions of the somatic practices in these approachable conversations! So glad this podcast exists.
I just started listening to this podcast and have already saved more episodes than any other I subscribe to. At first I was annoyed by interviewer's voice and style, especially when he interrupts. However, I am beginning to appreciate that perhaps he is trying to slow down his enthusiastic guests and summarize so audience can digest. Sometimes his recaps are more helpful than others, but it does give listener a chance to breathe. I would love to have some guests come back, especially Raja Selvam.