Exploring Your Body’s Messages: Working with the body in psychotherapy – the bioenergetic approach

Modern psychotherapy generally occurs with the therapist and client sitting on chairs or on a couch. The client(s) talks about their problems, the therapist listens, asks questions and offers insights. While bioenergetic therapy starts in this way, it doesn’t end there. Bioenergetic therapists incorporate movement as part of the therapy. The movement includes exercises to be more connected to the ground, to open restricted breathing patterns, to practice asserting personal boundaries and to express sometimes unpleasant or repressed emotions, safely and appropriately.

Rooted in awareness of the fundamental connection between mind and body, modern bioenergetic therapy offers an integrated approach to mental health. While this therapy was developed in the 1950s, contemporary scientific advances support the value of working with the body in psychotherapy. Neuroscientists and other researchers emphasize the important role of the body in common conditions such as depression, anxiety and traumatic stress. Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, in her book How Emotions Are Made, for example, links the body and emotions stating: “your body and your mind are deeply interconnected…the most important thing you can do to master your emotions, in fact, is to keep your body budget in good shape.” (Barrett, 2017) Bioenergetics addresses this through active participation of both body and mind in therapy for maximum effectiveness.  

As a bioenergetic therapist, I begin most sessions by checking in with my client (or clients when working with a couple) about their current experience. As in any other psychotherapy approach, listening attentively provides a starting point. Developing a trusting therapeutic relationship, where the client feels safe, valued and respected, builds a necessary foundation for our work. 

As the client talks, along with listening, I observe my client’s body language. I pay attention to their spontaneous movements, to the sound of their voice, to the quality of their breathing and to their overall posture. I look for clues from what their body expresses, which may be out of their awareness.

In a break in the conversation, I often ask my client: What are you aware of sensing in your body as you are talking? Their responses vary widely. Some clients look at me confused and state they don’t feel anything or they don’t know what they feel. In this situation we need to dig deeper and I may offer suggestions about what to explore. I encourage them to scan their body looking for areas that call their attention. I suggest they observe if they feel tense or in pain. I tell them to notice their breathing patterns, their level or hunger or thirst, heat or cold, and tiredness or energy. 

Many times, clients offer a clear response to my question about what they notice in their body. Their hand goes to their heart, for example. Or they identify a specific area of tension – such as their shoulders, neck or solar plexus. They may say “I feel exhausted.” or “I feel hungry.” With a focus on connecting their body, their mind and their emotions, this is important information. Their responses often provide a useful place to begin further exploration. 

Bioenergetic therapy is an intuitive method, focused on what the client needs moment to moment, rather than on a specified set of instructions. This allows for creativity and flexibility to meet the client where they are and guide them towards their desired goals. Bioenergetic therapists are trained in techniques – both physical and mental – to address a variety of issues. We assess what our client needs and offer suggestions for using the techniques to their benefit. 

Based on the client’s story, along with information gained from their body awareness, a direction for the session emerges. In a recent session, for instance, my client identified feeling tense in a particular spot in her upper back. I encouraged her to bring her awareness there and invited her to put a hand on the area. I suggested that she start with exaggerating the tension. I explained that this is counterintuitive as the tension was uncomfortable, but invited her to see it as an exploration of a message from her body. 

As she exaggerated the tension, she described feeling disgust. I encouraged her to stand so she could move more freely with this emotion. We worked with a grounding exercise of simply bending and straightening her legs while pressing her feet down on the floor. She spontaneously began to shake out her arms and her head. I encouraged her to allow this movement and to continue with the shaking. She then talked about memories of times from her childhood when her father violated her boundaries (such as walking in when she was in the shower as a young teenager). 

In listening to her describe these memories, I felt anger rising in my body – which I identify as a natural response to this type of violation. Sympathetic responses are common. Some of you might put your hand to your own heart when you hear someone else’s bad news, or you may feel angry when hearing about someone being hurt or violated. 

I know this client well as we have worked together weekly for a few years. She has been through significant difficulties in the time she has been coming to therapy and has a solid sense of herself. She has expressed her anger many times previously in her therapy sessions. From this, I assessed that she would benefit from working actively with her anger. I felt clear that she could integrate these feelings while staying grounded in herself. 

With a client I did not know as well or who did not have this level of ego strength, I would have moved more slowly. I would have likely suggested more grounding exercises and would have explored their feelings, offering empathy and compassion for the painful memories. I would introduce movement and encourage expression more gradually. 

With this client, I invited her to get a towel (we were working on tele health) and to start by twisting it. I encouraged her to express to her father what she couldn’t say when she was a child, with both words and sounds. I suggested she bend and straighten her legs a few times to stay solidly grounded. If she had said she did not feel angry, we would have explored what she felt instead. But this direction resonated for her. She expressed her anger at her father – saying, “Get out!” and “Go away!” She made sounds which expressed her anger and frustration as well. After a few minutes of doing this, her expression slowed. She spontaneously shook out her arms, releasing the emotion and the memory. 

I encouraged her to continue bending and straightening her legs to emphasize grounding, as the emotion moved through her and she integrated the experience. I also encouraged her to put her arms out in front of her with her palms facing outward to affirm her right to her boundaries and her ability to assert them in the present. After doing this for a few minutes she reported feeling better. She was calmer and the tension in her upper back had released.

Working with her body provided a safe way for the memories and emotions from the past to move through her. Through grounding in her body, she could identify that what happened was not acceptable and that she has the strength as an adult (which she could not have as a child) to protect her boundaries. She was able to learn from the message of her body (the tension in her back). As she processed the painful memories and related emotions, the tension released. More tension will likely appear for her as there may be more difficult memories to uncover, but she has the experience to know she can work through it and come out feeling better than she did before. 

In other situations, I use an exercise ball or a bioenergetic stool (which looks like a step ladder with a rolled up blanket on top) to help clients release tensions which constrict their breathing. I instruct clients to slowly lower their body backwards over the ball or the stool, with their hands supporting their head, gently stretching it back to rest on the ball or stool. Some people need a pillow behind their head to support their neck. I tell them that their balance is in their legs so remind them to keep one foot on the floor at all times. 

In this position I encourage my clients to notice what they sense in their body. I suggest they breathe into any areas of tension, even putting a hand on those areas for support. I let them experience this stretch. I observe what happens in their body, especially with their breathing, in the process. I often invite them to focus their mind on what’s happening in their body. I suggest they give in to the support of the ball or stool, letting it hold them. 

This exercise elicits a variety of responses. Sometimes an emotion arises, such as sadness, anger or fear. Often my clients observe changes in their breathing. At other times, a memory emerges or they note various sensations in their body. We work with whatever emerges and follow with appropriate movements. If sadness arises, for example, I encourage them to allow it to move through, which may include tears. Some movements lead to pleasurable sensations, which we aim to allow and even to increase. Making sounds can help with releasing tensions and expressing emotions. Most people experience this as awkward or uncomfortable initially. But over time, as they do it repeatedly, they observe that it feels good and helps to let go of stress. Dr. Stephen Porges, originator of the Polyvagal Theory, confirms this in his descriptions of how singing and vocalizing help to calm the vagus nerve. (Porges, 2017).

These are some of the ways that bioenergetic therapists integrate work with the body in psychotherapy. Bioenergetic therapists explore their client’s story, including both present issues and childhood experiences. We integrate work with a person’s mind, body, spirit, emotions and relationships to offer an opportunity for maximum effectiveness. This method is not quick or easy, but can offer hope in addressing some of the most challenging conditions such as trauma, loss, chronic pain, depression, anxiety, addictions, etc. Bioenergetics focuses on helping people have more vitality and capacity to enjoy their life. I have witnessed many clients grow enormously. Many have stated in the course of therapy: “Bioenergetic therapy has saved my life!” I have personally experienced deep, life-changing transformation through this approach. 

References:

Feldman Barrett, L. 2017. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 176

Porges, S. 2017. The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co. 185 – 186

You have a right to your boundaries: If someone doesn’t respect them, make them stronger

A friend recently asked me to look over an email conversation with her father. She wanted feedback about how to proceed in their relationship and asked for my opinion as an objective professional. She explained that she had told him in no uncertain terms that she did not want to get together in person. He persisted to pressure her for this. I did not need to see the emails to advise her; she had asserted her limits clearly and he did not respect her limit. It was clear, she needed to make a stronger boundary. We discussed what that would mean for her. I encouraged her to follow her instinct (almost always a good first step) – to stop communicating with him, at least for now and thus end, or at least pause, the power struggle. 

The challenge with making strong boundaries comes when you prioritize being nice over reinforcing your boundary. Wanting to be liked by the other person, wanting them to understand your position, or wanting them to change can keep you from enforcing your limit. You may not want to be seen as rude. But, when you express a limit, you have a right to have this acknowledged and respected. Period. If the other person does not provide due respect, this leaves you with only one viable option: making your limit stronger. You may lose your connection with the person, either temporarily or permanently. But it’s a risk you sometimes must take, to preserve your mental health, self-respect and well being.

An exception to this is when setting limits puts you in danger, or even puts your life at risk. In some situations with authority figures, such as police or customs security, for example, you could be treated worse if you set limits, especially if you are a person of color. I don’t recommend saying to a police officer, for example: “I’ll only hand you my license and step out of my care if you treat me with respect.” Or, in abusive situations, where you are not able to leave, your best option for self-protection may be to surrender to the wishes of your abuser until you can safely leave. Setting limits may not be a good choice. If you depend on someone for important needs, the risk of losing this support may also be too great to risk setting limits. In these difficult situations you need to prioritize your safety. 

From the perspective of modern bioenergetic therapy, personal boundaries includes the whole range of interactions – both setting limits and reaching out for what you need and want.  My colleague Terry Hunt, EdD, Certified Bioenergetic Therapist defines personal boundaries as “transactions at the point of contact between people.” (It can also include transactions between a person and an animal or between animals).  For some people setting limits is easy, but reaching out is challenging. Others have no problem asking for what they need or want, but they may find setting limits to be difficult. Boundary transactions occur in a variety of realms – including physical, mental, emotional, energetic and spiritual. Both positive transactions and violations can occur in each of these areas. 

In many interactions boundary transactions go smoothly. One person, for example, requests something of the other, such as a hug, getting together for coffee, cooking dinner, etc. The person agrees to provide it, everyone gets what they need or want and all is well. Or, a person is not able to do something the other wants and communicates this clearly. The person may not like it, but accepts the limit with respect. Frequently, however, these transactions do not go so smoothly. In these situations, like with my friend, something had to change in the relationship. Either the person who is not being respected subjugates their needs to their own detriment, or they set a stronger limit. 

In my practice as a bioenergetic therapist, I combine active work with the body along with traditional talk psychotherapy (for more information about bioenergetic therapy, see my website at: www.laurieure.com). I work with clients regularly on issues of personal boundaries. Most people have not learned that they have a right to their boundaries. I witness the impact of unclear boundary communications between my clients and their intimate partners or family members frequently. It leads to a lot of unhappiness! Boundary challenges occur in all types of relationships – with children, parents, siblings, co-workers, friends, extended family, intimate partners, etc.

In a relationship where there has been a power differential in the past, such as with a parent or child, the expectations of established power dynamics may continue. My friend is an example of this. I believe her father expected her to yield to his wishes. As an adult, she is creating new patterns in their relationship. Making a stronger boundary with her father than she has been accustomed to in the past was uncomfortable initially. She felt guilty, which is partially why she asked for my support. But asserting herself in this way is necessary for establishing their adult relationship as equals going forward. She has to take this risk to change the expectations and dynamics between them. 

With clients, I have observed that unclarity about boundaries can cause misery, both from allowing people to take advantage of them or from not getting their needs met. My clients need education about their right to their boundaries. They need practice in expressing boundary communications more clearly. As they take risks, experimenting with new and unfamiliar behaviors, they need support. It takes time and repeated practice. My clients also often need help processing the pain from past boundary violations. If you need this type of support with boundaries, a therapist skilled in this type of work can help.

Bioenergetic therapists have the added benefit of working with boundary exercises physically. This brings the significant bonus of working with both body language and words. Since humans communicate at least as much non-verbally as verbally, a bioenergetic therapist can help you match your body language with your words and the tone of your voice. This is very effective for practicing boundary communications and for getting stronger in clearly expressing boundaries. 

In working with boundaries physically, I generally start with a grounding exercise from bioenergetics. I encourage my clients to stand. From a standing position you have more options for movement and it is a position of greater strength than sitting. If you wish to experience the exercise, put your feet about hip width apart, with your knees slightly bent and your weight evenly divided on both feet, centered over you arches. Bend and straighten your legs a few times while pressing your feet down on the floor. Having a solid sense of grounding in yourself is a prerequisite for communicating clearly with others.

We explore boundaries through a few basic exercises. There are many variations and ways of working with these exercises. If you feel anxious or if feelings come up, you can stop at any time and return to the grounding exercise. Generally, we start with setting limits, so you can feel your ability to enforce your limits before you risk reaching out with vulnerability. Put your arms out in front of you at shoulder level. Face your palms outward with your wrists bent backwards. Press outwards, into your palms. You can add words such as “I have a right to my boundary.” or “This is my space.” or simply “No.” Notice how it is for you to do the exercise. What do you feel? Is it new for you, or familiar? 

To work with reaching out, do the grounding exercise again. Then reach your arms forward, at shoulder level. Reach with your fingers straight our and your palms facing each other about a foot apart. Keep your elbows soft. You can add words such as: “I want.” or “I need.” or “Please help me.” Again, notice how it is for you to do the exercise. What do you feel? Is it new for you, or familiar? 

For some people reaching out causes fear. For others, setting limits may increase their anxiety. This is a natural response. Do the grounding exercise again to allow these feelings move through you. Go slowly and explore what comes up as you do the exercises.

Bioenergetic exercise classes often include practicing these boundary exercises. Everyone can benefit from regular practice – asserting your right to have clear, strong limits and to reach out for what you desire. Practicing in a group adds the benefit of mutual support. 

Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, and Prince Harry have recently modeled for the world the difficult and sometimes painful choices in asserting personal boundaries. in their interview with Oprah on March 7, 2021, they described the boundary violations they experienced. These included disrespect of Meghan, based on the color of her skin. She was not permitted to leave the palace grounds on her own. They also revealed that family members expressed concerns about the color of their son’s skin. Meghan and Harry stated that their son would not be granted royal status within the family or afforded the necessary security that goes with this status. This led to deep depression in Meghan, including suicidal thoughts. When they requested help for her mental state, she was refused the help she needed. Understandably, this was not acceptable. Their only choice was to make their boundary stronger. For them, this meant leaving the royal family and the country. This was a life-saving choice, when there were not other options available. We can concur that her depression would have continued and likely worsened if they had stayed in that situation. This has meant tremendous loss for them, but the loss involved with staying would have been worse.

Whether you need help from a therapist, or simply words of encouragement, I can assure you that you have an essential right to have your boundaries and to express both your limits and your desires in your relationships. If someone does not respect your limits, you have a right and an obligation to yourself to assert them more strongly. What it actually means to have a stronger limit varies from one situation to another. In the case of my friend, she needed to cease communications with her father. For Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex and Prince Harry, it meant leaving their royal status and emigrating to the US. 

Similarly, for you, having stronger limits may mean withdrawing from a friendship or family member, at least temporarily. Having a stronger boundary does not mean you are being rude. Consider: it may be that the other person is rude by not respecting your limits. In many relationships, if you start by asking for what you want, you may be able negotiate. You won’t get all of what you want but you may get more of what you want. Sometimes, however, negotiating is not an option. If, for example, you are in an unsafe situation, you will need to assess when it is in your best interest to do this and when it is not. 

If you express your boundary clearly and are treated with disrespect, make your boundary stronger. This may result in significant losses, which may be sad and painful. It can cause you to feel guilty at first. But I can assure you that as you work through the loss, the guilt and the discomfort, in time you will have greater self-respect and an opportunity for more satisfying relationships. 

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