Can Psychotherapy Feel Good?

Can psychotherapy feel good?   Or is psychotherapy all about swimming in the muck of shameful impulses?  “Getting help”  has come to mean exhibiting one’s dysfunction in front of a stranger.   What if there was another way to think of psychotherapy?  I believe that psychotherapy can feel good.  It may sometimes even be fun -- and maybe it’s more effective when it’s fun.

Freud and Shame

What are the origins of this aversion to psychotherapy?  Let’s go back 100 years or so.  Remember Sigmund Freud?  It seems that we as a culture can’t forget him.  And we shouldn’t.  But we may want to question some of his biases.  At the root of Freud’s theory is the idea that our Id -- our impulsive, untamed “inner bad-boy” (or girl), is continuously in conflict with our Superego; our conscience. We wish we could get rid of our mom and marry our dad, and we feel miserable because our superego tells us No.  Our desires and drives get us into trouble.  In this worldview the human condition is fundamentally unworkable.  We experience a never-ending conflict between what we want to do and what we “should” do.  What would a therapy session be like in which the therapist perceives the human condition as unworkable?  What would it be like to talk to a therapist who believes that he has to fix you?  How would the therapist interact with a client whom he/she believes is inherently dysfunctional?  I’ll call this psychotherapist Therapist 1.

Our Parts Love Us

Now imagine a therapy session in which the therapist believes that the human psyche is innately functional, maybe even sacred.  This therapist (Therapist 2), believes that our impulses are good.  She may ascribe to the Internal Family Systems model -- a model that identifies “subpersonalities” that help us cope.  She knows that all our subpersonalities or “parts” want the best for us, that each part is valuable and lovable. What Freudians call the Id, Therapist 2 might call an inner child.  What Freudians call the Superego, this therapist might call a taskmaster.  Therapist 2 would listen to the inner child, hear out the taskmaster, call on the inner nurturer, bring forth the Wise Self. She might encourage the inner parent to calm the child.  She might listen while the Wise Self counsels the taskmaster. Therapist 2 would facilitate a dialogue among parts, knowing that all want the best for their person. In other words, our inner wisdom, under the right circumstances, (and sometimes with a little nudging), can gracefully ease us towards health.  Humans are not inherently neurotic. We are inherently wise. Healers like Therapist 2 can help us access that wisdom and honor each part of ourselves. That kind of therapy session feels good!


Here’s an analogy that might help.  Most of you have probably received a massage.  As psychotherapy aims to improve psyche functioning,  massage therapy aims to improve body functioning.  Using the model of two hypothetical massage sessions is a good way to compare the two psychotherapy approaches described above.  Massage Therapist 1 believes that bodies can’t self-regulate.  She may bully the body in order to bring it to her vision of health.  Massage Therapist 2 believes that bodies have inner wisdom and the capacity to self-heal.  She will approach the client gently and respectfully.  She may give a little boost to the body’s self-healing ability.  Massage Therapist 1 would probably (unintentionally) inflict pain, while Massage Therapist 2 would playfully partner with the body to facilitate equilibrium.


Is It All In Your Head?

What happened to the term “psycho-somatic?  For some reason it is no longer common parlance.  What does the term mean?  In popular usage, the term implied that the ailment referred to was “all in ‘your’ head.”  The roots of the term are the Greek words psyche which means mind, and somato which means body; therefore a true translation would be mindbody.   A psychosomatic disorder, for instance, can be described as “a disease which involves both mind and body.”1  I’m glad the term is not used in a derogatory way anymore, but I wonder why it’s rarely used at all.  Perhaps we have retired the term because research has confirmed the mind/body connection.

Can an ailment be “all in your head?”  Let’s think about it.  Is there a part of the body that is not affected by our thoughts and feelings?  Test anxiety may bring on sweaty palms.  Chronic emotional stress can cause adrenal fatigue.  Imagining hamburgers stimulates salivary glands.  Depressed feelings can translate into slumped posture and fatigue.  And researchers have discovered that even our DNA can be affected by emotions.   “According to the new insights of behavioral epigenetics, traumatic experiences in our past, or in our recent ancestors’ past, leave molecular scars adhering to our DNA.”2  So trauma, and the resulting emotions, can change molecules.

Does this have implications for psychotherapy?  As a body-centered psychotherapist and integrative healer,  I’d like to propose that the best psychotherapy is embodied psychotherapy.  Since emotions can have physical expressions, and since our bodies dialogue with our psyches,  it makes sense for client and psychotherapist to tune into the body.  Client and therapist can better understand and heal if we notice sensations in our bodies.  Tuning in to our bodies helps us to access information below the level of consciousness.  In the words of Candice Pert, “...the deepest oldest messages are stored and must be accessed through the body. Your body is your unconscious mind, and you can't heal it by talk alone” 3   By tuning in to the tension in your shoulders, you may realize that you feel the “weight of the world” and need to delegate responsibilities.  By noticing a subtle pain in your jaw you may take account of the repressed anger towards your spouse.  Your neck muscles may be tight for fear you’ll “lose your head.”  You may be weak in the knees, dizzy with love, or live with a “pain in the neck.”   Your hip may hurt because you feel “out of joint.”  The body speaks in telling symbols.  It behooves us to listen.  

We are psycho-somatic beings -- and to me that means it’s not all in our heads.  It’s also in our hips and our necks and our backs and our shoulders....



3 Pert, C. B. (1997). Molecules of emotions. New York, NY: Scribner.

Somatic Spirituality

In a review of the the book “The Awakening Body” by Reginald Ray, I came across the term “somatic spirituality.”  What is somatic spirituality?  According to Ray, it “involves tuning in to the vast interior world of wakefulness, freedom, and joy that lies just beneath the surface, in our body.”  He explains that the body is capable of an awareness beyond what our conscious mind can achieve, that our bodies are aware in ways that our minds are not.  The consciousness of our bodies transcends that of the mind.  Perhaps it is ironic that the word “mindful” is most commonly understood as meaning present and aware.  It is our bodies that are “mindful” in a way our logical minds cannot be.  Our logical mind judges, rationalizes, and worries about the future, whereas our bodies experience directly, unimpeded by conscious bias and prejudice.  And direct experience, especially to Buddhists, equals awareness, which facilitates enlightenment, or “spiritual” awakening.

How can tuning in to the body help us emotionally? Tuning in to the body helps us access sensations, emotions, and information unavailable to the logical mind. The body is a warehouse of wisdom. Somatic therapies such as body-centered psychotherapy help clients gain precious insight by listening to our “body-talk.”  In the words of Reginald Ray, “Until our emotional blockages from trauma of any kind are known directly within our somatic awareness, no actual psychological transformation is possible.”  Trauma, in this sense, could mean an angry exchange, an unmet need, as well as violent abuse.  Overwhelming pain or even mild irritation often bypasses our mind and lodges in our bodies. A liver can “own” anger to spare the conscience. A sacrum can hold pain to spare the heart.  As a body-centered psychotherapist I will often facilitate a dialogue with the liver or sacrum (or toe or throat or inner child), and attend to its (their) needs.  Many times just listening brings clarity and relief.  The client may gain healing insight, and/or benefit from physiological changes/energetic shifts. By attuning to and listening to our bodies, we can viscerally know ourselves and begin the process of healing.

Some might call that somatic spirituality.