USING BIOENERGETICS IN DAILY LIFE
Carl H. Shubs, Ph.D. ©1993
As I was thinking about what I wanted to write for the Journal, I began to reflect on how I use bioenergetics in my daily life. We often think of bioenergetics in the context of psychotherapy, as a theory, a way of understanding life’s problems and as a vehicle to work through those issues in therapy, but I find that it is also a way of being with oneself in the world.
Among the basic issues of bioenergetics are awareness, contact, and connection. As people come into my office and are telling me about the events that happen to them, often I discover that they have told me the story but left themselves out of it. I then have to ask what their experience of the event was. Ten people who go through a divorce will have ten different experiences of that event or of the particulars of it (“He yelled at me and said …” or “She slammed the door and …”). I have to ask the cliched therapy question, “What was that like for you?” Sometimes, people can tell me easily, and at other times they may have difficulty. As I try to understand and appreciate the uniqueness of their experience of that event, my next question frequently is, “What were you aware of?”
This is the same place from which I often begin the bioenergetic aspect of my work with people. As they tell me about a feeling they are having, whether it be anger, fear, sadness, longing, love, excitement, or something else, I ask how they experience that feeling. “As you feel [fill in the blank], what are you aware of in your body?” From that, I may learn about the churning in their stomach, the tightness of their jaw, or the ache in their heart.
The first step, then, is the focusing of awareness. This is the movement from unconsciousness to consciousness. It is the beginning of the establishment of a connection between the various parts or aspects of one’s self, particularly the connection with the body.
Some people may have greater access to their perception of their feeling, as noted above. The feeling may have a tendency to be cut off from the self, to be detached, to be dis-embodied. It may be more easily experienced to exist in the mind, intellectually, rather than physically, in the body. For people with this tendency, or whose coping mechanisms may have them operating in that mode at a given time, the goal is to reestablish the connection by focusing the awareness on what is happening in the body at that point in time.
Other people operate in the reverse fashion. For them, the connection with the feeling is too frightening, too threatening, and their defense mechanism works in such a way, either typically or temporarily, to allow them to be aware of their physical sensations but not of the feelings connected with them. They may easily be able to identify physical feelings and say, “My stomach feels tight,” or “My shoulders are tense,” or “My legs feel weak and shaky,” though they may not be able to identify any accompanying emotional feelings, such as, “I feel scared,” or “I feel angry,” or “I feel weak.” For these people, the journey of awareness begins with the physical feeling and then allowing their awareness of it to grow, develop, and expand.
Often, just the process of allowing the awareness of the sensation to exist will bring forth the connection to the emotion. Sometimes, letting the physical sensation build or exaggerating it will help enable the connection. At other times, following the impulse (“What does your hand want to do?”) or following the impulse that the tension may prevent or block (“What would your foot want to do if it could let go?”) will lead to the connection with the emotion. We may then discover the feeling that the body is either expressing or defending against, such as “I want to hit [I’m angry]” or “I want to run away [I’m scared].”
In either case, making the connection between the physical and emotional feelings, between the mind and the body, and following the expression of those feelings, can then lead us to the basis for them: the contact with another person. These emotions and their physical counterparts exist within the context of a relationship. When we can connect the feelings within ourselves, when we can identify the feeling as an expression of an emotion, the next question is, “Who are you saying that to?”
It often happens that someone may come into the office, connect their physical feelings with their emotional feelings, move toward the expression of that feeling, and then discover that, though they had been angry at their spouse, it was really their mother or their father that they were angry at. The spouse had been the present-day target of old wounds from childhood. Or, the spouse had been acting like their parent had and the person was now unconsciously trying to replay the old movie of their childhood and remake it through the new cast that was standing in for the original one. With that realization, frequently, the pressure lifts off the current relationship as the person learns that their partner is not the real one with whom their issue lies. Similarly, the pressure may lift as the person realizes that they are not as helpless or dependent on the partner as they had been with their parent. They then discover that they have many options available to them that they never thought they had. Thus, their sense of helplessness and powerlessness may drop away as they come to replay the original interaction in therapy and learn to develop their renewed sense of power, competence, support, and self-possession.
With this focus on the issues of awareness, connection, and contact, I find that I regularly engage in dialogues with myself similar to those I have with my patients. After years of having engaged in this process through my own therapy and through the work I do with the patients in my office, the process often comes naturally on a day-to-day basis. For instance, as I become aware of some physical sensation, perhaps noting a tension in my jaw, a widening of my eyes, or a constriction in my throat, I ask myself what that physical characteristic might be expressing in relation to an emotion I might be having [clenching my jaw in anger or fear, widening my eyes in surprise or fright or shock, or constricting my throat in holding in a scream]. Similarly, as I notice that I am feeling some emotion, I may ask myself how I am experiencing it physically, in my body. I may then connect with an awareness of an emptiness in the pit of my stomach, a weakness in my legs, or a tension in my neck and shoulders. I also ask myself what expression is being manifest in my body. “What is my body saying?” It may be “Get away,” “Don’t hurt me,” or “I need you,” for example.
As I let myself stay connected with the feeling in my body, follow the impulses, see what they are trying to express, and notice who I am saying that to, I find that I am able to be clearer and cleaner in my relationships with the people in my life. Doing this helps me to separate out what are my issues with the people in my current life, what do I really want to or need to say to them, and what are my own core issues that persist in surfacing as I continue in my efforts to work them through.
This process of focusing awareness and then following or tracking the results of that awareness do not have to take place in the therapy room alone, nor to they have to occur solely in the context of trying to resolve some conflict in my life. As I stand in line at the bank or the supermarket, I let myself notice how I am standing. How well am I grounded? Do I feel the ground underneath me? If I feel ungrounded, how do I compensate in my body? Am I adjusting by pulling back, by sticking my neck out, by making myself rigid? How flexible do I feel?
Am I able to move fluidly, easily, gracefully? Do I feel blocked anywhere in my body? What is that expressing or protecting? Who is that expression directed towards? As I notice my connection with myself, I also may inquire about my contact with others. What kind of eye contact do I have with the environment around me? Do I feel an openness or a closedness in my eye contact with others? When I change one aspect of this experience, do I notice a change in another aspect? When I make a conscious change in the tension of one part of my body, or in the way I stand perhaps, is there an accompanying change in some other part of my body? Is there an accompanying change in my emotional experience of myself or of my sense of contact with someone else?
This process of self-exploration and self-discovery is one that can occur almost anywhere or any time. We wait in lines. We sit in cars on routine trips or stuck in traffic. We sit at desks, make phone calls, have meals with others. We stand at the sink to brush our teeth. We walk from here to there. These can all be opportunities to check in with ourselves.
From that awareness, we can increase our sense of self-connection. We can then reach out to make contact, with more honesty, with an increased sense of completeness, and with a greater ability to enjoy that contact. This is an ongoing process that we can continue to practice and develop, leading to an ever-expanding capacity for pleasure and enjoyment.
© Copyright, Carl H. Shubs, Ph.D., 1993.
Reprinted from “Using Bioenergetics in Daily Life,” Southern California Bioenergetic Conference Journal, February, 1993, 10-15.
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