Beyond Words: Working Non-Verbally in Psychotherapy
Before I became a psychotherapist, I worked for many years as a massage therapist and bodyworker. From very early on in my massage training, I found that working with touch would often facilitate emotional movement and release in those who received it. Although this felt to me like an important part of the work I was doing, how to work specifically with the emotions that arose from the body did not receive a lot of attention in my training. We were mostly taught to stay away from what was brought up emotionally for people during sessions. As I have always felt that health comes from a greater integration between mind and body, this felt like a missed opportunity to me. After some years in private practice, I decided it was time to take the next step towards working with the body in a way that fully supported this integration, which is when I discovered body psychotherapy.
In body psychotherapy, we work on the basis that our emotions and experiences are not only felt in our minds, but also throughout our bodies. In addition to talking, a body psychotherapy session might include guiding clients through visualisations, using art materials to draw things, facilitating the client to free associate through their body, or working with biodynamic massage, a type of bodywork that explores how clients experience touch on an emotional level. A body psychotherapist will also pay careful attention to what is happening in their own and their client’s bodies, providing further material to explore in the session.
What these methods all have in common is that they work non-verbally with the client, and while there may well be a verbal dialogue to help guide the session, the aim is to support the client into a deeper sense of their experience through their bodies. In this article, I will delve a little deeper into a couple of these methods, drawing on the learning from my training in body psychotherapy at the Cambridge Body Psychotherapy Centre, as well as my experiences as both a therapist and a client. There have also been some useful things I’ve read along the way that inform my thinking, some of which I will suggest at the end.
Why work non-verbally?
There are many reasons why we might choose to work non-verbally in psychotherapy. While some might argue that giving voice to our inner experience and having it heard by another is integral to the transformative power of psychotherapy, it is also possible that for certain people, or for certain experiences, we lose something when we try to put it into words. Certainly as a client of body psychotherapy, I’ve had times when I’ve found it difficult to describe much at all! Somehow the words I could muster couldn’t do justice to what was happening for me. The combination of feelings, sensations, emotions, and memories that we experience can be so complicated that in trying to describe them, we cannot help but simplify them. While this may make the experience more manageable, it may also detract from it, or make it less than it truly is.
Some experiences may more easily lend themselves to being talked about than others. I’ve worked with clients who have been through severe traumas that words don’t seem to do justice to, or who may have been re-traumatised by having to talk about them. Sometimes the complicated feelings around these traumatic experiences may also be challenging to verbalise – shame, embarrassment, and fear, amongst others, can be difficult to voice. I’ve also worked with clients who have suffered traumas before they were able to speak. Traumas in the first two years of life, or even pre-birth, seem to defy words, perhaps because the client at that time had little or no words to put to them, or perhaps because they’re just too awful to talk about.
When we support a client to sit with their whole experience, fully in their body and without having to explain it, we allow them the space to come to a deeper understanding of the range of ways that the things in their past affects them in the present moment. I’ve chosen two ways of working non-verbally to go into in a bit more detail: working with body awareness, and working with touch in biodynamic massage.
Working non-verbally with body awareness
For the first year of my training in body psychotherapy, I spent a lot of time doing exercises that developed my internal sense of myself. These included meditations, guided visualisations, and movement exercises, where I was encouraged to notice, as non-judgmentally as possible, what was happening to me moment by moment. What did I notice in my body? Were there any sensations I felt? What was happening to my breathing? Did any images come up for me? This intra-psychic development is, I believe, an important foundation of working with non-verbal process in psychotherapy. By practicing tracking what is happening in your own body, you will become more able to track what is happening in a client’s. Furthermore, what is happening inside you will say something of the transference / countertransference, or the relational space that you and the client have created.
How then do you work with this in therapy? It depends on what you decide to do with the information you get from tracking your body’s process. It may be that you hold onto it and bring it up in supervision later. You might name it while with a client, bringing another aspect of your experience of them and the therapeutic relationship into the room. You might notice something in them – a movement or a tension, for instance – which you name and encourage them to feel into, to let grow, and see where that leads. However you work with it, by bringing awareness to your own and your client’s body process, you support a deepening and expansion of their experience of themselves in the therapy room.
Working non-verbally with biodynamic massage
For many therapists, the idea of working with touch in psychotherapy is alarming. Indeed, touch should not be used unless the therapist has had the proper training, and the work is explicitly contracted for with the client. If used mindfully, however, and with an open dialogue between therapist and client, touch can be a powerful and direct way of working with the unconscious, and with the relational dynamics between the client and therapist.
One of the ways we work with touch in body psychotherapy is through biodynamic massage – a method of bodywork developed by Gerda Boyesen in the 1960s – which works with the body on a physical and emotional level. There are a number of different types of biodynamic massage, each with a specific therapeutic intention. Some support emotional expression and are more stimulating. ‘Deep draining’, for instance, works with the muscles in an invigorating and sometimes challenging way. Other methods might soothe or provide a sense of safety. ‘Packing’, for instance, uses full-hand contact placed reassuringly on the client to give a sense of containment and boundaries.
When I think about how to work with biodynamic massage in psychotherapy, I think to myself ‘what messages am I trying to convey with this touch? What am I trying to say to my client?’ A therapist can say a lot with their touch. As a client of biodynamic massage, I’ve felt cared for and attuned to, and that I didn’t have to explain myself – all things that I have felt lacking at certain times in my life. The deep need of being heard without having to speak that I’ve felt in sessions, and that I’ve had clients articulate to me, I believe connects with our early attachment patterns in a way that can be profound and reparative.
It could be said that in body psychotherapy, we take what is called a ‘bodymind’ approach to working with clients, meaning that we see the mind and body as an integrated whole. The fact that we have the terms ‘mind’ and ‘body’ is a reflection how our culture looks at these two parts of ourselves as separate. Psychotherapy, in its etymological sense, is therapy using the psyche – a concept that traditionally belongs to the mind. I hope that in reading this article, therapists will have a bit more of a sense of how to work with the bodymind and not just the mind in psychotherapy. In Western culture, mind and body have long been separated through biomedicine, philosophy, and capitalism. What might it be like if our culture accepted that by working with the body we are, by necessity, working with the mind? Perhaps by bringing the body into the psychotherapy room, we take a small step closer to this awakening.
Photo by Cristian Newman