When I first met Candy, she could barely tolerate sitting in the same room as me. I entered her family’s living room for our first session, and she immediately turned her head to avoid my gaze. Her shoulders shook underneath her sweater. When I asked if she was comfortable enough to start a conversation, she confessed that she was scared that, as a new patient, she would have to recount the horror of her abusive adolescence in order for us to begin treatment.
When I said we didn’t need to talk about her past – today, or ever – relief washed over her. We would start our session the way I start all of my client sessions: we would talk about whatever she wanted to talk about. She would lead the way. This would enable us to begin our connection in safety, and gradually build trust.
To be clear, I do care about your past. It’s helpful for me to know the “big picture”: what brought you to therapy, what you hope to change. But, unlike other forms of therapy, Somatic Experiencing (SE) doesn’t require you to come to a new understanding of your past in order to move forward.
The verbal story that you choose to share, rather than me probing and pushing, will lead us to a roadmap for the body to resolve what it is ready to resolve. As an SE practitioner, I hold a safe place when the reactions to the verbal story come up so that you can move through and tolerate the experience with a sense of mastery. This sense of mastery creates autonomy and becomes a source of resilience, enabling you to rebound from future trauma.
As we resolve the trauma in your nervous system through body-based exercises, you might find yourself coming to a new understanding of your past. Reframing your experience verbally can be a by-product of the work, but it’s not the work itself. If we continue treatment long enough, it’s possible I will hear about your past’s most difficult moments – in due time, when your body leads us there.
“Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness,” says Peter A. Levine, the creator of Somatic Experiencing. As we develop trust, I can become that empathetic witness. Your body will tell us when it’s ready to explore your past, and then we will lead it through a physical process of resolving the trauma that is trapped in your nervous system.
When we began treatment, Candy couldn’t yet tolerate exercises that required me to touch her. I saw that she became more grounded when she touched objects. She always had something in her hands or played with her hair. I began our work by using a bag of objects with different shapes and textures and asking her to describe them. This engaged her in the process of sensation. I knew that this would be safe for her.
Over time, this guided process dramatically increased her level of sensory self-awareness. By gaining the capacity to articulate the experience of feeling the object, she developed a more expansive vocabulary. This eventually led to her articulating other experiences. By articulating what was going on in her body, she developed a deeper relationship with it.
I never asked her to talk about her long history of disordered eating, but this new relationship with her body allowed her to see the harm she was doing it through her years of bulimia. Candy decided she wanted to go to residential treatment. Her family had been pushing her to do this for years. Now, instead of gritting her teeth and going to appease her parents, she went into treatment for herself.
Two weeks back from her successful six-week stay, she said, “I want to do touch work.”
Wanting to do touch work and having the ability to tolerate touch work, however, are two different things. But articulating the desire is the first step. I was thrilled she was initiating it. If I had forced her to do it before her body led her to it, she may have detached from herself, going through it for me, and losing the autonomy she’d been building.
The following week, I brought my touch table. I suspected that she wouldn’t be able to get on it – that would be overwhelming – but having it there would warm her to the idea. That session, she volunteered the memory of her rape for the first time. She told me that she has an impulse to scrub off her skin any time she’s touched. She said she wants to take a steaming hot shower and scrub her skin raw to forget the sensation.
I ask if she’d be okay sitting shoulder-to-shoulder. She tolerated it for five minutes while we talked about her day. We didn’t even talk about the sensation she was experiencing because it would have put her in overwhelm. As she spoke, I could feel her getting warm. The heat began to radiate from her body. The traumas of her past were beginning to safely work their way through her nervous system.
She knew what a milestone this was, allowing herself to be touched for five minutes. She was proud. With each new session, she was able to tolerate more and more physical connection. Sometimes we would sit on the couch with my feet on top of hers and vice versa. Eventually, her capacity for connection increased enough to allow her to lie on the table for touch work.
In SE, the client becomes the leader. If I had pushed her, her nervous system could have frozen, retraumatizing her. She would have lost trust in me, and, worse, in herself. When the client loses that trust and autonomy, they might then make up a story about the therapist, cling to a false story about themselves for self-protection, or become defensive. My goal is to let patients’ bodies direct the process, not me.
Candy has continued to stay free of her disordered eating. She is tolerating more and more touch and nurturing an ever-deepening connection with her body. She senses herself with more and more safety, which creates a desire for more meaningful connections with others. She laughs more easily, and the self-critical voice in her head is quieting. Her anxiety is dissipating. I still don’t know much about her past. However, I know she’s thriving in her health and in her friendships, and I know her body will lead her to more joy and connection in the future.