In the past several months, I have been moved by my clients who are working on strengthening their relationships, particularly their adult relationships with their partners. Some complaints I often hear are: "He doesn't understand," "She doesn't listen," "I just want everything to go back to normal," "We used to be so close," and "I feel alone in this relationship."
Consider this a time to breathe some fresh air into your relationship. Much of what we find isn't working in a relationship can be worked on by strengthening our own attuning and assertiveness skills. Here are three areas of interpersonal communication I have been working on with my clients, addressing both the verbal and nonverbal.
Listen: I often meet with clients who do not feel listened to, and this makes it difficult for them to turn around and listen to their partner. Listening is not just about the words, but also about the emotional content, the nonverbal content, and noticing what is not being said. If a partner says "No, I don't want to go out tonight,” did you also hear the disappointment in their voice? Did you see the slouch in their posture? You need to not only hear what your partner is saying, but how they are saying it with their voice and their body language.
Hear and Respond: When you listen to your partner, respond to both what you heard from and saw in your partner. When you've understood that, clearly convey your own feelings: "You sound disappointed," or "You look disappointed" and give space for them to clarify if they feel they need to. If you feel the words, tone, emotion and body language are congruent, go aheadand respond by acknowledging and offering your point of view by responding, "Ok, I hear that you don't want to go out tonight. I would like to go out with you sometime this weekend, can we plan for another night?" Communicating your own needs is as vital as listening to your partner’s.
Give Feedback: Another complaint I often hear from clients is that their partner's message feels incongruent. An example of this would be if the partner says, "I don't want to go out tonight," but sounds and looks like they do want an outing. One way to address this is to let your partner know you are confused by their communication by saying, "I hear you say that you don't want to go out tonight but you sound disappointed." If the in-congruency continues, inform your partner what you are feeling, such as "I feel confused, you say you don't want to go out but you sound and look disappointed." Naming the behavior of the other person (words, body posture,emotional content) and how we feel (use of the word "I") lets you take ownership of your own feelings while pointing out the behavior, not a fault in the person. This allows a more neutral communication zone. Perhaps they don't know what they want themselves or something is going on for them that has nothing to do with the conversation at hand.
The running theme here is that these examples are about clarifying your own wants, needs, and position. It is a vulnerable place to tell another person how you truly feel and to be honest. Some relationship issues can be addressed by yourself and much of it starts with being clear and congruent with what you convey to the other person, communicating what you see, hear,and feel from another. At times it is helpful for both partners to be present in therapy together to work on these and other skills in real time with a supportive third party, the therapist. If you are working on your own skills but do not feel a healthy shift with your partner, it may be time for the two of you to work on your communication together. Letting your partner know that you'rehaving difficulty communicating is also an example of transparency. If you already both agree that things are difficult, see if you can discuss ways to address the problem in a collaborative way to share the responsibility.
These are just three of many skills crucial to a harmonious, healthy relationship. Intimacy, knowledge of your partner, stress management and basic life skills (such as work and money management) are also important. Strengthening the skills described here can be a good foundation for these other important aspects of partner relations.
The process of starting psychotherapy or counseling can be nerve-wracking and often carries stereotypes. The idea of needing another person's help (and a stranger at that!) can challenge our sense of independence. It can also be labeled as something that only “crazy” or “troubled” people do, or people with serious problems, whether that be with family, substances or mental illness.
The truth is, if you are contemplating therapy it is appropriate to thank yourself for your willingness to make healthy change. If it is even crossing your mind it means that you are willing to grow, which can be uncomfortable. Growth does not happen in isolation. Does a plant grow without soil or water? If you are contemplating therapy it also means that you are willing, even if with hesitation, to form a trusting relationship with another person, and bring this new person into your life. It also signifies that you are willing to help yourself, which in turn will aid you in helping others. When we strengthen our own skills and sense of self we are more available to those around us.
If you are contemplating therapy, ask yourself why this has come up. How do you think therapy can benefit you? Is it to gain clarity, learn skills? You may not know. Are there patterns in your life that you recognize as not serving you? Having difficulty in relationships? Cannot explain sadness or anxiety or simply experiencing a shift in your life that you are not happy with? The way through all these challenges are within you, and it is completely normal to need a witness and a guide along the way. The right therapist can be that supportive person.
Recently I had the opportunity to attend a session at the 24th Annual International Trauma Conference here in Boston; this year’s focus was on Neuroscience, Attachment and Therapeutic Interventions. It was my pleasure to attend the session “Safety, Risk and Transformation: Attachment-Focused Therapy at the Regulatory Boundaries of the Window of Tolerance.” A pioneer in the field of body-based pyschotherapy, Pat Ogden, and skilled therapist, Anne Westcott, led this session on Sensorimotor Therapy and The Window of Tolerance. Being a board-certified dance/movement therapist, I share the same value of body-based interventions in psychotherapy. Ms. Ogden and Ms. Westcott provided well-researched descriptions and case examples of Sensorimotor Therapy in this framework. As a therapist who references and teaches my clients about the Window of Tolerance, I was happy to have additional resources and case examples on how it affects the treatment of trauma, attachment and developmental issues.
Inherent in good psychotherapeutic treatment are components of safety and risk. Using the Window of Tolerance as a framework is helpful for both clinician and client. Take a look at the basic diagram of The Window of Tolerance above for a visual. Daniel Siegel describes this as an area of arousal in which we each can function; it pertains to any particular moment given that we have more tolerance for some emotions and situations than others (2010). Being outside of the window is chaos; one end of the window is hyperarousal and the other end is hypoarousal. So, what does all that mean? It means that each of us has limits to what we can handle at any moment in any situation. For example, if a person experiences stress regarding their workplace, there is limit to how much stress they can experience and continue to effectively function. Too much stress can push a person into a state in which they experience anxiety, intrusive images, and strong emotions. It could also push a person to shut down, be numb, or passive. Therapy is the exploration of working within the window edges “safe but not too safe;” so the therapeutic experience is fruitful (Siegel 2010). If one is aiming to address this stress of the workplace in therapy, only talking about what’s good in the job may be too safe, but exploring how this person interacts with challenging coworkers could push the windows of tolerance and lead to growth and meaning.
I find this framework gives my own clients language and understanding to reference in identifying where they feel safe, unsafe, and how they are growing. It is also being attuned to a patient’s window that provides the therapist the framework to make choices of safety and risk (Ogden et. al. 2006).
This training session was rich with examples and explanations of how therapists can guide healing and growth, and that a body-based approach, in the case of this training Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, provides layers of information and intervention for therapeutic work. One example Ms. Ogden referenced was of the simple action of holding up the hands. If this gesture was expressed in anyway by a client, or themes of boundaries expressed it could be explored in a variety of ways based on the client’s needs, “Where do the hands feel best?”, “Do you feel a change when you put your hands up?”; and continue with the gesture in real time, perhaps, “it almost looks like you’re pushing.” I’ve used such interventions with my own clients to increase understanding of feelings and patterns.
Much of a person’s tolerance is expressed nonverbally, and exploring boundaries is also enhanced by attuning to the patient’s gestures, preparatory movements, habitual responses, and new actions. Learning from the client’s habits and safety allow for new ways to be introduced. This training session highlighted the skill of a therapist who can read and be attuned to body language. In my own sessions, I work with a number of clients who enter in the therapy room very emotional, worried, lethargic or disengaged. My goal as a therapist is to use their verbal and nonverbal cues to bring them into a level of engagement with themselves and me before we explore the triggers and underlying causes of the deregulation.
Ms. Ogden served as a compassionate and supportive instructor, reminding the therapists in the room that each therapeutic intervention is a judgment call on the part of the therapist, even highlighting some of her own examples of pushing a client too far into the risk zone, owning up to her own trigger points. It takes a skilled and trained therapist to be attuned in this way, but also to use all therapeutic material in the best interest of the patient.
The more therapists can attune to what the client is presenting in front of us, the more we can make an educated intervention that leads to empowerment and growth. Therapists can strive for this growth. Living more fully with more options is certainly my wish for my clients.
To scheduled a session with Kimberly S. Bevans, please call 617-651-0996 or email email@example.com
Siegel, Daniel J. (2010). The mindful therapist. A clinician’s guide to mindsight and neural integration. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Odgen,, P., Minton, K., Pain, C. (2006). Trauma and the body. A sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
A skyline and tree view from Brookline taken April 17th.
In the past few weeks, we’ve seen horror, heroism, struggle, strength, terror and heart. The Boston Marathon Bombing, city and surrounding area lockdown and manhunt may grow distant in our experience, but not necessarily from our minds and bodies.
As we get further from the days of the events, our relationship to the events may change. Some may feel like they’re getting back to normal; others may be feel like their symptoms are increasing. Both are normal and completely depend on the person. I want to take this opportunity to discuss a few symptoms and effects of trauma. I want to highlight that trauma affects everyone differently. The various effects of trauma have come up often in my sessions; not just how this trauma is affecting my clients, but those around them. In the wake of these events, we need support, and we yearn to make sense of what has happened. Here I provide some education on what trauma can look like and how we can support others and ourselves.
Everyone handles events differently. An event or experience labeled as “traumatic” depends as much on the individual as it depends on the event itself. Each individual's past experience, coping skills, and support in their lives is a factor in their reaction and ability to handle advantageous experiences.
No symptom is too small. Any event can bring about a mental, physical/sensational, and spiritual change that may or may not require some attention. Perhaps your sleep is a little more disrupted than usual, or perhaps you notice your friend is more vigilant than usual on public transportation. Symptoms of posttraumatic stress can vary in their degree and include: worry, anxiety, avoidance, nightmares, sleeplessness, fear, emotional distress and feeling things you simply don’t usually feel.
Getting “back to normal” also depends on the individual. I have a client who experienced the bombings just a couple blocks away from the finish line which triggered an immense amount of anxiety for this person, also fear, distress, worry, difficulty sleeping as well as tightness and discomfort in her body. This client was urged to go back to work two days after the bombing, and encouraged to get back to her old routine. Problems surfaced from this (well-meaning) advice. This client’s workplace was still a crime scene two days after the event. The workplace was not enough “normal” for her to be able to return to a routine. She was not able to stay at work and was in fact re-traumatized. That said, getting back to normalcy is immensely helpful, but we must be sensitive to what “normal” actually looks and feels like.
Getting help must be the person’s choice. The client I reference above was encouraged to seek mental health counseling at a large local hospital. The intentions were good but did not fit what this person needed. She needed to be somewhere that was less threatening to her and she needed someone by her side whom she trusted. She was more than willing to get help but was being pushed in a direction that inspired further dread and distress. Receiving therapy in a quieter area of the city in a quiet office a few days later accompanied by a loved one proved much more helpful.
“Recovery” varies in length. Resolve is different for everyone; recovery is different. Often people also have the chance to grow in their recovery process. Respect your own process and the process of others. Many people may feel effects of a traumatic event even many years after.
Empathy. Empathy goes a long way for both yourself and those you know who have been affected by a traumatic event. Whether this means reaching out to help those also affected by the event or engaging in a practice such as “Metta” or “Loving Kindness” (of Buddhist origin) that sense of connecting and offering is immensely powerful.
We are resilient. Most people will return to a sense of normal.
Anger is normal... but acting on it is unproductive.
Optimize your thankfulness. Events like this can remind us of what we have by the way of family, friends, loved ones, pets, jobs, health and homes. Even if what we normally interpret what we have as small or insignificant, a traumatic event can help us appreciate and be grateful for what is in our lives.
When I work with groups and individuals suffering from trauma, the themes I always see as most healing are honoring what you and others feel. Be kind to yourself and others. Only by recognizing how we have been affected can we make choices to heal, grow, and keep moving forward.
Kimberly Schmidt Bevans
Kim is a body/mind therapist based in Brookline Massachusetts. She specializes in the use of the body-mind connection to address stress, anxiety, mood disorders, relationship issues, as well life transitions and creating change.
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