No (deep) feelings please, we’re psychologists

by Bruce Wilson

Jules Roth, co-director of the Denver Primal Center used to tell a story about lectures he gave to university psychology students about primal therapy. Invariably, there were three types of response. The first and largest group of students just took notes with hopes of passing the exam; a second, smaller group would look askance or make sarcastic remarks about “screaming your way to happiness” and a third group, usually consisting of just a few students, would approach him quietly after the lecture to ask more about the therapy or where they could get it. There was a hush-hush quality about their questions, as though being interested in deep feelings was something to be embarrassed about.

That was in the 70s, but the pattern of responses is a microcosm of what still exists in mainstream psychology today. Even though emotions are a hot topic of study, there is precious little attention given to the role of deep, visceral feelings in psychotherapy. And when emotions are discussed, it is in the context of “emotional regulation” or management. Strong expression of emotion in therapy is often referred to as “catharsis” or “abreaction” and judged to be anachronistic, untherapeutic, or “retraumatizing.”

In other words, mainstream psychology still fails to appreciate the depth to which emotions must be felt in order for many people to be able to resolve old psychic wounds. Rather, emotions are to be discussed, managed, regulated, put into perspective, or interpreted with a new “narrative.” A psychodynamic therapist recently told me that her approach was “all about feelings.” What she was referring to, of course, were feelings that were not too loud, too deep, or too disruptive for the people in the neighbouring offices. Her clients were allowed to leak a few tears, sniffle a few sniffles, and dip into soft, light crying, during which she would try to “resonate” with them in a misguided attempt to heal their pain. It is hard to imagine how one might deal with birth trauma or infantile abandonment under those circumstances. But of course, most psychologists still don’t believe that regression to that stage of life is possible. More on that in future posts.

Searching through the literature for papers on abreaction, one finds few references to the topic. In one recent paper, the author warns that “eliciting emotion is harmful when it is not associated with reappraisal of past trauma, but helpful when the reappraisal occurs.” Just what is meant by “reappraisal” is unclear, but the author states that it is often “difficult to engineer” so “alternative approaches not involving revisiting the trauma” should be used. To anyone who has experienced deep feelings in therapy, this way of speaking about feelings is foreign. One doesn’t reappraise feelings; one feels them fully and then connects them to present day feelings and behaviors. One certainly doesn’t “engineer” anything about feelings.

A few years ago, I attended a psychotherapy conference and witnessed a video of one therapist’s interactions with her client as his traumatic memories came up. I could only cringe. Her interventions aborted his feeling process and threw him completely off track. The client was drawn into a game with the therapist, who was intent on orchestrating, directing, and otherwise channeling her client’s feelings into a strange “therapeutic dance” with her. I still cannot understand how that can be therapeutic, however, it is considered cutting edge in trauma therapy.

As for the fear of retraumatizing, this is more likely due to the therapist’s lack of skill at helping a client through deep feelings rather than any intrinsic power of that feeling to retraumatize. It is common in deep feeling therapy for people to become “stuck” in a painful feeling that won’t complete, or to become overloaded, or to go off on the wrong track as a way to avoid the pain. Indeed, these situations can make you feel quite messed up, but again, it is due to a disruption in the feeling process, not the nature of the feelings themselves. Felt gradually over many sessions, with much support, these very painful feelings can be resolved. All it takes is a skillful therapist who can guide you through without intervening or seducing you into a “therapeutic relationship.”

Arthur Janov often laments that discussing primal therapy with academic psychologists and scientists is impossible because they never get it. In his words, they are stuck in their left brains, and the divide between left brain and right brain is wider than interplanetary space. Even if they profess to know about feelings, they often miss the mark, despite their best intentions.

Fortunately, there are exceptions. Jaak Panksepp, a pioneer of affective neuroscience, understands feelings in a way most neuroscientists don’t. He has identified seven basic mammalian emotions, which he calls primary processes. He refers to them (in caps) as SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, LUST, maternal CARE, separation distress PANIC/GRIEF, and physical PLAY. The processes are primary in that they are genetic, ingrained, and instinctual. They differ from secondary and tertiary processes which are colored by complex perceptions, thoughts, temperaments and moods. Primary processes could just as easily be referred to as primal processes, which form the basis of deep feeling therapy. After witnessing a videotape of a patient undergoing a primal therapy session, Panksepp recognized it as a primary process in full expression, a process that can’t be faked.

I often ask myself, “What will it take to get across that wide divide between left and right brain? How can I convince someone who hasn’t been there that deep feelings are real and valid?” I am still holding out hope that some of them will recognize, as Jaak Panksepp did, the reality of primal processes in psychotherapy. But like so many other experiences in life, there is no substitute to actually having been there.

When it comes to feelings in psychotherapy, it’s time to go beyond sniffles, tears, and therapeutic games, and let people feel through to completion. It is also time to study this process seriously and give the stage to the curious few who want to understand this process rather than scorn or slander it.


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