Bioenergetics and other explanations

I have been meaning to blog a bit more about bioenergetics. I wanted to comment about my belief that clients who engage in this techniques do feel better and may even stay better. I was going to talk about how different theoretical perspectives all have success stories and many have limited data showing successful outcomes. Then I came across Judd Marmor’s response to Alexander Lowen’s speech at the Evolution of Psychotherapy convention in 1997 (published by Brunner/Mazel). In his speech, Lowen described his three years of character analysis with Wilhelm Reich and subsequent study with him. Reich was in Freud’s inner circle for awhile. Lowen broke with Reich when Reich began exploring orgone energy (a kind of life energy that is in everything and emanates from living cells. Adherents claim to be able to see a blue aura around people and analyse it). Point for Lowen.

Lowen ended his speech with this summary:

My evolution has brought me to where I understand that the body will heal itself if one surrenders to it. The surrender to the body means feeling it fully from head to feet. It means sensing all the chronic muscular tensions in the body, understanding their history, and their function in the present. It means feeling one’s pain and sorrow and crying. It means being able to protest the loss of one’s innocence and one’s joy…It means to have faith in the body, for it is the abode of God, and to trust its feelings because they express your truth. I had to learn this before I could teach it to my patients. And I have to learn it again and again, because my narcissistic ego still thinks that it knows best (p. 144-145).

Following Dr. Lowen’s speech, psychiatrist Judd Marmor gave the reaction. The whole thing is worth reading (145-148). This quote is about how I feel about bioenergetics:

I have no doubt that Dr. Lowen is an excellent psychotherapist. I see him…as a warm, caring, passionate man with powerful convictions who unquestionably inspires strong feelings of positive transference in most of his patients. However, I do question his explanation of why his patients respond positively to his therapeutic method.

Dr. Marmor goes on to describe how relaxing and directly working on the body may bring some relief but does very little to address specific problems in the absence of other more accepted methods (talking, interpreting, etc.)

Marmor summarized: “…it is not what he does to or with his patients but what takes place between them in their relationship that helps them to make progress.”

This summarizes my thoughts about Richard Cohen and bioenergetics. Several of his supporters have contacted me to let me know that Richard is a caring person. In my dealings with him, I have found this to be true as well. However, liking someone on a personal level does not preclude vigorous disagreement about other matters. Being of the same faith does not preclude such disagreement either.

I think the fact that a therapist is caring and charismatic can attract clients who seek personal dynamism. Motivational speakers are called this because they use the strength of their personality and communication skills to motivate. I believe many “therapies” rely on the relationship the therapist can create to motivate change a person was already capable of making.

On point, here is a segment from an interview with Lowen:

GG: How do you respond to the critics of bioenergetics who say that touching a client’s body is unethical?

AL: A therapist is in some ways a substitute parent. He is not simply a guide. One doesn’t get into transference relationships with a guide. Can one be a good parent if one is afraid to touch his children? But one can be a very bad parent (destructive) if touching a child is sexual. That is sexual abuse. The therapist who cannot control the way he touches a patient should never touch one.

I do not think that you can convince critics because they are projecting their anxiety about touching into the situation. Bioenergetics is a very powerful technique, and it involves doing a lot of things that other people would not do. Not all therapists are really fully qualified to be body therapists. It is unfortunate. One of the reasons is that it takes half a lifetime to be a good therapist. There are a lot of life experiences that are needed: working on yourself, working on your problems, and learning how to do bioenergetics.

If patients can trust you, then touch is not a breach of trust. If you are not trustworthy, then don’t touch them! I don’t always have perfect results with my patients, but they know I am sincere, straight, and doing the best that I can.

Much the same could be said for coaches. Therapists that create paternalistic transference reactions can expect strong positive and sometime negative reactions. The strong reactions may lead to transference cures or actual breakthroughs as a client begins to make the learning his own. However, the risk for negative reactions seems greater than those therapy styles that are more collaborative and egalitarian. If you can get the therapeutic benefit generated by a warm, trusting, and yes, emotive, therapy relationship without the baggage of the parental role and invasive touch, then why not do it? I believe Marmor is correct. If research on this point is accurate, most change in therapy occurs due to the therapeutic relationship and the application of common factors (learning, change, emotion) that most therapies share. Figure out how to apply them properly and you’ve got something.