All right, I’m working on an synthesis of my knowledge and experience about sexual healing from the perspective of my own practice with my clients, which is a combination of erotic/sexual touch, mindfulness, and a form a body centred psychotherapy called Hakomi which I’ve been studying for 3 years now.
I’m writing this mostly because I want potential clients to read it and to know what they are getting into before they come to see me for sexual healing work. I mean, seriously, the work I am doing is way out on the edge of the mainstream radar screen and I imagine most people need some help getting their heads around it. Maybe I’m naïve but my hope is that this writing will help further the conversation about sexual healing, attract clients that are interested in the process, allow them to make an informed choice, and prime them for success in their healing process.
Before we get specifically into sexual healing I feel it’s important to make an attempt at defining and describing what “healing” actually means.
I’ve been struggling with this for about a month now. Describing healing in terms which don’t sound either flaky meta-physical or hyper-scientific is difficult. The process is complex and even with the latest scientific findings there is still so much that is unknown. It’s funny, I’m slowly working my way through an awesome, yet very densely scientific, book called “Affective Neuroscience: The Healing Power of Emotions” and nowhere in the book do they actually define healing. I guess they ran into the same problem or they assumed that people know what healing is.
My own “definition” of healing is by no means definitive nor is it finished – it’s just me making a first attempt to hit a half obscured moving target. Everything I say here should most likely be argued and challenged and I encourage you to do that in the comments.
I’m also limiting my focus to the clinical healing process – what happens between a client and a therapist. Obviously healing comes in many forms – watching a sunset, dancing all night, having tea with your best friend, or spending time playing with a child can all be healing. I recall my own experience recently of watching this incredible TV series, Six Feet Under, and how immensely healing that was for me.
I’m also not talking about healing in the purely physical sense of, say, a broken bone that’s splinted and grows back together, but rather some other emotionally centred process that leaves someone with a more fulfilling experience of life.
So with all those qualifiers in place, here’s my non-definitive definition:
“Healing is a process in which a motivated client, in a strong relationship with a therapist, experiences painful emotions, leading to the experience of positive emotions and positive changes to other aspects of their being, leading to greater ease in receiving the nourishment that life has to offer.”
Sigh, that definition makes something which is really juicy and organic sound dry and wordy. Oh well I’m doing my best here. I’m hoping that some explanation of the various steps in the process will bring it to life.
Breaking it down let’s talk about step 1 – Healing is a process in which a motivated client, in a strong relationship with a therapist …
We’re talking about the context or the container as some people like to call it. Without a strong container there is very limited possibility of healing and a very strong possibility of creating more damage. The motivation of the client and the relationship with the therapist are the two most important factors in creating a strong container.
How important are those factors? Studies which have examined the effectiveness of psychotherapy (what I do is clearly not psychotherapy but has elements of psychotherapy in it and I feel these studies apply) have shown that the motivation of the client and the strength of the client/therapist relationship together are about 8 times more important to the success of the therapy than the next most important factor – the particular type of psychotherapy which is used. Can you get your head around that? In other words what makes healing happen mostly is the client’s motivation to heal and the relationship with the healer.
I assert, but really can’t prove, that you could apply this finding to all sorts of therapies besides psychotherapy: massage therapy, reiki, somatic sex therapy, psychic readings, shamanic/angel/crystal healing or whatever. This gives me a lot of hope because there are so many potential healers in the world.
So the next question is – what makes for good client motivation and a good client/therapist relationship?
From my experience a motivated client possesses, above all else, the quality of courage. The healing process invariably evokes viscerally painful emotions. Unless a client is willing to feel them (and there may be a long process in building trust with the therapist that needs to happen first) there really isn’t much hope of healing happening. One of my own therapists (I’ve had lots) eloquently calls this “moving toward the wound”. Not an easy thing to do in our world of endless distractions, where it’s just not hip to be, for example, grief stricken. Moving toward the wound takes genuine courage. Although in most cases, I would say, most of my clients initially see themselves more as desperate than courageous. They drag themselves into therapy because the cost of avoiding the wound, especially a lack of passion (in all it’s forms not just lust) and loving relationships, has just become too great. A big part of the role of a therapist is to help their clients to acknowledge their own courage and other resources they have.
Next on the list of what makes a motivated client is patience. Healing, is an organic process that takes time. A good analogy would be gardening. You’ve got to prepare the soil, get the seed, wait for the right time to plant, make sure the slugs don’t get the sprouts, water, weed, pray for sun (or make a greenhouse as we do here in rainy BC) and wait to reap the harvest. It requires sustained attention, intention and action. It’s labour. Invariably along the way there are difficult times and even disappointments. We also live in a culture that sells instant gratification. People want “breakthroughs”. But even “breakthroughs” are actually the result of a lot of preparation. A motivated client understands all of this and is willing to be patient and make a commitment to the process.
Finally the client must have a willingness to surrender into not knowing. The healing process could be seen as exploring a city you’ve never been to before. Even with a map who knows where to go, or what you’ll find, or if you’ll get a bit lost along the way– you just trust, and step into the unknown. It’s counterproductive to imagine the healing process as something linear, say like constructing a house, where you have a plan, and a schedule, and you just follow it until you get the desired results. Healing doesn’t work that way because it deals with parts of ourselves which are non-conscious – blindspots. What I can say is that generally each step in the healing process, even while it may feel emotionally painful, is ultimately a step toward more freedom and aliveness. But you have to surrender to not knowing.
Ok that covers the client side of things in regards as to what makes a good context for the healing process to occur, now lets move on to the therapist/client relationship.
Obviously the therapist figures large here. What makes for a good therapist? Well from my experience the number one thing that a therapist needs to have is compassionate, empathetic, non-judgmental, and unconditional positive regard for their client. This is really a very special state of consciousness that a therapist has to cultivate and sustain. Without it no healing is possible.
Hakomi has a particular name for this state of consciousness – loving presence. A therapist practicing loving presence actively focuses their attention on something about the client that they find inspiring, special, unique, noble, or moving; something that actually calls forth loving compassionate feelings toward the client; something that gives the therapist a sense of being nourished from the relationship. Doesn’t that sound so much yummier than some smartass expert trying to analyze you and your problems – yuck.
A therapist can’t fake loving presence. It comes from regularly practicing it and also by doing a lot of one’s own personal healing. All therapists are works in progress in this regard. They’re not perfect but they have to have this piece somewhat dialed in if they are going to do no harm.
The next quality of a good therapist is an ability to sense what a client is feeling on an emotional level. This “sixth sense” is actually something that can be learned – it comes from careful observation of the client’s: speech patterns and voice inflections, body movements, posture, changes in skin tone, facial expression and the rhythm of their breathing – all non-conscious elements of the client’s being. The therapist also learns to track their own emotions in session for clues to what is happening with the client. The human nervous system has these things called “mirror neurons”, which have been “discovered” by modern neuroscience. These mirror neurons resonate between people, like a tuning fork that will start to vibrate across a room when a similar tuning fork is struck. So we actually feel on a subtle level what another person is feeling. Surprise, surprise, science has confirmed what empathetic people have known and done since the beginning of time. A good therapist is able to listen to these subtle internal clues and use them to sense what the client’s emotional experience is from moment to moment. When a therapist is able to do this the client feels “seen” or feels like the therapist “gets them”. That is the bread and butter of a good relationship.
This mirror neuron phenomena relates to the final thing that makes for a good therapist. The ability to regulate their own nervous system to stay calm and connected to the client. It makes sense that if the therapist can feel what the client is feeling then the client can also feel what the therapist is feeling even if it’s non-conscious. And what clients really need to get from their therapist is that the therapist is solid, grounded, calm and can handle whatever scary powerful emotion that the client can’t handle by themselves. The calm centred therapist thus becomes a “resource” for the client to draw on. In the case of clients that have real difficulty in regulating their own nervous system, the therapist actually helps the client to learn how to do this by modeling it and “entraining” the client’s nervous system. This is very similar to what mothers due with infants who have not yet developed the capacity to self-regulate their emotions. Again this capacity only comes with the therapist doing a lot of their own personal healing. Well not totally, I think there are people who are “naturals” at doing this, mostly because they had awesomely empathetic and responsive caregivers as children, but anyone can learn to be better at it.
So a good therapist does all of these things simultaneously: maintaining a state of loving presence, sensing into the client’s emotional state through careful observation, and regulating their own nervous system to stay in a place of calm and connection to the client. Doing these things naturally allows for trust to build and a strong and intimate relationship between client and therapist to come into being. This in turn makes it safe for the client to feel painful emotions the next step in the healing process.
Oh, it also helps if the therapist can remember and keep track of what the client says. But honestly this is less important than you might think. More on that later.
One more thing. There has to be some “chemistry” between the client and therapist. The client and therapist should like each other and genuinely want to engage in what is a very intimate relationship (even if there is no touch involved.)
Ok so all of that makes up the context or the container in which the healing process can happen. That’s the first step of “What is healing anyways?” I was hoping to get through the definition of healing in one post but I already at 2000+ words so stay tuned for more. I worry that I may lose people who have come to my blog for tips on how to give a good hand job. Sorry about that – come to one of my classes at the Art of Loving if you want that.
Please argue or comment. I’d love to have a discussion on this.