Power In Your Hands

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Image by Thor via Flickr

 

Last month, I gave a workshop on Embodied Consent, which I talked about a lot in this space. It went relatively well, but I had some criticism for myself, and I’m looking forward to doing it – and other workshops – again with this greater knowledge.

So what didn’t I like? I thought I talked too much. I ran out of time as I often do when I give talks, and couldn’t do all the exercises I wanted to. And as a result, I didn’t give as full and rich a presentation as I’d hoped.

So what would I change? Here are a few ways I plan to make my workshops in general more effective.

First off, I need to remember that giving workshops is not as hard as I think. I have really good material that tends to speak for itself: it’s powerful. I have a lot of material, too, which means I don’t need to worry about filling the time. In fact, I need to worry more about overspilling the time.

What makes workshops easy is letting the participants do a lot of the work for themselves. Every single time I presented them with an exercise, even a little one, they did three things:

  1. Participated fully in the exercise;
  2. Had strong responses to the exercise; and
  3. Had a lot of awesome things to say about it.

When I let my audience have experiences with themselves and each other, then discuss them, it is far more powerful and gets the material across better than if I try to tell them about all of it in advance.

So why do I do that? It’s a question of self-confidence, of trust that what I’m talking about has merit, makes sense, and is resonant for my audience. Even though I know the material is important and resonant, I tend to keep yammering on about it, making a bunch of points and giving too many examples, rather than starting from the place I’m always talking about starting from: the body.

Show, don’t tell, is a super-old lesson, both from theatre and from writing, that I tend to abandon when I’m less sure of myself. But it is basically always true that getting my audience directly involved, even if they’re not sure what they’re doing yet, works far better than over-explaining.

In the next iteration, I’ll start with a few sentences, then an exercise. I’ve realized the structure should go: Short intro, exercise, discussion. Complication: next exercise, discussion. No more than 5-10 minutes of explanation before going on to another experiential piece. The experiential pieces tend to be so rich that the explanation does itself, after the fact.

It also empowers my audience, allowing them to collaborate with me and come to their own conclusions rather than being spoon-fed my ideas, which they might not be quite ready for, because they haven’t found them with their own bodies and minds.

So that’s my goal. Looking forward to the next one. Let me know if you’d like me to come give a workshop at your event, meetup, organization or workplace! A new page with my offerings is coming soon, but I teach about Finding your Yes, No, and Maybe;  Body-Centered Performance; and Restoring Your Personal Power. I can also design workshops for your particular needs. Contact me here!

 

 

Image by Ged Carroll via Flickr

Image by Ged Carroll via Flickr

(Part 3 of my series on Embodied Consent, leading up to my talk on the subject at the Bound in Boston: Wicked Women Conference next weekend.)

One of my favorite truisms about consent is that a true “yes” is not possible without the option for a true “no.” That being said, one of my primary objectives in this workshop is to help people find their “yes” – to open up possibilities, take chances, and make room for greater joy.

So, if we’ve confronted our cultural reluctance to say no, and been able to identify and locate what our “no” feels like so we can use it, then we are one step closer to being able to employ our “yes” without fear.

Because while the possibility that a “no” won’t be heard or respected is terrifying, the prospect of hearing or giving a “yes” can also be daunting. What does “yes” mean? What am I agreeing to? What does the person saying “yes” expect from me once they’ve agreed? What if one of us changes our mind?

Part of dealing with all of these possibilities is the same process as the “finding your no” exercise: embody it. Imagine something you said “yes” to wholeheartedly, and remember it in as vivid sensory detail as you can.

  • What does “yes” feel like in your body? Warm or cool? Expansive, or small and delicate, or like a cozy sweater that fits your body perfectly?
  • What does “yes” look like? What image comes to your mind? Are you glowing with light, or is the “yes” in a tiny box inside your chest? What color is it?
  • Does your “yes” have a sound? Loud or soft? For all to hear, or just for you? Is it a shout, a sob, a laugh, a song?
  • What does it smell or taste like? Sweet or savory? Metallic, or wooden, or like cotton or wool? Does it remind you of a crisp fall day in the woods or a summer evening by the ocean or…
  • Where is your “yes” located in your body? Everywhere at once, or mostly in one place? Are there other parts of you that are still unsure?

Exploring and locating your “yes” in this way doesn’t completely remove its potential complications, but it helps you meet it and talk with it, which makes its possibilities more flexible. It makes it possible to go from a vague “yes to everything” to a more nuanced dance, where you can check in with yourself moment to moment and see what the borders, contours, and limits of your “yes” are.

More than that: when you are clearer about what both no and yes are like in you, your partner can get a better sense, too – not just because your communication will be clearer, but because your whole self will be. I’ll explore more on this next week.

Image by Horia Varlan, via Flickr

The puzzle of no.

(Part 2 of my series leading up to my talk on Embodied Consent, happening October 11 at the Bound in Boston: Wicked Women conference.)

So I’ve talked in this space about how hard it can be to say no. But what about to feel no?

In my work, Rubenfeld Synergy Method, we always come back to the body. The mind can play tricks, language can be contradictory, and emotions can cloud judgment. All of these things can be valuable allies in decision-making and healing. But the body is the holder of our most basic and profound truths.

Try this simple exercise. Think about a time when somebody asked you for something you didn’t want to give or do. No need to go deep into trauma territory for this: pick something that wasn’t too traumatic, but that you definitely did not want – like refusing a sales call, or being asked to stay late at work, or having to deal with that friend who is always getting themselves into trouble. Imagine the scene as richly as you can – where you were, what the air felt like, how you were positioned, what time of day it was.

Now focus on the part of you that, regardless of what you ended up saying, really didn’t want to do the thing. Focus on that feeling of ‘no.’ 

Then, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What does ‘no’ feel like, physically? Is it heavy or light? Hot or cold? Is it sharp or blunt, curved or pointed? What is its density – thick like molasses, hard like steel, thready or fuzzy like cotton or spiderweb?
  • What does ‘no’ look like? Does it have a color? Is it bright or dark? Does it have a shape, a size?
  • What does ‘no’ sound like? Are alarm bells going off in your head? A door slamming?
  • What does ‘no’ smell or taste like? Do you get a “bad taste in your mouth”? Does something seem “fishy”? Do you smell staleness, or smoke, or something else?
  • Where is ‘no’ located in your body? Is it in your belly, roiling? Is it sitting on your chest, like an elephant? Does it make your feet feel like lead, or your shoulders feel burdened?

Once you begin to describe your ‘no’ with your senses, and locate it in your body (the sixth sense, called proprioception, comes into play here), your understanding of it can become clearer. Locating a feeling in the body helps us to concretize it, make it more real, and honor it rather than brushing it aside in favor of a polite response.

Image by Run Jane Fox on Flickr

Image by Run Jane Fox on Flickr

The big issue for traumatized people is that they don’t own themselves anymore. Any loud sound, anybody insulting them, hurting them, saying bad things, can hijack them away from themselves. And so what we have learned is that what makes you resilient to trauma is to own yourself fully.

-Bessel van der Kolk

In the course of thinking about Rubenfeld Synergy Method in the context of trauma, I’ve been looking at the marvelous Bessel van der Kolk, known by many in the area as the head of the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, MA. Krista Tippett interviewed him for On Being late last year, and the result is a remarkable look into the man’s life, work, and personality. He has been working with trauma since his time with Vietnam veterans at a VA hospital during his training as a psychiatrist. It was there that he first became fascinated with the idea what trauma is and what it does for us: a soldier refused to take the drugs prescribed for nightmares, because to him, the nightmares were a way of keeping the memory of his friends alive.

His recent book, The Body Keeps the Score, is being cited more and more in the healing circles I travel in. It is an exploration of a lifetime working with people who have become living memorials in some way: their bodies unchanging testaments of traumatic events. Trauma, he says, happens when the mind is unable to synthesize a narrative about what has happened, and the events get “stuck” in the body, replaying themselves. Even Darwin, as early as 1872, wrote “how emotions are expressed in things like heartbreak and gut-wrenching experience. So you feel things in your body. And then it became obvious that, if people are in a constant state of heartbreak and gut-wrench, they do everything to shut down those feelings to their body.”

I have seen this phenomenon in my practice, where clients often cannot feel what is happening in their bodies, or are unaware of what their bodies are doing, or they “leave the room,” in essence, dissociating whenever their awareness is called to their bodies. The experiences that they have had there are too intense to be repeatedly endured, and they have found ways to disconnect from their somatic experience. And so the process of addressing trauma somatically starts with helping people reconnect with their bodies in ways that can begin to feel safe.

van der Kolk has worked with yoga, eye movement therapy, and other somatic practices to help people return to their bodies. “It was very striking in our yoga study,” he says, “even during the most blissful part of the yoga practice called Shavasana, what a hard time traumatized people had at that moment to just feel relaxed and safe and feel totally enveloped with goodness, how the sense of goodness and safety disappears out of your body basically.” In his work, as in Rubenfeld Synergy, van der Kolk has found that “something that engages your body in a very mindful and purposeful way — with a lot of attention to breathing in particular — resets some critical brain areas that get very disturbed by trauma.” It can take a while to help someone reconnect with their own breath, to have a sense of their skin and bones and muscles, to have a relationship to their own sensations and emotions that is not simply another way of triggering the trauma. But the research is clearer and clearer that returning people to their bodies is a clear route out of the cycle.

One of my favorite bits of the interview was about stress hormones and their value, and how what really prevents overwhelming experiences from becoming trauma is movement:

“The stress hormones are good for you. You secrete stress hormones in order to give you the energy to cope under extreme situations…What goes wrong is, if you’re kept from using your stress hormones, if somebody ties you down, if somebody holds you down, if somebody keeps you imprisoned, the stress hormones keep going up, but you cannot discharge it with action. Then the stress hormones really start wreaking havoc with your own internal system.

But as long as you move, you are going to be fine. As we know, after these hurricanes and these terrible things, people get very active and they like to help and they like to do things and they enjoy doing it because it discharges their energy.”

This links back to a post I wrote years ago that continues to be popular, about trauma and streaming. When action is possible in a moment of crisis, it is less likely to become “stuck.” But when trauma is repeated, or when movement or action isn’t safe, then the event or events can become “frozen” in the body, stuck in a repeat loop until we can return a sense of safety to the body, and a sense of consciousness to the ongoing experience of being embodied.

Except for a small number of practitioners, the connection between trauma and the body is a minority voice in psychology. Luckily, it is expanding, but it has taken some time. I am hoping to connect with Dr. van der Kolk and the Trauma Center soon to talk about how Rubenfeld Synergy can contribute to this process of healing from trauma. For now, I recommend listening to the whole interview here , or reading the transcript here.

I went to the INARS conference this past week, and I’ve taken away so many learnings that I don’t know where to begin. But I was inspired today when I walked into a cafe for lunch and heard a song.

If you were conscious during the early ’90s, you undoubtedly know this song. It starts with the repeated words: “In the middle of the – I go walking in the – In the middle of the – I go walking in the – ”

Are we there? Yeah. The song is Billy Joel’s mega-hit from 1993, “River of Dreams.” Now, before I left for the conference, I hadn’t heard this song, or hadn’t paid attention to it, in years. But in a bar in Landsdowne Street with friends, having dinner before a They Might Be Giants concert with dear friends, I heard it, and my friend did too. We both started singing along together:

In the middle of the night (middle of the night)
I go walking in my sleep (walking in my sleep)
From the mountains of faith (mountains of faith)
To a river so deep (river so deep)…

We sang along and boogied from the bar to our tables and commented on how long it had been since we’d heard that song, and what a good song it was. I mumbled along to a lot of the faster lyrics, and we moved on to dinner.

Today, after therapy, after talking about everything I’d been through at the conference, I heard it again in the cafe: In the middle of the night…

And I stopped, because I was hearing words I’d never heard before.

And I’ve been searching for something
Taken out of my soul
Something I would never lose
Something somebody stole

This weekend, we focused on soul: what feeds us, where we feel at home, how we connect to passion, to center, to power, to connection itself. As part of that, we talked about the thwarts to passion: what does your passion call you to do, and what gets our way?

An important learning from this was that most of the time, the thing thwarting us is not of us. We may have internalized it, sure, but it was something done to us. “Something taken out of my soul. Something I would never lose. Something somebody stole.” Or, something somebody put there, something that doesn’t belong, that we should never have been forced to carry.

One fellow Synergist felt the sense of the thwart so deeply that she was convinced it was all her, and said it felt like a bunch of heavy locks. Gently but with laser clarity as always, one of the program heads, Noel Wight, told her: Very few people put locks inside themselves, just naturally, on purpose. It’s possible that this Synergist was the one who put them there. But what drove that action? What was the message she received that told her: lock yourself away. You are too much to take. Your passion burns too hot. Be quiet. Keep it to yourself.

What was stolen from her? What was put in its place?

And how do we get those things back? How do we return to ourselves, to a place where our passion, our will, can flow freely?

The answer differs for each person, but it starts with the body. What movement is restricted now, as a result of that thwarting, that theft, that abuse, that grasping, that constant imposition? Whatever it was, what movement can we use to restore ourselves to ourselves?

Here’s an example: for me, it was space. I got the message repeatedly that I took up too much space: I was too big, my laugh was too loud, I ate too much, and I needed to follow the rules, keep my legs together, and be a lady. So is is any surprise that now my hips are tight, I squeeze my shoulders into their sockets, my ribs get compressed, and I can’t take a full breath?

The restoration of my width, my length, my breath, my available space – this is the work that I need to do to restore my connection to passion, my soul, my source, and my sense of direction: where I am going in my life, and who gets to decide?

When we turn to the body and seek the source of our tensions, our aches, our habitual movements that hold us back, we begin to see other possibilities for movement, other ways that we can be, move, and live.

Contact me if you want some help doing this for your own life.

Image Copyright Brian Robertson

Last month, I hit the big 4-0. While I don’t go in much for chronological age meaning anything, there are tremendous cultural tropes around what it means to turn 20, to turn 30, to turn 40. 40 always seems more momentous, perhaps because, in this day and age when we are living longer and delaying things like marriage and child-rearing more and more, 40 is still an undeniable start of mid-life: fertility drops precipitously, you’re out of the coveted youth target demographic, and magazines start to tell you what you should and should not do at your advanced age.

I am undergoing a lot of changes around this milestone, personally and professionally, and it is definitely a journey. But my transition to 40 wouldn’t be complete without my giving you, my readers, some unsolicited advice in the form of a listicle.

5 Things Not to Do If You’re Over 40

1. Let other people tell you what you should and should not wear. Magazines and online lists love to tell “women over 35” or whatever (as if we were a monolith) what we should wear. Respectfully, I say: f— that. If you want to wear leopard capris and gladiator sandals, go for it. If you want to show off your cleavage, or wear skinny jeans, or bedeck your arms in a bunch of bangles, strut your stuff! If you like high-necked tops, if you feel best in your sweatpants, if you’re a guy who wants to wear skirts or a woman who wants to wear a suit, if you want to go out in the street looking like Bozo the Clown, it is absolutely none of my business, nor that of any media outlet. Wear what makes you feel awesome, no matter your age!

2. Hate your own body. Many of us spend our teen years, 20s, 30s, hell, our entire lives – hating their bodies. Turning 40 turned me on to a number of things, but one of them was letting go of the idea of perfection. This is my body. I live in it. The best I can do is take care of it, be kind to it, move it around a lot, and listen to its song. Cursing myself for having stretch marks (since I was 13!) or cellulite or too big a butt or too small breasts or whatever is a waste of time and emotional energy. With each passing year I keep getting stronger, more graceful, more aware of myself in space, and the more I love my body the more it gives back.

3. Lie about your age. Being forever 29 is not a virtue; it’s a way of buying into the dominant culture’s obsession with remaining young forever. It’s true that you are as young as you feel, and lying about your age doesn’t make you seem wiser for your years: it makes you seem shallow. Age, after all, is where we learn who we are, and what things about ourselves we can and cannot change. In this process we can refine our energies and choose what we spend our time on more wisely. I choose to spend more time being who I am, where and when I am.

4. Be a grown-up. 40 is an age where it’s easy to imagine that you should have learned everything by now, that you have no more growing to do, that you should Be An Adult, Dammit, And No More Screwing Around. While responsible adulthood is a good thing to aspire to, being 40 doesn’t mean you no longer get to play, learn, evolve, change your mind radically, or take up a new hobby or life-threatening sport. Behaving youthfully has been shown to actually keep you young, and a flexible, open mind and active body tend to be self-perpetuating.

5. Believe You Should Have Arrived By Now. Some people are late bloomers. My favorite example is Grandma Moses, who only started painting in earnest at age 78 and became an icon of American art. One of my major anxieties about hitting 40 is this notion that I Haven’t Done Anything Yet: I haven’t published a novel, or started a family, or Built a Career. (Notice all of these things in Initial Caps, and how seriously I take them. 🙂 But I’ve done many things that other people haven’t: run a small business, directed several plays, acted in several others, sung at Symphony Hall. I’ve had an adventurous life so far, and it’s been a winding path with no clear destination. It’s my belief that all lives are basically like that: there is no arrival. Wherever you go, there you are. 40 is a milestone, but not a millstone. Don’t worry about whether you’ve arrived. You’re still on the journey.

What things do you want to keep in mind as you get older?

 

With the weather turning (finally) toward spring, and with everything reaching toward the light, I felt it was as good a time as any to share one of my favorite poems of all time.

I love Mary Oliver, and I love “Wild Geese” because it expresses so much about what so many of us go through every day: feeling like we have to strive, to suffer, to be busier, better, more stressed out than everybody else. The way we push ourselves rather than being ourselves, and the loneliness and lack of belonging we can feel as a result.

Oliver asks us to return to our bodies, and to the things that bring us joy, hope, and fulfillment. And per usual, she does it in a way that is never cloying, sentimental, or precious. Nevertheless, it makes me cry every time. It is what makes her one of the greats, and what makes me share it with you.

Have a wonderful weekend, everyone.

Ian Greig [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

-Mary Oliver, from New & Selected Poems (Harcourt Brace)

feet
I seem to have left behind this series, describing the progression of the so-called Classic Sequence of moves in Rubenfeld Synergy, quite some time ago, and I’m not entirely sure why.  Therefore, I am taking this moment to continue it.  Please click the above link for a list of moves that I’ve written about thus far: the first touch at the head, and the head roll.

The next place (or, at times, the first place) the Synergist makes contact with the client in this sequence is at their feet.  The client is lying face-up on the table, and there is a wealth of information to be gained just by the position of the client’s feet while lying in that position.  Many people’s feet tend to fall away from each other to the side, due to the natural rotation of the hip.  However, sometimes one foot will be farther over than the other, or one will be pointing straight up while the other falls out to the left.  Sometimes, both feet will be sticking straight up, and some people keep their legs very close together.  Occasionally a person’s feet will be very pointed, with the toes pointing toward the opposite wall rather than toward the ceiling.  In these opening moves of a session, a Synergist will often walk around the table, observing body position and making a mental note of it.

Again, these things don’t necessarily “mean something;”  the point of RSM is not to diagnose illness or present a rigid framework for bodily signifiers.  Rather, this scan prior to contact is a way of seeing what sense comes up for us.  People’s feet can be very expressive: is this person nervous and tentative?  Open and free?  Do their legs and feet give the impression of strength, or fragility?  Are the feet relaxed or tense?  Is the client holding them in place or letting them fall where they will?

My teacher Noël Wight loves feet, because to her they provide so much data.  I’ve watched her spend nearly an entire session at someone’s feet, while that person, wrung with emotion and remembered trauma, found her emotional footing.  This is a huge part of how we work with feet: our feet are where we make contact with the earth, and say volumes about how we stand in the world.  Our language reflects this: we speak of getting swept off our feet, getting back on our feet, standing on our own two feet, and having cold feet.  We stand up for ourselves and stand down from a conflict.  We take a stand and won’t stand for it any longer; we can’t stand it when someone pushes us too far.  We decide when we’re going to walk out, and when to run away.  We dance around issues and jump for joy.  Our heads may be in the clouds, but it’s important to know we have our feet on the ground.

And so the first contact here is as important as the first contact at the head, and I often will start there with a client, if the first touch at the head feels too invasive.  We use a light touch on the tops of the feet, often called a “butterfly touch.”  This is a second hello: connecting the highest point of the human body to the lowest point, and getting a sense of how connected the client is to their own full length.

There tends to be much to be noticed in the feet during this contact.  On the physical level, it is a chance to get a somatic sense of the client’s feet: are they dense? heavy? fragile? strong?  Small or large?  Relaxed or tight?  Energetically, I also tend to get a lot of sensation here: I feel a sense of the client subtly pulling their legs up toward themselves, or I feel a wave of relaxation, or alertness.  Sometimes it will feel like a pulse starts in the legs, or a tingling, or some other things that I can only describe as the client “turning on,” their awareness heightening.  Sometimes the client feels that my hands are very warm, sometimes, cool.  Sometimes the touch brings up memories, like one client who warmly remembered her father rubbing her feet when she was little.  Some clients notice sensation differences, like the feeling of one leg being longer, or heavier, or “stuck,” or wanting to dance.

The feet, in short, tend to be the place where the conversation with the body really picks up.

Next time: the “windshield wiper” move.

 

In a previous post, I mentioned how often, especially for men, touch can be linked up in their bodies with sex.  In our current society, unfortunately, we have a disordered relationship to touch.  When we are tiny children, if we are lucky, our parents and other caregivers touch us all the time.  We are carried, cuddled, rocked and patted.  But as we get older, we are touched less and less.  I remember very well when my father stopped carrying me in to bed when I would fall asleep in the car on the way home.  It felt like a terrible loss.  And in many of today’s schools, children aren’t allowed to hug each other, and teachers mustn’t touch the children at all if they can help it.

Once kids hit puberty, it’s true that touch can become complicated.  A whole new dimension is added to what touch might mean.  But prohibiting kids from touching altogether doesn’t allow them to develop the appropriate judgment and boundaries for determining what kind of touch feels safe and right to them, from whom, and at what time.

And once people are adults, the relationship with touch shifts yet again.  Women more often have access to casual, friendly touch with other women, but some do not, and as people get older and separate into isolated, nuclear family units, cuddle piles of friends tend to disappear, if they ever existed.  For men, this tends to be even more true: from puberty onward, or even earlier, boys are taught to tamp down sensitivity, to be tough, to not seek or need affection, and to play sports – the team variants of which are the only allowable outlet for men to touch each other.  (Have you ever watched a football game on TV and seen the incredible amount of butt-patting and hugging that goes on in addition to the tackling?)  As a large proportion of men and women enter exclusive relationships, get married, and have kids, their only source of loving touch comes in one of two ways: through intimate contact with their partner, or through loving contact with their small children – in the most literal way, a natural extension of that sexuality.

Never mind all of the incredible health benefits touch has been shown to have.  Even without the research, it’s fairly obvious: we are tribal monkeys at root, and what we do constantly to feel safe, comfortable, and right with ourselves and each other is to touch.  And the fact that our culture is so disconnected from that says volumes about our current sicknesses, pathologies and screwed-up behaviors as a society.

So it’s not at all surprising that when some people reach the table – whether it’s with a massage therapist, an energy healer, or a Rubenfeld Synergist, the loving, nonjudgmental touch they receive often triggers sexual feelings.  After all, there aren’t a lot of other contexts for receiving gentle, loving touch as an adult.  For women, this can be terrifying: a married woman may feel that she is being unfaithful, or that she is having inappropriate feelings, or that the healer is touching her inappropriately.  For men, it can be terrifying, too, or they – more often – may turn to inappropriate expressions of those feelings toward the healer.  For anyone, it can be confusing, can arouse feelings of shame or guilt or both, or can tap into memories of sexual abuse or incest.  For all of these reasons, touch can be like a match to dynamite, and treating it with the utmost respect is vital to the success of any treatment involving touch.

The truth continues, though, that what has happened to the body remains in the body, and must be healed in the body, as well.  Whatever trauma, abuse, neglect, memory, feeling, or story resides in the person I am touching, that thing must be eventually brought forth, and the trauma decoupled from the experience of receiving loving, non-sexual touch.  Unfortunately or not, the only cure for that is the touch itself: receiving, acclimating, and learning, little by little, that touch can be okay, that touch can be relaxing, that touch can be loving without it being about sex, that touch doesn’t have to demand anything from you, lead to anything else, hurt you, arouse you, wound you.  That you own your body, and that you can decide when and how it is touched, and by whom.

That decoupling may also be called a kind of re-pairing: taking apart allows for another kind of putting together, so that a client can pair up touch and love, touch and solace, touch and peace, instead of touch and pain, touch and sex, touch and demands.  Giving clients more options for how they might experience touch is incredibly healing, and opens up more options in their lives as well.

Not what’s going on here.

One of the main dangers, of course, of working with sexuality is that some people – in fact, many people – will try to take advantage of you.  There is a tricky line to be walked between being open about the topic – and at times the presence – of sexuality in a healing context; and engaging the client in a sexual experience.  That is: a client may call me or come to me to talk about issues of sexuality, sexual identity, fetishes, or whatever, and in the course of discussion, the client might become aroused.  As I’ve previously written, said arousal can be acknowledged, accepted, and some of the shame and embarrassment thereby lessened for the client.  In other instances, the arousal can even be followed, through exploration of imagery and body sensation, to information about what is troubling the client.  However, it also sometimes happens that a client is looking to engage a therapist or other practitioner in a fantasy scenario, and is inappropriately using the therapeutic context to do so.  Naturally, avoiding this becomes more difficult when you’ve chosen to work with sexuality directly.

I’ve been lucky enough to attract many respectful and kind clients with issues around sexuality who have finally found someone to talk to, and who are on a journey of figuring out who they are and what they want through their bodies.  Some, though, whether because of deep disturbance or just an inflated sense of entitlement or hostility, will attempt to engage my services but then demonstrate that they’re just out to “get off.”

This happens with especial frequency online in chat or on the phone, where, without the body language and other signals that are readily available in person, a prospective client can easily either mistake my sexual openness for a willingness to engage sexually, or take advantage of and abuse it for his own amusement or spite.  It is a sad commentary on how screwed up our culture is about sex that there are people who feel the need to do this, or who are damaged enough that the slightest opening has them jumping in without discussion or consent.

Luckily, with a little practice it becomes fairly easy to recognize these types.  Working intuitively within Rubenfeld Synergy for so long, I’ve grown to trust my body’s signals and can tell pretty quickly when, say, someone is masturbating on the phone, or when, in email, someone is not self-aware enough to be seeking treatment rather than thrills.

Unfortunately, working with sexuality tends to come with this side effect, and figuring out where my boundaries are and holding to them is even more critical than it might be if I chose not to work with this topic.  However, in a way working this openly has an advantage, in that those who might take advantage of any therapeutic situation tend to be revealed more quickly.  After all, issues of transference and counter-transference can often cause unresolved sexual tensions between therapists and clients of all kinds.  Being a healer who works with sexuality means that such issues can be raised and addressed more directly, and generally more quickly.

In a future post, I will talk about boundary-setting in this type of work.