Healing Childhood Hurts With Deep Feeling/Primal-Oriented Therapy

by Esta Powell




We live in times when mainstream psychotherapy is focusing exclusively on short-term interventions and medical treatment for the symptoms of mental disorders. Managed healthcare plans are supporting "quick fix" approaches and pharmaceutical giants are offering a handful of "magic pills". Psychotherapy is losing its true meaning and turning into a type of "drive through" culture.

Meanwhile, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, major depressive disorder is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for people aged 15-44. The depression diagnosis rate among US children increased 2.4 times from 1990 to 2001, from 12.9 per 1,000 to 31.1 per 1,000. However, since childhood depression often goes undiagnosed, we have no idea what the real figures are.

In the light of this development, it seems very important to tell people about the alternatives that are available, and where they can get help. Painful feelings that been accumulated over a lifetime cannot be changed in a few days or a few weeks. We cannot heal the roots of our problems by trimming the leaves. Our bodies needs time to release suppressed emotions and to reintegrate the insights that follow. Deep Feeling / Primal-oriented therapy enables us to go back to these repressed experiences, feel them, liberate the locked-in energy and thus heal ourselves.

If we are unhappy or dysfunctional, it is primarily because we have been hurt. Simply talking about our hurts, or thinking positive thoughts, cannot fully change our feelings. It is widely known that there are different parts of the brain that are responsible for thinking and feeling - the mid brain (limbic system, amygdala and other structures) is where our feelings are stored and the cortex, or top part of our brain, holds most of the cognitive functions - thinking, reasoning, speech etc. Therapies that address only the top part of our brains can influence our feelings in only very limited ways. We need a different approach in order to heal deep traumas that have affected our feeling brain.

We are born into this world with the ability and the need to fully express our emotions: joy, pain, rage, terror, deep need, grief, loneliness, etc. But we often grow up learning that it's not OK to show our feelings because we get reprimanded for expressing them. "Don't cry, boys don't cry", or "Be quiet, don't be angry, be a big girl". Frequently kids are also told, "Don't be stupid", when they say how they feel. So they quickly learn to hide those parts of themselves in order to please their parents.

When we are told that it is wrong to express what we feel, we internalize the message that feeling is wrong. As a result we lose touch with a very important part of ourselves. The truth of the matter is that our feelings are the most real expressions of our being in the world. Unfortunately, when we block and store feelings we become tense, unhappy, constantly tired or sick. Eventually we become "split". Needs and hurts that cannot be expressed leave us carrying a heavy load of unresolved issues that exhausts our original energy and deprives us of a creative and enjoyable life.

When we are little we get hurt in two different ways. First, parents are often not able to meet our needs for nurturing, attention, contact and caring. We begin to starve emotionally and split from feeling the pain of unmet needs. Many parents are not ready for conscious parenting. They don't know what children needs are, or they can't meet these needs because they are depressed, unhappy or emotionally damaged themselves. In other words, they can't give us what they don't have.

A recent study shows that emotional abandonment can be even more damaging for a child than direct abuse. It amazes me that society requires that we have a license to drive a car, but we receive no training in how to raise an emotionally healthy human being. Second, we may have experienced emotional, verbal, physical or sexual abuse.

For most of us childhood trauma is not a one-time event, but rather a pattern of hurtful and damaging events over long periods of time (for example, growing up in a home with raging, neglectful, obsessively controlling, ignorant or emotionally unavailable parents).

These old hurts and unmet needs have a powerful emotional charge. Most of our adult lives may be spent striving to meet our unmet childhood needs in some other way. We may pursue relationships with people who we turn into surrogate parents, hoping they will "make us happy". We may get addicted to food, alcohol or drugs to decrease the pain inside. We may become obsessed with fame, beauty, money or power to "feel good". So we run from our internal tensions and anxiety, afraid to stop, because if we did we would be left with nothing but the pain inside.

As children we are often confused by our parents behavior. We need to believe they love us, so we usually perceive them and everything they do, as being right. Even if they beat us we think it must have been for our own good. I have seen a number of people who start their first session by saying: " I had a normal childhood, my parents loved me, they provided me with food and clothing and didn't hit me - I don't know why I feel unhappy". It is usually not long before they come to realize how much they didn't get - emotional security, caring acceptance, undivided attention and the loving permission to discover who they were.

Deep Feeling/Primal-oriented therapy is a natural process that helps us to break these patterns. It uses the inner healing powers we all possess. Children cry immediately when they are hurt. This releases biochemicals that lower stress, and as a result they are OK a few minutes later. Cultures and civilizations around the world have different rituals and traditions for preserving mental health and treating disorders. Most of them involve emotional catharsis, which helps release old traumatic pain. Sadly in our civilization this has been lost.

Deep Feeling/Primal-oriented therapy follows this inherent healing path. By allowing natural expression (crying, wailing, shivering, raging, etc.) over time we rediscover our true selves. As we feel safe to let out defences down, we become less scared of our childhood pain, and are able to relive it, feel its impact and integrate it. Finally we don't need to defend and pretend any more. We have much more mental energy to attend to our lives in the present and make positive changes to better meet our needs. We find relief from negative feelings and destructive behaviours. With primal work we learn to trust our own natural healing ability. It is a way to get to know ourselves on a very deep level, which we continue to use to achieve clarity throughout our lifetime.

I am often asked about the main primal techniques I use, what I do to help people when they come in and how I assist them to get in touch with their childhood memories and the feelings that go with them. Personally I try to be flexible, adjusting the process to suit the client's needs instead of following any system or technique. In some cases I might suggest some of techniques from gestalt therapy, psychodrama, guided imagery, relaxation, etc., if I believe them to be helpful. A client is always free to use them, or not.

The goal of any technique is help us to get in touch with our feelings and my role is to provide a safe and welcoming space for free expression of these feelings. Usually we start with the client expressing "what is happening now" by addressing the problems they are having in their lives in the present. I invite them to express their thoughts and feelings, and become aware of what is happening in their bodies. The simplicity and magic of this work is that if we just allow ourselves to slow down and remove all daily distractions, any traumatic material and unsatisfied needs will start surfacing to our awareness. Our own psyche and body will guide us.

An essential aspect of this therapy is a safe and honest relationship between client and therapist. As this relationship develops, a client is able to let down their guard with someone they can trust and on whom they can depend to support them and always remain on their side. This is a special period of concentrated individual attention that helps the client to consciously resolve old unsatisfied needs and hurts. In this caring, honest and open relationship, strong emotional expressions arise naturally. By allowing them, and later discussing and journaling the connection between "old feelings" and present-day problems, we can put the past where it belongs - "in the past" and have more satisfying lives in the present.

I also address the importance and possibilities of the reparenting aspect of client and therapist relationship. I believe that it is impossible to fully get our childhood needs met - the time has passed and none in this world is able to replace our parents. However, I also know that we grow and we become by internalising things that are reflected to us. This process doesn't end in childhood. As human beings we are very flexible and have endless capacity to learn, grow and change. If we were to lose one of our limbs, it would never grow back. But we can get prosthesis. Though it will never be the same, it will allow us to walk again.

Usually clients who are committed to the primal process, reach a point where they experience a distinctive positive shift in their feelings and outlook on life. There comes a point where there is no looking back. This is because with Deep Feeling / Primal-oriented therapy we address reasons for our unhappiness, deal with the causes of our problems and heal, instead of merely learning how to manage the symptoms.

Esta Powell offers therapy in Columbus, Ohio. Find out more at her PrimalMatters website.
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