What is Primal Psychotherapy?

By H. Lawrence King

Psychotherapy is the art and science of easing emotional problems. Many forms of psychotherapy are designed to help the client know and understand what is in their unconscious. Very few are designed to actually change what is in the unconscious. However, if the material in the unconscious is not changed, it retains its enormous power to occasionally override even the most powerful of conscious egos. When it does that, we call it "neurosis." In one way or another, it always results in emotional pain.

The unconscious is primarily a record of the past and a storehouse of past physical and emotional tensions. These tensions can be triggered by present events so that they are felt in the present. In fact, because their origin is from the unconscious and we are thus unaware of their actual source, these powerful tensions seem to originate in the present and the person or situation triggering them appears to be their primary cause -- when they may in fact be only a very minor part of the cause.

My understanding of the object of psychoanalysis is that it helps the client discover these unconscious origins of present-day tensions (and their accompanying but misplaced ideations) and to analyze and use the knowledge consciously to change present and future behaviors.

On the other hand, the object of primal psychotherapy is to enhance one's life by first lowering the tension levels of the material stored in the unconscious. That makes these tensions less likely to be triggered and greatly lowers their ability to affect the consciousness when they are triggered.

In a session, I first help the client become highly conscious of previously unconscious memories (being very careful not to suggest anything that wasn't there already). The past is actually "re-lived.'' Previously buried motivations become obvious to the client. No interpretation or analysis is needed from the therapist.

I totally accept and thereby encourage the client to accept the reality of the new discovery he is making: that some of the pain he experienced as a child was so immense or prolonged that it had to be buried, and that those forgotten memories and their accompanying emotional tensions have been the source of life-long painful emotions, psychosomatic illnesses, neurotic thoughts, defenses and self-defeating behaviors.

He may discover that in having to build walls to contain the pain, he not only reduced his sensitivity to painful feelings, but also reduced his ability to enjoy pleasurable feelings. By slowly confronting the old pain that he had to endure, he starts to regain the compassion for himself that he had to diminish in order to survive; with that comes more compassion for others and greater ability to feel warmth and closeness.

I believe that most therapists and laymen recognize the value of a cathartic experience used in connection with recent trauma. (Such as crying to express the grief of losing a loved one.) It vastly lowers tension levels. But long-forgotten past traumas still maintain very high, though unconscious, tension levels. It is this tension that gives such incredible power to neurotic impulses. ("I know it's self-destructive, but I can't seem to stop myself.'') By doing a connective catharsis of the past, the neurotic impulses greatly diminish (and some are gone forever).

At this stage in each session, the therapy changes from an emphasis on the unconscious to an integration of the unconscious with the conscious and then to an emphasis on the conscious. Because the client has lived from unconscious neurotic impulses all his life, there are areas where he is inexperienced at living in a relatively un-neurotic way. The therapy then focuses on exploring the new relationships, life-styles, and extraordinarily pleasurable deep emotions that become possible when one's conscious mind (rather than one's unconscious), is truly in charge!

© 1993, all rights reserved, H. Lawrence King

H. Lawrence King is a retired psychotherapist living in New York City.

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