Birth Primals: Having them Earlier or Having Them Later in the Therapy Process?

by Pat Törngren

One of the most important things that experience has taught me, is that though I would never ever ‘push’ someone into birth feelings early in their therapy (or at any time for that matter), when their body wants to go back there, no matter how early in therapy it might be, I would not stop them or block the feelings in any way.
-- The Author

Recently on the Internet Primal Support Group, someone brought up the issue of birth primals and suggested that a number of IPA therapists put too much emphasis on the reliving of birth, to the exclusion of other issues. Two names came up in the discussion between this person and a practicing therapist who is a member of the IPA (and who denied this allegation). The names mentioned were those of William Emerson and Barbara Findeisen. I replied as follows:

Regarding Emerson, as far as I know, he is actually working with babies themselves, and helping them to resolve the birth trauma (if any) in the first weeks of life. I find his work with babies very interesting (his name has been mentioned in the Primal Institute Newsletter in connection with this). How he works with adult patients I do not know.

My knowledge of Barbara Findeisen is limited to what I have seen on the video “Journey to be Born”. I found the video most interesting, but noted that the people shown there, though crying about birth, their mother / infant separation, etc. were all using words which come later than at birth itself, and crying like older children. This led me to suspect that they were having “second-line” primals about birth, but were not actually reliving their births or primalling on the “first-line”, and that they were therefore in little danger of becoming overwhelmed by very early pain or falling apart.

During my time in the IPA (which has been several years now) nobody has tried to steer me in the direction of birth, and I would feel most upset if they did. I don't like being "pushed" in any direction - and that IS a birth feeling! So if anyone had attempted to do it to me, I most certainly would have been aware of it, and would have reacted very strongly and very negatively.

But the debate it seems is not limited to the IPA and in general this issue about how early to go with birth feelings does seem to be a contentious point, even between the Janovs and various therapists trained by them. Art's patients seem to be encouraged to go back to birth (though I don't know at what stage in their therapy) while at the Primal Institute I have been told that they are now recommending that people like me who died during their birth process, should try not to go back there at all if possible.

In contrast my present therapist says, "Listen to your body and follow your process – if you want to truly get well, you don’t have the choice of going a little way into the pain and then calling a halt to further inner exploration. If you try to, your therapy will stop at that point, and you will remain ‘stuck’ forever".

I confess that I understand any concerns expressed (from hearsay only) by the Primal Institute, as suicidal impulses are a very real hazard, if and when dying in the birth-canal actually brought relief from the pain which seemed endless, as happened to me, and resulted in a series of “Please let me die” primals.

However, I have found that with the containment that my present therapist provides, reliving my birth and especially my death in the birth-canal has proved to be very helpful and resolving, in spite of being very difficult at times. I must admit though, that the “one-on-one” care my therapist has provided weekly over a 10 year period, has been what has made it safe for me to go “back there”. (It is not something I would recommend to anyone who has inadequate support in the present, where “keeping it together” may be undesirable, but a temporary necessity.)

To put my feelings on the situation into context, it might help if I share my history and experience of birth primals. I had my first birth primal in 1975, the year after I started self-primalling here in Cape Town. I wasn't sure what to make of it, since there was no crying involved. I just went through a lengthy body memory of the final sequence of my head coming out. The pressure was unbelievable, and I remember lying there thinking, "This could be dangerous and I hope I don't have a stroke".

My buddy who sat with me told me afterwards that I first went red in the face and then blue. He said that in the final part of the sequence (when I was feeling the most pressure) the veins on my forehead stood up clearly and he was also a bit scared of what might happen, as I held my breath too. But all was well and I felt great relief afterwards. (I remember that I slept very well that night, and awoke refreshed the next morning).

Two years later I got to L.A. and asked my three-week therapist (a trainee) what I should do about the headaches I was getting (which I knew were birth- related). She suggested that I should not go with them but rather take an aspirin, so I dutifully did that. Later I was surprised to see Patti Nicholas facilitate a birth primal in “big group” after what my therapist had said. But I decided to follow my own therapist’s suggestion and as a result I didn't have any more birth feelings for several years.

But the headaches continued, and eventually in desperation I got up the courage to lie down and "go with them" as an experiment. Doing this didn't result in primals in the normal sense of the word – rather it produced "body memories" only. But they went on for hours, cleared the headaches, and started me having regular connected birth primals at other times (with baby crying) as a result. I regretted then that I had followed the instructions of the therapist in L.A. as I think my process would have moved along faster if I had just followed my body and let it do what it wanted to do.

I had an interesting insight related to this when my best friend started to primal 21 years ago. She was trying to feel on her own, but when she couldn't make it, she asked if she could come down to Cape Town for two weeks and have me do an intensive for her, as she couldn't afford formal therapy. Since she had become interested in primal therapy through buddying for me some years earlier, I felt it would be right (though I had never done anything like it before) so I agreed.

The understanding was that I would give her a “buddy type” session in the primal box every afternoon, but from the first day, she said she was needing at least three sessions a day and crying through the night, so I had to call for reinforcements. We ended up with me doing the morning shift, a friend (one of Cecil Osborne's previous patients, and a certified therapist of his) doing the afternoon shift, and my husband doing the evening sessions.

From the beginning, my friend started having birth feelings "intruding". I thought it was “too early” in her therapy and I dutifully steered her away from that and into later stuff (which she did well). Then one evening in her second week she had a breakthrough when working alone with my husband.

Perhaps I should say a little about him first. He is a very passive buddy (which has advantages and disadvantages). He never interrupts, but he frequently falls asleep (you hear him start to snore, which is not very helpful to me). But his style of buddying was helpful to my friend, as she spontaneously went into birth and he didn't try to stop her. She came out of the primal box after her session, fully connected and mind blown!

What had happened was that she had a birth primal in which she felt how hard she was "pushing" herself in order to "get out". She said her three sessions per day were an act-out of that old feeling – that if she didn’t push herself she would probably die. Well, the next day when she arrived for her session with me, she said, "I don't need to feel today, let's go and see a movie". So we went into Cape Town and saw Barbara Streisand in "Yentl", instead of going into the primal box!

From then on my friend needed only one session per day, and started accessing her later feelings really easily in those sessions, with the "birth urgency" out of the way. It taught me some very important things. I think the most important was that though I would never ever "push" someone into birth feelings early in their therapy (or at any time for that matter), when the body wants to go there, no matter how early in therapy it might be, I would not stop them or attempt to block the feelings again.

I now understand that there is wisdom in our bodies and our healthy defenses (if not interfered with) prevent us from getting into old feelings that have so great a valence of pain that they might endanger us in any way.

This is a learning process for all of us, and I am still learning all the time, mostly by listening to what my buddies and other people have to say based on their experiences. I trust this clarifies how I feel on this subject, and other people’s comments in return, would be most welcome.


The author received her primal therapy at the Primal Institute in Los Angeles in the mid-seventies. She has worked as a childbirth educator and is owner and moderator of the popular Primal-Support-Group at Yahoo!

Her website, The South African Primal Therapy Support Page, may be accessed at:

Pat Törngren lives in a suburb of Cape Town and may be e-mailed from this link.

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