In the March 2004 edition of the International Primal Assn. Newsletter, Dr. Paul Hannig wrote an article discussing the importance of clearing emotional pain to restore the health of the limbic system and live an enjoyable life. I am responding to a section of the article, first from the perspective of a young primaller and then from the perspective of a practitioner in training.
Before I begin, I want first to clarify that I only address the part of the article I found problematic and take this opportunity to share my thoughts and experiences on the topic of "resistance." This does not diminish my appreciation for the sections of Paul's article that I found informative and very well articulated. I am thankful for the opportunity to engage with a topic that is very meaningful and important to me.
Paul writes: "If you are resistant to, defended against, or unable to willingly lie down on the floor and scream, cry, talk, verbalize, yell, gyrate, beat, roll around and fully express/exorcise/blowout/fully explode the pain from your system then you are unwilling to fully connect to your brain and body's need to eliminate the toxins (cortisol, negative thoughts/feelings etc.) from your system. It means that you are not really interested in or committed to your full resurrection and the overthrow of everything in your system that holds you back and holds you down. If you are resistant, it means that you are unwilling to correct aberrant and abnormal neurological transmission processes. It means that you are unwilling to experience a healthy, unlimited, robust and expanded love life."
As a young primaller, my gut reaction to this section was strong. I felt as though I was being put down and judged. As a result, I felt protective of myself and felt that I needed to push back and respond. I followed the feeling and I connected with a number of very early experiences where I was shamed for not doing what others wanted me to do, where mistaken and misinformed assumptions were made about me, where I was told I was feeling one way about something when I was feeling differently, and where I was pushed to do things I was afraid of without care and respect of my inner rhythm and maturation process.
As a result of these experiences, I grew up ignoring the inner signals my body was sending me about unsafe situations and people, engaging in experiences I was not ready for and silencing myself in the face of abuse and violence. To push through fear, pain and resistance became the norm.
This also happened in my primal work. At times, an insensitive inner coach/critic I internalized led me to push myself to go into early experiences too deeply, too fast and too often. I wanted to "fix" me, to change me, to get rid of all the pain … not realizing that I was repeating a pattern. And this sometimes left me into shock states that exhausted my body's resources. I now realize that primal is not always the way. The genuine acceptance and love from mentors, friends, and colleagues is helping me build and learn to honor my defenses and resistances. I am coming to see them as a sign of healthy assertion of my body's inner wisdom. And I'm learning to better care for myself.
Now writing from the perspective of a practitioner in training (primal facilitation and doctoral work in psychology), I would like to discuss the concept of "resistance" further. My position is informed mainly by personal experiences, reflection, discussions with friends, colleagues and supervisors, and readings from various therapeutic modalities. I do want to acknowledge that most of my experience is with short term (up to 8 months) process-experiential counseling which is far from being as deep as primal work. I have yet much to learn regarding deep feeling process and resistance to deep feeling work. Nevertheless I still feel I can write about what I learned in the past few years of personal process and practice.
The word resistance has negative connotations in most therapeutic circles. It is usually seen as something that is "in the way" and that needs to be overcome. I question this perception, but what I find most disturbing is that there are times when the word is used as a judgment of a person. In the latter case, the "resistant client" maybe labeled as a "difficult client", and the word "resistance" can be used as a justification for therapeutic interventions that are abusive and damaging. These can take the form of confrontations, put downs, and limits that do not come from a place of genuine care for the person's well-being but from a place of establishing or asserting one's power in the relationship or one's position of expert.
I would like to offer that "resistance" or labeling a "client" "resistant" may sometimes reflect issues that come from the facilitator and their intervention styles. There are many practitioner or process factors that may be contributing to resistance. For one, there is the facilitator's level of experience and ability to empathize with the particular issues and feelings brought forward by the person they work with. Indeed, people are able to sense whether or not the practitioner they work with can relate sufficiently to guide them through particular pieces of their process.
This is particularly true of survivors of torture, rape and psychiatric abuse. Other factors that can elicit resistance include ruptures in the therapeutic relationship that undermines the trust necessary for connected process work, and mismatch between the practitioner's intervention styles and the person's communication styles.
These need to be attended to and can often be worked through successfully (e.g., sometimes simply identifying and acknowledging one's limitations in being able to relate or acknowledging the possible mismatch is sufficient).
In addition, when resistance is openly discussed in supervision what can sometimes emerge is that the "resistance" is due to practitioners pushing their own agenda, pace, and interpretations onto people's processes. In this case, the resistance is a healthy sign as it demonstrates that the person has sufficient inner resources to respond. The absence of resistance is worrisome as it may indicate that the "person" has disappeared from the process and may simply be going along to please, out of fear, or out of not knowing what else to do.
That being said, I will limit the rest of my discussion to the term resistance as one's inability or unwillingness to do deep feeling work. The following analogy illustrates my understanding. In physics, the term "resistance" refers to a device that is used to protect an electrical circuit from overloads. Without resistance, circuits may be seriously damaged and even destroyed. Before letting through high (or higher) voltage, there maybe a need to repair some segments of the circuit, strengthen weak segments, change some wires and add insulation material. And if the circuit is already overloaded, there may be a need to turn off the current or introduce resistance to protect the circuit from being damaged.
Similarly, from a primal standpoint, if resistance are present or emerging, it may be that for a reason or another, having the feeling at this moment or in these particular circumstances would be damaging. It may be an indication that pushing through the resistance be retraumatizing and destabilizing (see also Burstow, 1992; 2004).
Before challenging resistance, it is important to identify their purpose. This can be done a number of ways. My favorite is through dialogue between parts of self. Engaging the part that just wants to "hit the mat" may yield that this is a part that is used to pushing through pain and that is beating up on the self. Engaging the part that is fearful or protective may help identifying what needs to be attended to for the process to be integrative. This may be increasing safety and support (what this means is unique to each individual … some suggestions can be having two witnesses present; ensuring that one has a place to rest and recuperate for a number of hours after the work; titrating the work as much as possible by contracting to engage in deep feeling process for only three to five minutes and then discussing lighter topics).
Once the concerns of the protective/resistant parts of self are attended to with care, much of the resistance may dissipate on its own and give way to a process that is truly integrative. However, it may also be that engaging the part that is fearful will clarify that primal work is not what needs to be done at this time. It maybe that attending to present day concerns or grounding work is what is most important (e.g., see Terry Larimore's writings on shock and Sam Turton's thought of the week "On the Edge of the Rabbit Hole").
I have experienced connecting with very meaningful pieces of work that I only accessed after being able to slide under my defenses so I am aware that sometimes the defenses and resistances need to be softened, discarded or temporarily put aside. However I do believe that there is an inherent wisdom in the primal process and that this wisdom is also manifest in resistances; honoring resistances and experiencing them as being honored by a witness may be deeply reparative and healing.
By Patricia Poulin,
Note: I welcome comments and feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org