Interlude: primal therapy, catharsis, and the uses and abuses of skepticism

So before I continue my reflection on the healing shame process, I want to devote some attention to skepticism. My friend and regular blog reader Margaret’s comment on my last post is worthy of a reply. She says: “This sounds a lot like the scream therapy of old— hitting a pillow with anger/rage. How is this different?  You know me— I can be a skeptic…” .  My initial thought was, well, I don’t really know anything about scream therapy, so I can’t answer her question.  But then, I thought, wait a minute, this is a great thing to think more about!

First of all, both my dad and my husband tend towards skepticism. My childhood experience was that if I was going to discuss something important with my dad, I’d better have a good reasons for my beliefs and be able to argue my case in the courts of logic and science. And then I married Don who, though he has a deeply spiritual side of him, also has a scientific background and for many years subscribed to a magazine called Skeptical Inquirer!  In our relationship, Don and I have a tendency to fall into a polarization where the more excited I am about an idea, the more suspicious he is of it.

The strategies I developed to cope with this environment included both honing my skills in academic argumentation, and hiding my innermost thoughts and feelings from this kind of scrutiny. As I’ve become more aware of my habitual reactions, I’ve started to see that when I’m triggered into defensiveness, I sometimes use both of these strategies at once. I can get sort of bombastic on the outside, while feeling a sort of sad, empty, collapsed feeling on the inside — a tough outer shell that’s inflated, while whatever might have been on the inside to defend goes into hiding somewhere deep down where even I don’t have conscious access to it anymore.

I have also noticed that I sometimes shy away from sharing my true feelings about things with my husband and my father, and with other men who manifest this kind of skeptical energy. While women of course can also be thoroughly skeptical, they don’t tend to trigger me as much. This is at least partly a result of my own internalized sexism. (In case you’re not familiar with the concept of internalized oppression, I highly recommend learning about it.)

However, some of the difference is also, I believe (and my internalized skeptic voice says, it is at least a falsifiable hypothesis) that in this culture most women do not express their skepticism as vociferously as most men do, and when they do, they are more likely to also be attending carefully (though perhaps unconsciously) to the relational impact of that expression, and reassuring their interlocutor of their continued positive regard and respect despite the disagreement, in ways that men are not socialized to bother with as much.

Even Margaret’s one-liner had some of this embedded in it, when she said, “you know me, I can be a skeptic” — perhaps encouraging me to view her question as being as much about her as about me and my thinking, and even to dismiss it if I so chose. Another friend and colleague Ali, who is a brilliant young woman of color, recently told me that in her experience, a lot of men enact skepticism as a dominance behavior. While this is probably often unintentional, it can still have that kind of impact, and some of that impact is via the internalized sexism that gets triggered.

So, part of how sexism operates in my life is that I am easily triggered into feelings of shame by implications that I’m being naive or not using my intelligence. Though the dictionary says that the antonym of skeptical is convinced, in my feeling-world, it’s gullible. Recently, as I become more aware of this shaping, and understand how it can interfere with my relationships, I am working on being able to choose whether and when to share my deeper thoughts and feelings, rather than hide them. Don and I have some new sets of commitments to each other that we developed at the couples’ retreat with Robert Gass and Judith Ansara Gass in February, and some of them are related to this issue, for instance:

Becca to Don: I pledge to ask for deep listening from you when I want to share something I’m excited about.

Don to Becca: I pledge to receive your excitement as a manifestation of your beautiful life force energy.

I have also been working on sharing more of my inner life with my dad. This happened naturally to some extent as I started blogging and I knew he was reading my blog. And last year I decided to up the ante in a curious way by asking him to donate money to generative somatics. I knew that this would mean I would have to try to explain to him why it is important to me, and why I believe it is important for others, and that’s the kind of conversation I’ve mostly avoided having with him over the years. While I haven’t yet convinced him of its objective usefulness, he does believe and respect that it’s important to me enough to have given some money to it (thanks, Dad!!), and I do feel like we have been getting closer in the process. We’ve agreed to continue the conversation to see if he might become convinced enough to want to support it on its own merits, not just because it’s important to me.

While it can be overused and abused, I do think skepticism has really important value. It is of course inherent to the scientific method as we understand it, to question the underlying assumptions, the logic, and the evidence that supports (or contradicts) any theory — that is, not to believe things without good reasons. Since I was going to be talking about my husband and father so personally in this post, I shared an earlier draft of it with each of them, and they had lots of interesting input, some of which I will quote here in defense of skepticism.

My dad, (David H. Krantz, who is a respected mathematical psychologist (and, I just discovered, well-known enough to have a German Wikipedia article about him but not yet an English one), says:

“It is true that when it comes to new ideas, I am skeptical. Above all I am skeptical of theory (including psychoanalytic theory and GS theory, but really, all theory). Theory is my domain, my greatest strength. Who would know better than I that theories are almost always partially wrong and often egregiously so?”

He also has interesting new thinking about arguments from authority (e.g. because scientific consensus says so), but I will have to save that topic for another day! I find this reminder about the fallibility of all of our theories a good one.

My husband Don Katz, who is one of my spiritual teachers and is an occasional blogger himself, said:

“There are so many schemas for healing in the world. If we don’t do some inquiry, some discrimination, how do we choose? Though I believe that healing and transformation can only take place when we commit ourselves to a worldview and a practice regimen, I think it is imperative to investigate for a time before we commit. When I went to the monastery in New York without investigating, I ended up studying with a serial philanderer who had been cut off by his teacher. I chose [Yongey] Mingyur Rinpoche as my teacher because of the endorsement by Richie [our friend, neighbor, and renowned leader of contemplative neuroscience Richard Davidson], who has seen many teachers, and by others as well.”

So, perhaps our goal with skepticism should be the “middle way;” valuing critical inquiry while remembering that our greatest strengths can also become weaknesses— or oppressive behavior — if they are overused or become unconscious habits. Knee-jerk skepticism towards any new idea at all is similar to xenophobia. Knee-jerk skepticism towards any words uttered in a tone of optimism or credulity by a female or person of color might be unconscious sexism or racism. Yet we should also keep in mind that even unconscious habits of skepticism, like other habits, may be deeply ingrained for good reasons. Having a strong habit of resisting when someone is trying to get you to do or believe something can be an important self-preservation mechanism. My own habits of defensiveness, like hiding my beliefs, are similar. I’ve come to believe that we need to honor those impulses in ourselves and in each other, and be grateful for what they have been taking care of, before we try to change them.

So, with all of that in mind, I want to deeply honor Margaret’s question — knowing that her skepticism could in part come from something old getting triggered (the knee-jerk variety) and also from a place of inviting high-level, critical inquiry. And, I’ve just googled Primal Scream Therapy, and found this very interesting recent article on the psychotherapist Arthur Janov, the founder of Primal Therapy, who just died a couple of months ago at the age of 93! The wikipedia article on Primal Therapy is also quite interesting, and includes a lot of valid-sounding critiques of the process, including one by the well-known professional skeptic Martin Gardner in Skeptical Inquirer!! While I’m tempted to get sidetracked into a long research project on this, I think what’s most interesting and relevant to Margaret’s question is exemplified in this quote from Wikipedia: “The 1996 book Crazy Therapies discusses Janov’s claim to have discovered the one cure for neurosis: ‘Evidence that expressing angry, violent behaviour does not drain it away but increases the chances of its recurrence has been presented in the scientific psychology literature for years’ (p. 128).”

The concern that punching pillows may not help heal anger or the feelings underlying it, but rather make a person more angry, is an important one. It is a critique which also applies to another cathartic modality that I’m much more familiar with, Re-Evaluation Counseling (RC) or Co-Counseling. I was deeply involved with RC for a number of years, and still practice it in a limited way. It is a peer counseling process, where the basic practice is people trading time listening deeply to each other and supporting each other’s healing.

There are certain aspects of somatics that remind me of RC, especially some parts of the healing shame process. RC, somatics, and, apparently, Primal Therapy share certain beliefs: that trauma from very early in life (including before and during birth) can shape personality in adulthood; that there are ways to heal that early trauma; and that emotional catharsis is part of that healing process. Re-Evaluation Counseling and, apparently, Primal Therapy, focus much more on catharsis than somatics does, and I think this is part of the answer to Margaret’s question of how they are different.

RC theory, as I remember it (and it may have changed since I was actively involved with it over a dozen years ago) makes a distinction between true catharsis or “discharge,” which is considered to be the natural process of healing, and “rehearsing” an emotion, which does not lead to healing. Somatics’ theory of change takes this kind of distinction to a different level, distinguishing three different components necessary for transformation: awareness, opening, and practice. Awareness in this context means awareness of our thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, and habits. Practice is deliberate behaviors we adopt to replace our older habits which are no longer serving us well. And opening is a process of loosening older habits or adaptations that may be so rigid or locked-in that they need to be “unlocked” before they can change. It is this middle component, “opening,” where both kick-boxing and catharsis come in, along with hands-on bodywork, breath work  and other methods of releasing patterns of tension and increasing the natural aliveness or energy flow in the body.

In RC, a person could have many sessions repeatedly on the same past experiences, revisiting old wounds and “discharging” (crying, shaking, yawning, laughing) about the experiences in order to reach spontaneous “re-evaluations” of them. I found RC to be super helpful in becoming more aware of my own emotions and more comfortable with a wider range of emotions in myself and in others. I also learned how to listen deeply and be present to others, while distinguishing between their emotions and my own. The practice did, however, lead to some kinds of discharge becoming more habitual (a very strange one is yawning— the more you practice yawning while someone listens to you, the more you yawn spontaneously while someone listens to you!!)

In my experience of somatics, similar “discharge” may happen for a brief period as part of the opening process, but much more of the time is spent practicing new behaviors in service of moving towards fulfilling on a clearly stated purpose. So, instead of ending up inadvertently practicing anger, and thus getting better at being angry, somatic practitioners are very deliberate and diligent about what we practice. Practices include formal ones such as meditation and martial arts, as well as daily life practices such as making clear requests, saying “no,” and cultivating resilience through self-care, nature, art, or connection with others.

Well, this excursus may or may not answer Margaret’s question satisfactorily, but I do appreciate the invitation to take a deeper dive and think through some of this more carefully!  One of the positive uses of skepticism, I believe.

1 thought on “Interlude: primal therapy, catharsis, and the uses and abuses of skepticism”

  1. Ah yes, I see that you addressed my comment re: your last blog in THIS one! (This is what happens when I get behind!) I appreciate your comments about finding the middle way with skepticism — yes, it can serve a very useful function and if it is a habitual, unthinking response it can become a barrier to new learning. I was very intrigued with what you write about the hard shell and the inner collapsed feeling. Me too! Especially with having spent a lot of time in academia and having a “smart girl” sub-personality from way back. The intellectual me, which I value, can become a barrier to emotional intimacy. In her effort to be seen as worthy of respect (and therefore worthy of belonging), she can irritate people and therefore end up even less connected than before. The softer, emotional side is the side people tend to feel more connected with — but then, there is the risk of seeming “too vulnerable.” My impression is that these are left brain and right brain ways of dealing with trauma. I am thinking more and more that we are all traumatized to some extent. It is not safe to be ourselves, our whole selves, and so we cope as best we can, and the coping mechanisms both work and don’t work. I’m very intrigued by the internal sexism part, as I’m sure that is also at work in me and relates to the conflicted feelings I have about “smart girl” and “emotional girl.” Thank you for your willingness to explore all this so transparently.

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