Primal therapy has its roots in the
work of Wilhelm Reich, a protégé of Freud. Reich focused
on and made explicit the role of the body in constituting and in heating
psychological difficulties. Reichian methods are still practiced, as are
a number of processes based upon his work, including Alexander Lowen's
and Charles Kelley's Radix.
Although related to Reichian modalities,
primal is a different path. It was practiced in various forms for many
years before Arthur Janov made it a household word with the publication
of his book, The Primal Scream, in 1969. I was trained in one of
these primal forms, Organic Process Therapy (OPT), in 1977,
by its creator, Daniel Miller, Ph.D., (a licensed psychologist in New York
City for more than 35 years).
My practice of
OPT is based on
the view that emotional expression is a normal, healthy and necessary aspect
of our existence; that attempts to hold it back (e.g., for fear of hurting
someone or of being punished or otherwise rejected) are destructive (of
our self-esteem, our bodies and our relationships) and, ultimately, futile;
and that withheld expression—which continuously "strives" to be realized—must
be actively, concretely, continuously and disturbingly withheld (often,
through subtle adjustments of breathing and the tensing of various muscles,
such as clenching the jaw or masking held-back tears with an awkward smile).
OPT is a process that facilitates
completion of this perturbed "movement." It accomplishes this through true
acceptance/noncoercion. There is no attempt to dissuade you from feeling
distressed or to reassure you that there is nothing to worry about; and
you are not forced or badgered to feel, or to feel any particular way.
No matter how you feel, be it guilty, ashamed, discouraged, enraged, hateful,
stuck, etc., you are acknowledged and accepted, encouraged and guided to
be just as you are: To trust your body and your self.
A common experience that brings us to
primal is the feeling of being choked up, of there being something "inside"
(possibly a scream, but not necessarily) that seems to want to come out.
Another is being unable to contain emotional expression (often, tears).
Whether we are unable to get it out or to keep it in, we are likely to
believe that there is something wrong with us for not being able to put
it behind us once-and-for-all. Other indications include anxiety, low self-esteem,
depression that never seems to leave for long, or a sense of not belonging,
of being stuck or lost.
Clients often bring to treatment a number
of implicit—but inaccurate—beliefs about feeling and emotion. These include:
Giving yourself over in these
ways in the primal session can enhance your ability to be assertive in
your dealings with others and re-duce your risk of being socially inappropriate.
Crises, such as the ending of
an important relationship or a death, are primal opportunities. At these
moments, we are usually less guarded and more available to openly and deeply
The aim of OPT is the completion
of unfinished expression, and the rediscovery and reclaiming of the "disowned"
past, in order to alleviate confusion and suffering and to halt our efforts
to live out others' dreams of who we are, as well as to provide relief,
self-esteem, hope, insight and a passion for life.
In OPT, the contract between
therapist and client involves an intention and expectation of "authentic"
and often intense expression on the part of the client. (By contrast, in
most other therapies, there are implicit limitations demanded by office
walls through which others can hear if one is loud, therapists who do not
encourage or facilitate intense catharses, and chairs and dressy and tight
clothing—such as belts, brassieres and buttoned collars—which constrict
free expression.) OPT sessions take place in a room that is soundproof,
and is padded for client's protection during primals. Clients generally
work lying down, with their eyes closed.
Touching is of central importance. It
serves to reassure and to encourage, as well as to guide proper breathing
and to facilitate the release of the muscular contracting that inhibits
feeling awareness and expression.
These sessions tend to be considerably
more intense than "talking" therapy sessions, and to plumb issues that
are more at the "core" (hence, primal) and less likely to be discovered
in "talking" sessions.
We all tend to feel anxious and scared
as we begin a primal. (As Janov says, everyone has to be prodded, which
makes sense: We come to primal for help with expressing what was unsafe
to express earlier in our lives.)
While some primals are more intense
than others, there is no such thing as a good primal or a bad one. No one
primal is more important than another. We each have our own style of primalling,
our own mode of coming to terms with our painful pasts; we must each journey
down our own unique path. Comparisons are meaningless; today's seemingly
lackluster primal is the basis for tomorrow's intense and freeing experience.
Noticeable and desired changes generally
take place very soon, often after the first session. These changes are
apt to include diminished anxiety and depression, and increased awareness,
confidence, self-esteem, and a sense of being capable of handling difficult
situations and people. (Sometimes, as "primalees" become more aware of
how they feel during the early stages of primal, it may appear to them
that they are feeling more distressed. Actually, they are not more distressed,
simply more aware of how distressed they are. At the same time,
however, they also acknowledge the changes just mentioned.)
Over the course of treatment, primal
clients learn that it's okay to be who they are. They become more open
and vulnerable and, at the same time, more competent at dealing with their
If I feel, I'll die; strong emotion is
dangerous. (Actually, unless
your body has already been damaged—e.g., you have diabetes or a damaged
heart—being fully emotional is healing, not dangerous.)
If I cry, I'll never stop.
(In fact, no matter how wounded you are, no matter how intensely you cry,
it will not last forever. It is not likely to last more than ten or twenty
minutes. In reality, the more fully you embody your grief, the briefer
it will be.)
If I get angry, I'll destroy the world.
(In reality, although you may
destroy someone in effigy, embodying your unfinished anger in the primal
session will help you get beyond that anger and find relief.)
If I "let go," I'll go crazy and never
come back. (In fact, letting
go in the primal session will help you discover that this letting go is
the source of sanity, not craziness, and will help you learn how to maintain
your sanity, gain confidence that you will not go crazy.)
• See also: About
the Organic Process • Orientation for Clients
E. Linn, Ph.D. • Empowering People