On Primal
Chapter 4

Empowering People

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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 Bioenergetics 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: 
  • 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.) 
 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 express ourselves. 
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 lives. 

• See also: About the Organic Process • Orientation for Clients

©1998 Stephen E. Linn, Ph.D. • Empowering People

Emotional expression is a normal, healthy and necessary aspect of our existence;  Attempts to hold it back are destructive and ultimately futile.

Empowering People

Essays on Being Human

Chapter 1
On Feeling
Chapter 2
On Pain
Chapter 3
Being Depressed
Chapter 4
On Primal

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