Therapy is often called a ‘talking therapy’ but what is talking exactly?
Generally speaking, what someone says is what therapists consider and explore in session. Body psychotherapies are often the exception because language and thought are understood as different aspects of being in and as the body. The rise of mindfulness-based therapies that explore therapeutic change via awareness of the body as a whole could suggest that the focus on talking therapy is changing.
Despite this, what someone says remains a significant focus in therapy. Other than words, what could be important to pay attention to in therapy and beyond?
Existential therapy is rooted in philosophy. Merleau-Ponty (1962) has been deeply influential in how existential therapy considers the embodied being. Merleau-Ponty illustrated how our embodied nature is our primary experience of the world and how we communicate.
He also emphasised the importance of our existential sexuality (which I will discuss in more depth in a later blog) and embodiment to how we feel and how we react to everything we encounter. This understanding seems fundamental to how we open and close ourselves to the world. Merleau-Ponty reminded us that however we are perceiving experience in our own way, we are always in an interpersonal encounter “like an atmosphere” (p. 168) .
Perhaps this atmosphere is most readily felt when we open and connect to something that generates sensation, for instance when doing yoga, meditating, making love. Or perhaps when we feel ourselves with others deeply, whether it is in an intimate and caring moment or perhaps feeling a difficult and challenging emotion. This ‘atmosphere’ is incredibly useful to consider both in therapy and in the moment when we feel the cluster of sensations that reveal our ‘being-ness’.
For instance, this atmosphere can point to how we are relating with others. It provides information for us personally but can also highlight how we feel in our relationships. Breaking through repetitive patterns in relationships can be tricky. However, a quick way to cut through stuck narratives is to stop and feel. Pausing the story telling and easing into the direct experience of being with another can sometimes reveal a deeper more intimate layer of being. We may notice we feel more open, or perhaps we may feel more closed. Defences may drop while a sense of feeling exposed becomes more prevalent.
In this moment, we may feel more deeply the sensations which illuminate the connecting space between all we encounter. We may understand more clearly whether we want to move towards or away from something or someone. This understanding can be a hugely significant when we are feeling confused intellectually.
Gendlin’s (1993) writes the “… living body always implies its right next step” (p.32). His commentary about being and focusing in the body seems to support Merleau Ponty’s ideas and suggests that it can be a guiding force to orient and anchor us. Even simple movements, such as feeling the pattern of breath and its impacts, can ground us and bring us into intimately present being. Paying attention to feeling sensations may encourage new understanding to arise. By broadening how we understand ourselves we may find more possibilities emerge where we once felt stuck.
These notions and an openness to experience it directly for yourself can be incredibly helpful in therapy. It is also a significant understanding and experience for anyone interested enough to pay attention to what is actually happening in your body, in any moment.
So, despite therapy often being considered a talking therapy there is much useful information that happens beyond this. Paying attention to what is actually happening in and as the body can be a fantastic starting point. This enquiry does not have to be difficult or complicated. For instance, next time you are out walking or sitting down just notice what it feels like. How do your feet and hands feel? Are they relaxed or tense? Do you feel any tension in your tummy? Let go of any judgement or speculation about it and just feel what is actually happening. If you feel like it, try sensitively easing into the tension. Relax, be curious and see what happens.
Susanna Petitpierre, BACP Registered, is an experienced psychotherapeutic counsellor, providing long and short term counselling. Her approach is primarily grounded in existential therapy and she works with individuals. Susanna is available at our Brighton and Hove Practice and Lewes Practice.
Disclaimer: some of the content of this blog was originally part of an essay for a doctoral programme at NSPC. It has been amended.
1) Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. C. Smith London: Routledge.
2) Gendlin, E.T (1993). ‘Three Assertions about the Body’. The Folio 12 (1): 21–33.