There is No Such Thing as a Baby
I frequently blog about the importance about including the body in the process of psychotherapy and how the unconscious resides in the body. However, unlike many ‘body psychotherapists,’ I believe that the involvement of the body is more profound than identifying the presence of the body in the process. Let me explain using one of Donald Winnicott’s most famous quotes, “There is no such thing as a baby.”
Winnicott famously made this statement in 1947. On face value, it may seem somewhat absurd. After all, we have all seen babies and know they exist. However, the reality is far more complicated, because every baby that any one of us has ever seen is only visible because it is in a relationship with its primary carer (which for simplicity, I shall refer to as its mother).
A baby cannot exist alone but is essentially part of a relationship. Babies exist in an absolute state of dependence, such that the infant (the word is taken from the Latin – ‘infans’ – not able to speak) has no knowledge of maternal care, as this would require the knowledge of ‘an other’ providing the care. The baby therefore is essentially indivisible from its mother and thus cannot exist in its own right. The infant’s experience relies on the mother’s ability to merge with, and adapt to, her baby. Therefore, whenever we see a baby, we actually see a baby, its mother, the relationship between the two and also the wider social context within which that baby lives and has come to be.
There is No Such Thing as a Body
The same principle can be applied to a body. There is no such thing as a body in its own right. A body is created, shaped, moulded and exists within the relationship that the mother of the owner of the body has had with it. In other words, the body and how it is experienced by the person in the body is contingent on the relationship that the baby has with the mother and the wider environment. This then dictates the relationship that the owner of said body, has with him or herself (if any.)
Why Does the Body Matter?
Psychotherapy is about many things, but one of the primary tenets is that it is a relationship within which the client/patient can, through relating to the therapist, establish a relationship with themselves. Having a relationship with ourselves includes having a relationship with our body. However, I believe that too many psychotherapists assume that such a relationship is necessarily experienced as helpful by the client at the outset of therapy, or even possible.
The Body as an Enemy
If we come to inhabit, or embody, our bodies through the relationship with our mothers and the wider social context, and our mothers were abusive to us, then the experience of our body can be one of ambivalence (‘I don’t really care about my body”) through to experiencing the body as dangerous, attacking or not our own.
Examples of where internalised abuse/hatred is expressed towards the body include cutting and burning the skin through to anorexia and bulimia, to name a few.
Risk of Trauma
Assuming a pre-existing, or even conceptually possible positive relationship between a client and their body on the part of the psychotherapist is naive. At worst, it risks re-traumatising the client.
If, for the client, all that is bad resides in their body, then they need to slowly find a way to ‘meet’ their body in a different context and to tentatively form a different relationship with their body – to reclaim it from the ‘bad’ parent. The therapeutic process involves creating a different relationship with ourselves, one in which we are able to leave the echoes of past formative relationships behind. At the very least, we need to learn to think about ourselves as players in those stories in a different way. In the same way, we need to learn to relate to our body as our own and as our friend, guide and an integral part of us.
Mark Vahrmeyer is a UKCP-registered psychotherapist working in private practice in Hove and Lewes, East Sussex. He is trained in relational psychotherapy and uses an integrative approach of psychodynamic, attachment and body psychotherapy to facilitate change with clients.