Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts exploring Hakomi experiential psychotherapy.
“The more healthy relationships a child has, the more likely he will be to recover from trauma and thrive. Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love.” —Bruce D. Perry, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog
Few of us can claim the capacity to walk carefree into intimacy and stay there. Intimacy comes with baggage, sometimes with unconscious expectations and reactions. Experience trains us. Cultures condition us. Our biology adapts. To be seen—truly seen—often becomes vaguely discomforting, even unacceptable.
Our Attachment Body
Biology and early experience define our associations of safety, our social strategies in response to lack of safety, and our consciousness of Self in the presence of Other. In psychology, these concepts come together in one word: attachment. This is our imprint—our social template. Secure attachment tells us we are acceptable, safe. We belong. We can relax and depend on others.
“Over time as most people fail the survivor’s exacting test of trustworthiness, she tends to withdraw from relationships. The isolation of the survivor thus persists even after she is free.” —Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery
Attachment is a gradual, often subconscious process. We don’t think about our social conditioning as it happens. We begin to notice later in life, when we feel judged, numb, defensive … when we notice a desire to avoid or manipulate others, or maybe hide/contain parts of Self. Many of us, having learned early on that parts of Self were not acceptable to Other, eventually come to know the feelings of depression, anxiety, emptiness, and disconnection.
This is both a gradual conditioning and a physical experience.
Our Animal Self
This is the human animal, the reflexive instinct: survive.
Most of us track safety in every interpersonal interaction. We enter a room full of people, and we subconsciously register postures, facial expressions, the tones and volumes of voices, the speed and intensity of reactions in others. This tracking—the level of vigilance varying from one person to the next—invariably presents itself in the therapy room, often without the awareness of the person in therapy.
“To have a deep attachment for a person (or a place or thing) is to have taken them as the terminating object of our instinctual responses.” —John Bowlby, considered the “father of attachment theory”
Human Stress Responses
We each come equipped with built-in mechanisms that are actually beneficial resources used by each of us day in and day out. When the logical, higher-function alternatives go offline, as they do when stress overwhelms, we come biologically pre-equipped with a shortlist of basic, expedited, efficient behavioral options. This is a hierarchical list of options, each tier encompassing a variety of behavioral strategies.
- We seek social connection and regulation (empathy/attunement).
- We mobilize to fight or flee.
- We immobilize through freeze or collapse, sometimes accompanied by dissociation, arguably connected to behavioral appeasement and many forms of subduing/hibernating Self, preserving core Self for some later time.
Present science suggests we choose these options in the order of social engagement, then mobilization, and finally immobilization, noting that the final freeze options are sometimes chosen without realization, and they leave a longer-lasting and more detrimental mark: an action never completed. Beyond that, which option we choose depends in part on the situation, our biology, past experience, present mindfulness, and whether another being is present.
Note: The word “choice” is not always accurate when describing stress responses.
Trauma happens to everyone. It affects our perception and experience of Self, Other, and World. Secure attachments present a strong mediating factor—which is why interpersonal trauma is so devastating, often leaving us to choose between losing Other or losing Sel, sometimes losing both in the process. While we cannot avoid trauma, social connection, empathy, and attunement can help us process, sort, and file what would otherwise remain confusing, complex, and cluttered. Social support can help us integrate trauma rather than isolating, fragmenting, or desensitizing.
“For the human brain, the most important information for successful development is conveyed by the social rather than the physical environment. The baby brain must begin participating effectively in the process of social information transmission that offers entry into the culture.” —Don Tucker
As children, we encounter a world full of gatekeepers. Sometimes it’s parents. Sometimes peers. Sometimes it’s praise or judgment heard on television.
Most of us read each person’s emotional responses continuously, often unconsciously. We emote. We express. And we watch reactions. When the reactions are repeatedly negative—when they are reactive and harsh, as they commonly are during a stress response—we stop emoting. We contain parts of Self.
To the child, all of these gatekeepers, present inhabitants of a world we do not yet know, by their responses and reactions either invite us to join the world and live or condemn us to separation—either living a life of isolation or isolating and separating from parts of Self in order to fit into a variety of social systems.
Attunement, Synchronicity, and Limbic Resonance
This is limbic resonance, made possible by empathic attunement: a bidirectional flow of energy that shares emotional information both ways, allowing each side to witness and mimic the other’s response to presented emotions. Emotions elicit responses, which then elicit emotions. If a child feels panic, looks to a caregiver, and sees panic reflected—or outright anger, or annoyance and dismissal, or sadness—the child has learned that panic (or anger, or energetic joy, or sadness, etc.) is not OK and must learn to contain part of Self. A parent has the power, without any words, to teach a child how to respond to internal stimuli. A child can internalize critical judgments, creating internal conflict that may last decades or a lifetime. A child can also internalize acceptance, developing that external voice into an internal part—an internal safe base from which to explore the world.
“Each time we meet another human being and honor their dignity, we help those around us. Their hearts resonate with ours in exactly the same way the strings of an unplucked violin vibrate with the sounds of a violin played nearby. Western psychology has documented this phenomenon of ‘mood contagion’ or limbic resonance. If a person filled with panic or hatred walks into a room, we feel it immediately, and unless we are very mindful, that person’s negative state will begin to overtake our own. When a joyfully expressive person walks into a room, we can feel that state as well.” —Jack Kornfield
Reconnecting with Separated Parts
Through loving, nonviolent body-level attunement, Hakomi therapy provides a way to access early-life internal parts in order to integrate—to bring them back, give them what they need, and incorporate them into Self.
The integrative and transformative aspects of Hakomi center around attachment work—creating positive associations and beliefs about Self, Other, and World—which is widely and effectively applicable to a range of issues including (but not limited to) depression, anxiety, dissociation, and trauma. This approach gets to the core of our organization—identifying, differentiating, and finally integrating once-disparate parts of Self into a cohesive, grounded whole.
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.