Bird's eye view of a bustling marketplace with colorful tents at nightProcess oriented psychology, also known as process work, is a holistic psychotherapeutic approach that suggests unconscious material can be experienced physically, interpersonally, or environmentally. This method helps people in treatment develop personal awareness and identify with repressed thoughts, emotions, and experiences that may negatively affect their everyday life. While process work is often used to help individuals manage intrapersonal conflicts in a healthy way, its principles may also be used to promote leadership skills or resolve social conflicts between small and large groups of people.    

Development of Process Oriented Psychology

Arnold Mindell, an American Jungian analyst, developed process work in the 1970s while conducting research on the concept of the unconscious. He observed that elements from a person's dreams manifested in somatic sensations and physical symptoms. Mindell referred to this connection as the dreambody.

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Mindell believed that dreams reflect different bodily experiences. As a result, a therapist may address physical issues by working with dreams or address unconscious material in dreams by working with the body. Mindell eventually expanded his definition of the term "unconscious" to include dreams, daydreams, unintentional verbal and nonverbal signals, and beliefs, perceptions, and ideas an individual does not identify with. The term "process" refers to the flow of experience and how experience may change as information is accessed from different channels. These channels can involve feelings, visual data, auditory data, movement, relationships, and environmental feedback. 

Process oriented psychology is a transdisciplinary approach that integrates principles from Jungian psychology, physics, and information theory. It also incorporates awareness patterns from Buddhism, Taoism, and shamanism. In the 1980s, Mindell applied the conceptual framework he had been using with families, couples, and individuals to organizations, communities, and other large groups of people. 

Today, process oriented psychology is a widely practiced and respected therapeutic approach. The International Association of Process Oriented Psychology (IAPOP) acts as the supervising body for training, accreditation, and certification worldwide.

How Does Process Oriented Psychology Work?

The primary goal of process oriented psychology is to promote awareness. Supporters of the approach claim awareness of unconscious emotions and cognition may be increased by examining somatic cues. 
Process oriented psychology suggests there are two kinds of experiences:

  • Primary process: Experiences the individual can assimilate and identify with, they are in the foreground of awareness and a part of conscious thought.
  • Secondary process: Experiences the individual cannot relate to and that appear foreign, these are in the background, trying to come into the foreground of awareness.

It may be difficult or impossible for an individual to identify with secondary process experiences, almost as if a boundary or wall existed between them and primary process experiences. In process work, this boundary is called an "edge." Referring to the edge of an individual's identity, an edge is defined as a person's limit of awareness.

There are four types of edges:

  • Personal: An individual with an edge to their intelligence may be considered brilliant by other people but see themselves as stupid. The primary process, “I am stupid,” is accepted, but it is difficult for the person to accept the secondary process, “Other people think I am brilliant.”
  • Family:  If the family unit promotes peaceful, noncompetitive behavior, a family member with a competitive spirit may develop an edge to their aggression and drive. The individual readily identifies with the primary process, the family's peaceful approach, and finds it hard to accept the secondary process, their own competitive nature.
  • Social: This boundary is created by social experiences. A sensitive man who grows up in an environment where toughness is considered a manly trait may develop an edge to his personality. He identifies with the primary process that men are tough and rejects the secondary process that he is sensitive. 
  • Human: This primary process includes behaviors or experiences considered part of human nature. These are behaviors a person is comfortable with and a realm in which experiences are appropriate and acceptable. The secondary process includes any experiences that reside beyond the realm of human nature. These experiences are considered inhuman, animal, supernatural, or alien.

Ideals and experiences beyond the primary process are often seen as concerns to be resolved. Therefore, secondary process experiences may manifest as difficulties in a person’s life. Process oriented psychology helps therapists and individuals seeking help identify primary processes, secondary processes, and the edge between them. During therapy, secondary processes are unfolded until understood on somatic and cognitive levels, and they become part of the individual's awareness and world of experience.

Process work is a positive approach. Presenting issues are not seen as pathologies that must be eliminated but as opportunities to become aware of what is needed for increased wisdom, happiness, and personal growth.

Process Oriented Psychology in Therapy

In process work, edges are viewed as obstacles that prevent an individual from doing what needs to be done to gain awareness and grow. They are blocks between the primary and secondary processes. 

A person may feel nervous, excited, anxious, confused, or fearful of negotiating an edge, as their primary identity might feel challenged. The therapist can work with individuals to identify edges and learn as much about them as possible. While it is possible to go over an edge in therapy, the primary goal is to build awareness of the edge. The therapist does not typically push people in treatment to go over edges quickly, as this could result in emotional backlash, especially when edges have not been properly processed.

Practitioners of process oriented psychology believe repressed experiences and traits may be beneficial to people in treatment if the unconscious material is gently brought into consciousness and better understood. For example, an individual who identifies as peaceful and cooperative could realize it is advantageous to display appropriate levels of anger or resilience in certain situations. By thoroughly negotiating the edge, individuals can experience personal growth.

Presently, process oriented psychology is used to treat issues including:

Process work is also used to assist individuals who are in a comatose or medical trance state. As these people are unable to use typical forms of communication, practitioners analyze subtle somatic responses to get a better idea of what these individuals might be thinking and feeling. There are several cases of process work techniques being used to establish two-way communication between comatose individuals and other people through vocalizations and eyelid or finger movement.

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Deep Democracy and WorldWork

Classical democracy refers to a system in which the voice of the majority is heard. In contrast, the concept of deep democracy refers to a system in which all voices, however small, are acknowledged. In a clinical setting, deep democracy calls for the inclusion of all experiences, voices, and roles, considering all voices necessary to gain a complete understanding of the system. A therapist who uses process work may attempt to bring unconscious experiences into consciousness, where they can be fully understood and appropriately addressed.

Worldwork is a process work method that applies the principles of deep democracy to large and small groups of people. In this social setting, deep democracy refers to an attitude where both central and marginal voices are considered important. By accounting for small or seemingly insignificant issues, groups of people can see unexpected solutions and positive change.

Worldwork and deep democracy are used in community building. The techniques have been used to resolve conflicts between racial groups, religious groups, communities, and organizations. It is also used to address tensions that may exist within a particular group of people.

Concerns and Limitations

One limitation of process oriented psychology is that its transdisciplinary nature makes it difficult to define.

While a substantial amount of literature supports its effectiveness, some critics believe the approach is too subjective, especially when clinicians are analyzing the dreambody or dealing with matters of spirituality.

Process work has also been critiqued for being overly positive and may be viewed by people in treatment as a way to minimize serious issues. Some individuals may reject treatment if the treatment provider is unable to empathize and view the situation from another perspective.

Though process oriented psychology is not dangerous, concerns have been expressed that techniques of process oriented psychology may be used by people with malicious intent as a means of mind control.


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