A Lesson from #MeToo: Intellectual vs. Somatic Knowing

We do ourselves a great disservice when we devalue the power of feelings. The somatic landscape holds much of the information that we seek, and yet so much of how we live prevents us from knowing that. A client once reflected in session, “I used to hate having emotions. Now I know how to use them.” I could have jumped with joy. Country, let’s make this the norm.

When I saw Caitlin Flanagan’s response to what “Grace” shared about her date with Aziz Ansari, I felt nauseous. She made a lot of damaging comments, but the one I’m taking on here is her belief that Grace could have simply left. It is a brutal misunderstanding of the power of feelings, and I cringe knowing that anyone read it and agreed. From Grace’s account, we can pretty safely hypothesize that she was stuck in a freeze response. When neither fighting nor running away are perceived as possible, our parasympathetic nervous system offers up this third option. In extreme cases, it can look like playing dead. It can also look like playing along. Now whether or not that’s actually what happened for Grace, no one can say except her. We can, however, use her story to look at what has become a common encounter.

The #MeToo Movement has been extraordinary for shedding light on the pervasive epidemic of unsafe sexual behavior. We’re finally voicing this deep collective trauma and with each new story, we’re made increasingly aware of the need to understand what brought us here and how to move forward in a way that is healthier for everyone. This is a psychotherapeutic process like any other; it’s just on a very grand scale. So we will be well on our way to healing if we can learn and enact the wisdom offered to us through the psychotherapeutic process. Most relevant here: the need for embodied wisdom.

Historically, we tend to get stuck on deciding who’s responsible for an unpleasant sexual encounter. What therapy teaches us is to be interested primarily in understanding and navigating the interpersonal dynamics involved. Even in the most objectively black and white circumstances, the ability to say whose fault something was is only helpful in bringing us to the next steps: what each person can do moving forward. So rather than looking at fault, we ought to be looking to answer more specific questions like, “Why couldn’t Grace leave?” and, “Why couldn’t Aziz notice her cues?”

It’s very fortunate that #MeToo is bringing us into exploration of these gray areas of human interactions. It’s where some of the most important work can happen, and that’s exactly why it’s so challenging. What’s happening in response to what Grace shared should make very clear how impossible it is for us to quickly lay blame somewhere and move on. The subsequent conversations it has provoked have been a loop of “he should have…” and “she should have…” Often both things are true. But the complexity does not end there, as there is a myriad of reasons that brought each of them- and any two people- to this interaction wherein one person left feeling violated. So it’s time we distinguish between intellectual and somatic understanding.

“Somatic” means whole body. The word is used as a way to point to the entirety of an experience rather than to artificially separate what’s happening in someone’s body from what’s happening in their brain. The two are inextricably linked, and that’s extremely important to understand particularly as it relates to sex. Our bodies will tell us right where we are with things, which is vital to pay attention to, because knowing something intellectually is not the end of the process. You can think of it like learning to play a musical instrument. Studying theory is helpful, but you won’t be able to really play until you’ve practiced.

We’ve been more acutely onto this knowledge over the last decade or so. We’re realizing that intellectual insight is limited. It does not automatically translate to being able to do anything with the information. We can understand something, but not believe it. We can know why something is happening, but feel unable to prevent or change it. We can even fully believe something in thought while our body strongly disagrees. Embodied knowing simply takes further work.

When so many people are upset by a topic this disturbing, one of the greatest challenges is finding our common goal in the work. Fortunately, this one is quite clear: we all want safe and enjoyable experiences with others, especially when it comes to sex. Knowing that is an important part of the process, because we now get to address what’s in the way of getting there. Our current roadblock: we’re lousy at attending to feelings.

The experience of feeling unable to do something is, in the moment, no different that being physically unable to do it. This awareness is built nicely into all fields of psychotherapy in the form of verbiage for states like post-traumatic stress, which is a response to a real or perceived threat of injury or death. Fortunately, this knowledge has been sneaking into popular culture in various ways. We’ve finally begun to consider the “placebo effect” a legitimate effect, for instance. And indeed it is. If it has an impact, it’s an effect.

But historically we have been very poor at acknowledging emotions as real, legitimate, and unpreventable. It’s that last one that seems to give us the most trouble, because we can learn to make choices that make particular emotions less likely to surface in certain situations. But this control is limited, and it’s limited even more so than our ability to control something like hunger. With hunger we can eat regularly, eat enough, eat well, carry snacks, and so on. But with emotions, we have far less control because emotions most often surface in response to other people, who are ultimately out of our control. You can be well rested, well fed, and in a great mood and fear will still surface when you nearly hit someone who walks in front of your car. So our greatest power comes in our ability to respond to our own emotions appropriately. And no matter the context, an appropriate response means one that comes from a place of compassion and openness. These are the qualities that allow us to listen to, learn from, and make use of our feelings. Once we can do this for ourselves, we can begin to extend the practice to others.

Now think about that myriad of reasons that, even without knowing their unique backgrounds, allow us to guess at why Grace and Aziz would find themselves in such a confusing and painful exchange. To name what I’m sure is far too few:

  • People, especially females, are routinely objectified. Objects are things that we can interact with as we please. The impact we have on them is irrelevant, and so we often don’t even consider it.
  • We fail to teach people, especially males, how to interact with their emotions. We will even use shame to suppress them. Since emotions do not long tolerate being ignored, they find ways to get their needs met surreptitiously or violently.
  • The above factors create a very dangerous combination. Objects are handy sources for getting our needs met, since they require nothing of us. We don’t have to admit our feelings to them in order for our needs to be fulfilled. So it confuses, scares, and sometimes angers us when an object suddenly speaks up about their subjective experience.
  • We teach women that sex won’t be all that enjoyable, and to be polite about that. This was actually written in pamphlets given to women at the turn of the 20th century. That’s only a few generations back for a lot of us, and so its remnants remain strong.
  • We are persistently reinforced with the notion that there is a way to successfully manipulate our interactions with others, and that most of it has to do with pursuing and distancing. If we pull back a little, the other person will come pursue us. If we lean in too much, they might distance. They’re distancing themselves because they want to be pursued. You can’t be explicit about pulling back or you’ll hurt their feelings. Most plot lines depend on our belief that we should be indirect. The next time you’re watching a television show, imagine what would happen to the trajectory of the story if just one person were able to share what they were feeling.

It is no surprise then that we have ended up here where one person wasn’t trusting their feelings and the other wasn’t even noticing them. So whose fault was it? Everyone’s. It is collectively our fault. We train our females to resist their urges to fight or flee, and we train our males to fight no matter the circumstances. Most of us contribute to this even though we consciously try not to. It’s my fault for not speaking up last week when someone used the term “man cold.” It’s the fault of every catcaller. It’s the fault of every person who agreed to distribute that pamphlet to our great-grandmothers. It’s the fault of the schools that fail to teach sex ed. It’s the fault of everyone who’s ever said, “You’re just emotional.” We must attend to all of this if we want healthier interactions. Fortunately, we’re already amidst a gender revolution, and I suspect that one of its many gifts will be to draw us away from rigid roles that train us out of our natural states of being.

I hope that any of us could find our way to relating to either person in an interaction like Grace and Aziz’. If any of it seems easy, I encourage you to recognize how you’re devaluing your abilities or taking them for granted. The ability to leave, speak up explicitly, or accurately read bodily cues are all strengths. If they’re strengths you have, figure out for yourself how that came to be, and then help others to develop these qualities. If these aren’t strengths of yours, learn to listen to the subtle cues of your body, and then learn to do so with others.

It is returning to embodiment that brings us health. We need our sensations and emotions in addition to our thoughts in order to understand what’s happening in the moment and to act accordingly.

Further Reading and Resources

Books:
Healing Sex by Staci Haines
Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine
Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
The Sex and Pleasure Book by Carol Queen with Shar Rednour

Research:

http://usabp.org/research/somatic-oriented-journals/

https://traumahealing.org/resources/

http://journalofpositivesexuality.org/archive/

Catharsis

Like many people, I used the use the word “catharsis” in such a way that implied that it’s the ultimate goal of emotional expression. It means to purge ourselves of an emotion. Often we do need to dispel something that’s been hanging around for too long, but that’s only part of the process.  I remember well the occasions when one of my professors or my mentor would speak with some disdain about how heavily we sometimes lean on catharting. I would sit there wondering why they seemed so worked up. Wasn’t getting rid of built-up stuff a huge part of our work?

The term’s history in formal therapeutic settings lies primarily in psychoanalysis. Traditional psychoanalysts believed that by outwardly expressing traumatic events, the patient would be relieved of their symptoms. Take a peek at the therapeutic uses on the Wikipedia entry on catharsis, if you’d like a little more history or references. It’s been a few decades since the broader field of therapy has understood that catharsis is only one part of what assists us in reaching actual renewal. Anyone who has had a long overdue conversation with someone knows the immediate relief that venting can have. The harder we push against something (by keeping it to ourselves, for instance), the more tension that is created. So when we stop pushing or restricting, a lot of energy is freed up. It is at this point that we have more potential to process the emotion.

But again, catharsis alone does not necessarily bring closure or sustainable satisfaction. It has a higher chance of doing so if and when we emote the very first time we have a particular experience. For example, let’s say that I stub my toe, and I let out a little yelp. There would likely be no reason for me to later revisit that experience with an attempt at experiencing catharsis, because I had it right there in the moment. If, however, I was made fun of when I stubbed my toe, or I was told not to let out any cry of pain, then the tension would stay and build inside of me. Later, when attempting to find catharsis, it would be necessary for me to also deal with the problematic relational dynamic that was at play before. Letting out a cry of pain for my younger self would definitely be useful, but I’d also need the reparative experience of another person showing me empathy. I may also need someone else to help me know when I’d cried enough. Expressing unfamiliar or long-bottled emotions often requires the modeling or support of another person. Fortunately, when that’s a hard-won experience with our family or friends, there’s a whole group of professionals who have the training, experience, and desire to be there for us.

Make no mistake, the goal is not to get rid of an emotional experience as quickly as we can. It’s actually quite necessary to sit with an emotion for as long as it is useful for you, and sometimes that’s on the scale of weeks, months, or years for the more intense experiences. This too is where the presence of another person can be very necessary, as “sitting with” an emotion takes active work. Someone else brings a wider perspective to what’s happening, and that can help to guide us. But always, what we are returning to is the ability to listen to our own prompts.

I like to think of it like drawing a bath for yourself. You get into the bathtub to relax and soak up what ever you’ve poured into it. You can’t really know what you’ll feel, but the intention is always to feel better afterwards, and that intention acts as a guide. So when the water begins to get cold, you get out and it is then that you allow the tub to drain.

Boundaries and Why They’re Awesome

Your boundary is the edge of your experience. It’s where you begin and end. It’s not your skin, but rather an extension of your body in energy form- the space directly around you. Its width and shape and permeability are aspects that only you can determine. We often move about unaware of our boundaries until something is off. When someone feels too close to you, they’ve encroached on your boundary. When they’re too far, your boundaries are not in contact with each other.

Gestalt theory offers a nice little brain-stretching hypothesis: there is perhaps no contact without boundaries. I completely agree with this. If you cannot feel yourself, you will not know when you’ve come in contact with something other than yourself.

This is not to say that we can’t or shouldn’t feel intertwined with or part of each other at times. Rather, it is through a strong sense of one’s body and boundary that intermingling can occur on a deep level and in a safe way.

When I feel strongly grounded in myself and aware of my space, I have a sense of my entire body. I can list many sensations and any associated emotions. I can feel, see, smell, hear and taste. I can detect what isn’t me or mine, because it comes with a different sensation profile. Speaking of Gestalt, do you know what we did as therapists-to-be during our trainings? We smelled each other! Talk about boundaries! Breathing in another person’s scent is a very clear way to have an experience of the self and the other. On a very deep level, even if their particular smell is familiar or evocative, you can really feel their separateness. In fact, these can be some of the clearest moments of those three parts: “I, you, we.” It’s this sense of “That is not my scent. It is yours. And your scent creates in me a feeling of…” Mine. Yours. Ours.

Embodying yourself and your space brings clarity and safety. It means tuning into your senses and allowing them to guide you from moment to moment. It is when we are checked out and unaware of our boundaries that we experience confusion, taking things personally, feeling bitter and resentful. Embodiment does not solve pain, but it does make pain clearer so that it can be dealt with appropriately. If you’d like to know more about that particular aspect, I say a whole bunch about embodiment in my article on The Body and Aliveness.

I talk about boundaries often, because therapy is hugely about exploring them. The relationship between myself and a client must begin by getting clear on where we each end, and where we make contact. Most of this happens on the client’s end, but because different people evoke different experiences, I always have some adjusting to do, too. And the way we interact together is always a rich source of exploration. The most healing in therapy happens in that contactful space between our bodies. We explore what it feels like (sensations and emotions), and why (thoughts). We look at how the narratives about our contact are helpful or hindering in terms of meeting needs, and we practice safe and meaningful contact. As a person is ready and willing, they can then begin to practice this outside of the therapy room.

The clarity of knowing what’s “me” and what’s “not me” enables us to communicate with ourselves and others in a way that feels good (even when it’s difficult), and works to meet our needs.

It’s terribly important to remember that boundaries are flexible. Inflexible boundaries are what we call defenses. They serve us fine in specific circumstances or for limited periods of time, but they hold us back if overused. A solid boundary has a built-in function that allows for adapting to new circumstances and new information. Sometimes I think of something my first therapist said to me about being like seaweed. Seaweed takes root in the ocean floor. It moves back and forth with the tides, but it stays firmly planted. The image really worked for me me, and I think of it often when it comes to the sense of my space. (Note: the metaphor either ends if and when the seaweed is uprooted, or you can follow me down a bit of a hokey metaphorical path about the subsequent journey of the seaweed in which I WILL make this image continue to work. I’m flexible. Case in point.)

Sometimes we think we are clear on our needs and boundaries, but in our attempts to communicate them to others, we inadvertently spill over into someone else’s space. This happens because we sometimes forget, or never got to learn, that we each have control over exactly one person: ourselves.

Discovering what you’re made up of, where you end and others begin, and how to navigate space pays off like crazy. It’s powerful and relieving to discover not only that it is up to you to meet your needs, but that there are clear and meaningful ways to meet them even when others are involved.

Winter Rest

“He who marvels at the beauty of the world in summer will find equal cause for wonder and admiration in winter…. In winter the stars seem to have rekindled their fires, the moon achieves a fuller triumph, and the heavens wear a look of a more exalted simplicity.” -John Burroughs

Hello lovely readers, and happy winter! Many of you have asked why I’ve been quieter here and on social media lately, and it means a great deal to me that you wondered and reached out. As I’ve shared with a few of you, I’ve been amidst a winter rest.

Particularly because I’m a therapist, I tend to steer away from speaking heavily about my current personal process. But over the last few months, what’s been happening in my personal life has been a clear and, I hope, relatable example of a somatic process, and so I hope that you will find value in my sharing it.

I’ve finally come to understand that winter is about rest and renewal. As a hardcore sun worshiper, in the past I’ve treated winter with indifference at best- a time where you just sort of hold out for the warm weather to return. But a few years ago, I began to celebrate the holidays in a more earth-based way. This began with small things like cooking with seasonal produce more often, and putting local plants and flowers in vases around my home. I recall the latter being a fiscally-inspired decision during a spring season wherein I found myself on a major fresh flower kick. One day I decided that I may as well use the flowers outside of my front door. This started a new habit of noticing more closely than before the subtler changes in the plantlife around my home and city.

Last winter, I read something by Henry David Thoreau that landed and stayed with me: “Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.” I’m especially crazy for that last bit. A huge part of somatic work is about resigning yourself to and embracing the reality of the present.

I’ve realized that in the same way that our consciousness is affected by our bodies, our bodies are affected by the seasons. It sounds terribly obvious to me now, especially since I’ve been clear on other environmental influences. But only during this last autumn was I able to feel the seasonal change in my body. This, by the way, is something that us somaticists absofuckinglutely live for: clear, wise messages straight from the body. I felt my body slowing down, I noticed that I was focused more internally than externally, and on days when I didn’t need to set an alarm, I’d begun to sleep significantly longer. When I happened to read something about the ways in which plants and trees, like animals, hibernate during winter, this new awareness really fell into place. It couldn’t possibly be that plants and animals need to hibernate during winter, but that human animals do not.

So this year, I intentionally made very few plans. And that meant saying no to a lot of activities, of which there is no shortage in Los Angeles. I must have said some version of, “Perhaps next month. I’m in winter rest mode,” at least a dozen times during the month of December. It was in itself an interesting experiment with setting boundaries. And not all the boundaries were external. I have a tendency to become a knitting machine over the winter, and this year I took on fewer, less results-focused projects. Most of us think of cozy indoor activities when we think of winter and the winter holidays, but somehow that often translates to being busier and broker than ever. I simply decided not to do that this year, and while it has felt really good, it has also meant facing certain old beliefs.

Working your ass off and making as much money as possible are values pushed on us from multiple angles. Even most western therapeutic models don’t have a name for over-working. It’s culturally sanctioned. So even in the absence of criticism about taking a long winter holiday at home, I noticed that I would, on occasion, question my choice. Shouldn’t I at least offer a workshop? Or work on my book? Or at least, I don’t know, get some new pillows for the office? Once I got clear on the decision to not even look at email, the suggestions from that voice in my head got a little sneakier… Ok, so don’t work. But produce something. Maybe just throw a small holiday party? But, as one learns to do in therapy and is sometimes able to execute real-time, I was watching my internal process unfold and got wise to this sneaky voice and its overworky intentions.

So most everything that I did was internally-focused, and I believe this to be the essence of winter. Reflection, assimilation, and release. We work hard for months, putting plans and intentions into action, being creative in as many arenas of our lives as we can. Winter is for enjoying all the work we’ve done while our bodies and minds are renewed by the rest. Through reflection we can become clear on what has worked and what hasn’t. Through resting we renew our energies to begin the cycle again.

“In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.” -William Blake

If I hadn’t rested, I wouldn’t have heard from my readers who wondered about my absence. That was in itself a gathering of the fruits of my labor: a time to use a bit of distance to reflect on what I’d produced in the last few months, and to hear how it affected others.

Amongst the other lovely effects of this process has been a deepening of my appreciation for nighttime. And this is something I thought impossible. I am very much a night owl. It is when I have the most energy and creativity, and also when I feel the most peace and wonder. That the nights are longer during winter is not something that I was able to appreciate or enjoy back when I was tensing my body against the weather until springtime. This year, and especially on the solstice, I have been reveling in the nighttime hours. I have done far more stargazing than ever before, and have even begun to dream about space.

I’ve also begun to dream lucidly on occasion, which I also attribute to this slowed-down time of reflection. It’s given me a chance to get more intimately and intricately in touch with my internal world, which feels really, really good.

It’s still winter. If you didn’t rest over the holidays, you have many weeks left in which to do so. I’m very aware that taking time off from work is a privilege that isn’t available to everyone, and by no means is that the only way to rest or enjoy winter. For me it was only one of many ways I’ve done so this season. And while I’m back in my office, and here writing this for you now, I am continuing my winter revels. Rest can and should be integrated into each day of your life.

Find or create quiet moments, however brief. Refuse to take on anything besides the simplest and most necessary of tasks. Walk outside with your morning coffee and see what’s happening in the plantlife. Notice what you can smell. If you live somewhere quite cold, enjoy the stillness. Listen to how well sound travels through the cold, dry air. Soak up the particular magic of snow. When you walk from your car to your home, look up at the sky. What do you feel when you gaze at the moon. My own therapist said something beautiful when I told her how quickly I was able to get grounded and present one night when I walked outside to look at the stars. She said that it’s very easy for us to let the sky be the sky.

If you can work less, do so. But do not call it a luxury or indulgence. It is a bodily necessity, and it is never indulgent to take care of yourself. Slowing and letting go is necessary in order for new things to emerge. Rest is not a stagnant process. Understanding and caring for ourselves is both discovery and creation.

The Body and Aliveness

“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” -Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

I love this little exchange. It holds such deep wisdom. I particularly love that line: “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

Our sensations, emotions, and thoughts are what make up our aliveness. It’s a lovely little trinity that brings a lot of richness when all three parts are working together. You get a whiff of something lovely (sensation), and instantly feel a little joy (emotion), because it reminds you of something pleasant from long ago (thought). Those moments are some of the best that aliveness has to offer. They’re what keep us willing to tolerate pain. What makes it tough is when the pain begins to outweigh the pleasure. Then we start to shut off, and that natural, flowing cycle instead becomes a pattern of tension.

Whether you’ve experienced trauma or the more everyday hardships, there’s some work to do to in order to awaken and turn back on. Loss or reduction of connection to your body is something to wage war against the moment you notice it occurring. Because as we turn off to sensation after experiencing too much unpleasantness, we also turn off to the good stuff. Numbness/ shutting off/ dissociation is a brilliant mechanism when it’s needed, but we often overuse it. Sometimes we turn off to just a few avenues of experience, but sometimes we chronically turn off to the body. And then we turn off to living. Worse, turning off is too often reinforced. “You’re just being sensitive.” “That’s just the way it is.” “Those are just feelings.” “Men don’t cry.” “Be rational.” That kind of thing doesn’t exactly invite us back into feeling. But your body doesn’t go away just because you’ve begun to ignore it. Your body is with you all of the time. Let yourself be with it by getting really good at knowing how.

This trinity must be supported by two very important things: safety and groundedness. You must be present and alert, and what you are present for must be adequately safe. Our natural state is to be open to experiencing things. But after we’ve had so many painful experiences that we’ve shut off, it takes active effort to open back up. And opening back up to what you feel can be very scary. Not only because heretofore unfelt sensations were only ever waiting for your gaze to fall back upon them, but because much of what one might consider “good” sensations are themselves a little unpleasant. Even anticipation, which many think of as a pleasant state, is pretty uncomfortable- a sort of pleasing agony.

So to begin, get damn good at getting grounded. Groundedness means being able to feel your body really well- the points of contact, your heart rate, your breathing, your muscle tension. When I feel grounded, I feel slower and very aware of my legs. A lot of clients have described it as light but weighted, or pleasantly anchored.

Next is being present, which comes pretty darn naturally once you’re grounded. Presence means being able to notice what’s happening around you- the scents, sounds, tastes, sights and sensations. As I’m writing, I can hear the clickity clack of the keyboard, the crickets outside, the whir of my server. I can taste the chocolate I was eating a bit ago. The laptop seems very bright to me now that I’m really paying attention, and I’m also aware of my peripheral view- the lamp and its light reflecting on the table, an orchid, my red pillows. I feel the laptop on my thighs, my fingernails tapping the keys, the table against my calves where I’m resting my legs, my chest expanding and contracting with my breath, and my stomach beginning to tingle.

You’ll notice that everything I’ve named is fairly neutral or even pleasant. This is a huge part of the safety that I named. If what I had to open up to was largely unpleasant, you’d have a hard time convincing me to stay open.

Even feeling extreme joy and happiness can be tough. When something moves me, my chest swells. I have to breathe deeply to expand- not because my chest contracted, but because I have to make room for this new powerful experience. It’s a little uncomfortable. But it’s great. I believe that this may be the sensation of growth itself. Again, not necessarily pleasant, but very alive.

Also notice that I didn’t interpret any of my sensations for you, though I was tempted to when I noticed my stomach beginning to tingle. A huge part of re-awakening to your body is not making interpretations about what you feel. Let it be simple, because it is simple. Your body will tell you your truth if you get out of its way. We get too used to our own lens, and bring in interpretations too quickly. This will be difficult. We are so adept at deciding things. But if you want to make a shift, get really curious about how you perceive things.

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
-Marcus Aurelius

It’s this reception of an experience that is key. We are constantly presented with opportunities to feel, but we don’t always take them in. Reception of an experience is a muscle to exercise repeatedly so that you can get even a short ways down the path to mastery, which I’ve come to suspect isn’t attainable (something I consider a very good problem). You need only make a little room to start, and the sensation will begin to flow in. The harder work is letting what feels good have as much of your attention as the rest. This is the chief reason to surround yourself, not with drama (which can be confused for aliveness), but with what you love and what brings you joy. You should be awakening to plenty of your favorite colors, music, art, and foods. Walk outside, and you will find plenty to feel and taste and see and hear. If your particular patch of nature is thin on beauty, there is always the sky. Author Karen Connelly writes, “When I let this body outside for a walk, it awakens.”

Again, opening back up does mean risking pain. And there are so many types of it! Physical, emotional, mental. Intentional and unintentional. Direct and indirect. And then there’s the particular pain of not knowing or of believing that you’ll never know. But even pain can bring access to the Self. Yet before one can even consider such a thing, pleasure must loom larger. But by its very nature, pleasure will not force itself upon us. It wants an explicit invitation, which means that we must have a particular object of desire. Surround yourself with the things you know you love. And be open to finding plenty more. These are often blessedly easy to spot, but terrifying to seek. Extend your openness to learning new ways of seeking. Stay reasonably open to the unknown.

Fortunately, the unknown pulls at us, even if we try to ignore it. Some of us even go searching for it, because it holds tremendous power. Venturing into the unknown we can find exactly what we need- if at first only by projecting into it. We are marvelous at projecting our unknown needs through our fears. Get curious about how you think. Know your go-to lenses. Find your blindspots, and know that there are always more. Consider your stories about what you do not yet fully understand, or what you fear. The concept of the sterile or fertile void is a particular potent thing to ponder. When you stare up into the night sky, imagining all of the black space expanding into the absolute unknown, what do you think about? What sensations are attached to those thoughts? What emotions?

We often refuse the very thing we need by denying its existence. It didn’t exist before, so why should we believe that it does now? This is why us therapists pester you with that damn question, “What would it be like if…” The intent is to make room, to open, to let in. Practice. Practice on the fun stuff. And then keep practicing.

I’ve been delighted to find, through my own practice as well as through supporting clients, that as the body is more thoroughly inhabited, it only continues to expand in ability to contain and enjoy. It is a grand hotel, which grows in size and richness with its constant stream of enthusiastic guests.

On Sex Therapy

I had the pleasure of being interviewed by one of my favorite sexual wellness companies, Peekay Inc., whose line of female-centric boutique shops are all about sex-positivity, education, and fun. Together we’d like to share with you about the beautiful world of sex therapy.

Originally published as “The Life of a Sex Therapist: Heather Brewer” by LoversPackage.com on 3 April 2015.

“We met Heather Brewer at the Sexual Health Expo in L.A. this January. She stopped by our A Touch of Romance booth, where we talked briefly about her work. With a focus on listening to our bodies, she is a great resource for sex and gender exploration.

Heather Brewer is a registered Marriage and Family Therapist Intern; Therapist internships can be likened to a doctor’s residency status. After seven years of face-to-face client work, Heather is close to completing her required 3,000 internship hours. She works under the supervision of Mindy Fox, a Marriage and Family Therapist in Santa Monica, California. As for her education and training, she attended the somatic psychotherapy program at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.

Without further ado, here’s our in-depth interview with Heather Brewer.

 

What do sex therapists do, exactly?

“Sex therapist” is a bit of an umbrella term for slightly different types of healers who make sexuality a central focus of their psychotherapy practice. While sex is the topic of exploration, the modalities differ amongst us. I work somatically, which means that I have extensive knowledge of the body, and that I use it as a diagnostic tool as well as a vehicle for healing. Because the body speaks very clearly, what goes on for a person in their sexual life is both an excellent source of information about how they move through the world, as well as a wonderful place for growth and healing to occur. What I do in session depends on the wants and needs of my clients, but it always includes tracking of sensations and gestures.

“Heart rate, muscle tension, and the nature of one’s breath are major indicators of what’s happening in a person’s emotional landscape… Somatic work takes you beyond the ‘why’ into the ‘how.’” – Heather Brewer

 

What makes you, and your practice different from other therapists and sex therapists?

My specialization in sex and gender definitely sets me apart from many other therapists. Sometimes this is simply due to my knowledge base, but clients often seek me out for my willingness to explore these realms without judgment. Sex can be so evocative that people sometimes won’t engage in a process with it, or fail to see it as symbolic of a larger dynamic.

Most sex therapists are very familiar with the inner workings of the body, especially the nervous system, but not all of us work somatically. For instance, let’s say a couple comes to me because neither one of the partners is adept at initiating sex. This dynamic will inevitably play out in our sessions (they might both experience discomfort with starting to talk when the session begins, etc.), and they will be gently and safely guided through becoming conscious of it, and practicing better ways of relating. Somatic work is really effective and long-lasting, because it’s systemic. You can’t hide from sensation.

Also, I often quote Seinfeld or refer to Star Wars for analogies. And actually, that brings an important point to mind. I’m very big on being myself in the room. It’s the relationship between therapist and client that is the most important in therapy, so it matters that my clients and I like each other. Therefore, I have to show some of myself and my emotions. So our particular ways of being will inherently differ from each other.

 

Can you pick three words that describe the world of sex therapy? Can you share how these words are important?

Beautiful, intense, and complex. These are the things that come up for me the most often both in my own explorations, and in my work with my clients. I think they kind of speak for themselves, and they’re necessarily subjective anyway. It’s such a vast landscape.

 

Who can benefit from seeing a sex therapist? Who might it not help?

I truly cannot imagine anyone not being able to benefit from exploring their sexuality, because everyone has one. It is simply part of our being. And it is my belief that all therapists ought to be comfortable making this a part of their practice, and I hope that “sex therapist” will eventually be a redundant term. But perhaps this is a good time to clarify that sex therapists don’t always or only focus on sexuality. There are many realms I explore with my clients. Letting people know that I’m a sex therapist is more of way of saying, “We can talk about that, too,” because it’s not yet a given. That said, sometimes a person isn’t yet ready to talk about sex directly, or they desire to focus on it too narrowly. But as long as a person is willing to invest themselves, there is always a way to do therapy that’s right for them.

 

Can you describe your journey towards this type of work?

I find that I have slightly different answers for this each time I’m asked, so there are probably a great many reasons. But what often comes to mind is this conversation I had in high school with some of my friends. I can never remember how it started, but the topic of masturbation was being skirted around, and I decided to just disclose that I did indeed masturbate. Each of our reactions was this fascinating mix of astonishment, relief, and excitement. I also had a really potent desire to discuss it more. And to get other people to discuss it. The desire to do so had obviously been getting squelched for all of us, and it was so easy to just name it and get things rolling. I guess that sums up a lot: it’s really important to most people, yet most people don’t talk about it. I really wanted that to change, and it’s been an honor be on that crusade since.

 

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I guess I’d just like to add that the point of this work is to uncover who you already are, and to maintain an environment that nourishes you. That can look so many different ways, and I really want people to understand that. Find the people, places, art, books, music, and explorations that feed you. In some ways it’s a very simple path.”

 

Interview conducted by Aleesha Alston. Aleesha and I share a passion for sexual education and healing, and Peekay is lucky to have her! Check out the company’s own killer mission and browse their website for all kinds of sexy time resources.

The Importance of Talking About Sexuality with Your Clients

Making sexuality a part of your clinical work is absolutely essential. Let’s start by looking at why this is so.

Sexuality is where the body and psychology come together without trying. Our sexual dynamics in partner sex, as well as in masturbation, are a stripped-down version of our m.o. The body speaks in clear and simple terms. What happens when someone is using her body so directly for experience and communication is the clearest possible message about what it’s like for her to relate to herself and to others. It is for this very reason that the sexual self is a primary interest in a client’s self-exploration in therapy. But do not expect your clients to be the one to broach the subject. More importantly, do not confuse a client’s reticence with a lack of desire, or even a lack of willingness, to explore their sexual life.

When I was 17, I was at a pool party with my friends and I brought up the topic of masturbation. I was aware that it was taboo, but when it came up organically in a discussion, it suddenly seemed silly to me to hold back from commenting. So I didn’t. And the response was pretty intense! Everyone there exclaimed some version of surprise, relief and excitement about the unfolding conversation. “You do that, too? Oh my god! I thought I was the only one!” I was happy and relieved that bringing it up went well, and amused at how little it took to get the discussing going. I was also a little angry. Why had we been so secretive? Something needed to change. For me this moment solidified my understanding of the need for an invitation.

Sexuality is sacred, but that does not mean it has to be secretive. We tend to like to keep it private, but secretive can breed misunderstanding and shame. Sexuality is a thing to be explored and understood and wondered at. And we could all use a little help with exploration of such a powerful force. Many clients simply don’t realize that it’s ok to talk about sex. Follow their pace, but let them know that it’s a welcome and important topic.

If you’d like to make this part of your practice, here’s how to successfully navigate this territory, especially if you feel hesitant:

1. Know your own sexual self. This is no different than the ongoing work of being a therapist: You must know yourself well, and know how to continue to do so, before you can assist others.

  • Bring up your sexuality with your own therapist (a move which will itself propel forward the ability of our field to be awesome at this).
  • Revisit your psychodynamics. What did you learn about sex and the body? From who? What were the gender rules or expectations in your family? What wasn’t ok? What’s hot to you? Why? What isn’t? Why? When one of your clients tells you that they want to urinate on their partner’s face, because it’s always been a fantasy of theirs, you’ll need to have already practiced telling your internalized parental voice that judges such things to stfu, and let you explore this with your client.
  • Find books you’re pulled to and read them (see my resources for some curated options).

2. Know your facts and/or where to find them. Learn all of the basic facts you can, and develop go-to resources for yourself as well as your clients. As with any topic that arises in the room, be mindful of your blindspots, and be sure that your self-education includes the following:

  • Basic anatomy and physiology. A few things that come up regularly with my clients are the facts about the orgastic cycle and related hormones, the complicated nature of expecting vaginal orgasms, and the fact that men still ejaculate after a vasectomy.
  • Cultural awareness and sensitivity. For some cultures, the mere existence of this blog is blasphemous. I know that. For that reason, I don’t recommend it to everyone, and sometimes I give warnings about the content. Know your client’s cultural and religious background as you begin to guide them into exploration. This includes generational considerations. Find out what the general teachings are about sexuality within their culture(s), so that you can remain sensitive and empathetic. And enjoy the gift of an expanded body of knowledge. There are so many ways to get sex “right.”
  • Trauma considerations. If you do not already work somatically, get very familiar with the nervous system. It will be crucial for you to be able to track any traumas responses during your discussions with your client. This can be especially important when it comes to BDSM play, which toys with the line between healing and catharsis.

While being informed is important, do not be held back by the feeling of not knowing enough facts. Your training and experience as a therapist will guide you here, as it would with any other topic that arises in the room. As always, it is ideal for you to be a little ahead of the game, but your willingness to engage in the exploration is often enough for you to be of service to the client. This does not apply to trauma awareness.

3. Cultivate a matter-of-fact tone. One of the main qualities shared by my favorite sexologists is that they all speak matter-of-factly. Sex is a big deal, but it also just isn’t that big of a deal. You will help to normalize the discussion by speaking about it with confidence and directness. I strongly encourage you to practice speaking aloud about sex. You will encounter any stuck places very quickly! Penis! Cunt! Fucking! Dildos! This leads me to my next point.

4. Have a sense of humor. Be willing to laugh. This also helps with normalization, and it can bring a little relief into the room. As is often the case with laughter in therapy, there may be a need for you to clarify what you’re laughing at and why. It is very important not to perpetuate any shame for your client, which is rampant when it comes to sex. But laughter can be healing when it comes to shame. And sex is just funny sometimes! Sometimes your cat watches you, sometimes you run out of lube at an inopportune time, sometimes the body makes funny noises, and sometimes things just get a little awkward. Your client will benefit enormously from being able to laugh about sex. Show them how.

When you feel ready, make sure that clients and prospective clients know that sexual exploration is part of your skill set. Check that box for “sexual issues” on those therapist search engines. And make use of me! I offer one on one coaching for psychotherapists, as well as case consultation.

You can find my curated list of resources here. I also highly recommend that you check out The Unlaced Librarian’s book reviews, and Sexologist Vixenne’s own resource page. Enjoy your sex ed!

The Science of Somatics

Soma is an ancient Greek word, once used to describe the whole person.

Somatic psychotherapies are modalities which utilize the body’s role in diagnostics, as well as the healing process itself. Somatics combines the realms of the body and the mind, which were never to be divided in the first place.

Diagnostically speaking, working somatically means paying attention to the body. Heart rate, muscle tension, and the nature of one’s breath are major indicators of what’s happening in a person’s emotional landscape. When you start tracking these things, you are organically placed on the path to vibrancy, because the body speaks in simple, clear terms. Somatic work takes you beyond the “why” into the “how.” Knowledge and insight seldom exact major changes. You can absolutely know why you’re doing something, yet not understand how to stop or change.

Everyone has had the experience of hearing a sentence spoken with an emotional tone that negates the words themselves. Take the classic childhood interaction of being made to apologize. “Sorrrrrrryyyyy.” Are you really? If you’re the receiver of this kind of apology, you know you’re being ripped off. In the therapy room, we follow these inconsistencies. The body always has something to say. Somatic therapists are adept at helping you listen to the body and follow its messages, because it’s easier said than done. That is a major tagline of somatics! We’re trained in the doing, not only the saying.

Professor Don Hanlon Johnson, eloquently writes, “language emerges from the body, if we only wait and allow it to happen, with ever-fresh solutions to seemingly intractable problems.”

What’s happening in the body tells us both about the specific nature of a problem, as well as how to move through it. If, when taking deep breaths, you find it difficult to let your breath all the way out, this tells us something about your body’s ability to relax. An inability to take in enough air can point to tension that is restricting space. Typically, my client and I both have a sense of why this would be happening from our explorations about their past experiences. But again, now what? For the person struggling to exhale completely, we practice incrementally increasing their ability to relax. This is almost guaranteed to trigger emotions, because of its tie to past experiences. For that reason, somatic work is gentle and incremental. Like learning to play an instrument, you are invited to try something that is at the edge of your range of ability. Each time you practice, your range expands. Sometimes we find that certain contexts, people, or beliefs inhibit that expansion, and we deal with those as we encounter them. Therapy is about learning what it takes for you to feel like yourself, and to express who you are to others.

It’s not magic. It’s basic biology. If you don’t take in enough air, your body signals your brain that it’s in danger. If you don’t break this cycle, you are kept in a perpetual state of low-grade (or not so low-grade) anxiety. The more difficult experiences you’ve had, the more convinced your body becomes of perpetual danger, and the harder it is to recognize safety. Somatic work is very effective for exacting needed changes.

Read my article on the science of the orgasmic cycle for an example of working somatically in the sexual realm.

The body is really good at doing what it needs to do to thrive. When it acts up, it’s for a reason. Listen. Somatic therapists are here to help you make sense of what you feel, and to teach you how to meet your body’s request.

If you’d like to do a little reading on the research, check out the journals listed below. And for even more somatics resources, visit www.usabp.org.

The International Body Psychotherapy Journal
Somatic Psychotherapy Today
Hakomi Forum Professional Journal
Journal of Authentic Movement and Somatic Inquiry

 

Clitoridiennes

Not only that: téleclitoridiennes, mesoclitoridiennes, and paraclitoridiennes! While it’s not unheard of for me to make a Star Wars reference to a client, I’m not talking about science fiction here. The clitoridiennes are names for women according to their vagina type. Vagina type?! Yes.

In the 1920′s, Marie Bonaparte took it upon herself (quite literally) to study her lack of vaginal orgasms. She concluded that distance between clitoris and vaginal opening greatly affected a woman’s ability to orgasm. She grouped her study respondents into the aforementioned categories.

Paraclitoridiennes have a distance of less than one inch between their C and their V. They tend to have regular orgasms from vaginal sex.
Téleclitoridiennes have a distance greater than one inch, and thus infrequently to never orgasm from vaginal sex. This is what fingers, tongues, and wands are for.
Mesoclitoridiennes land, you guessed it, at right around one inch between C and V. As the lovely Mary Roach puts it in Bonk, “They fell on either side, depending on their mood, their husband’s compensatory skills, his feelings about Greek sprinters, and what have you.”

I bring this up because it’s a reason to approach one’s own struggle to orgasm with more matter-of-factness. Most women are either téleclitoridiennes or mesoclitoridiennes. Struggling to orgasm vaginally should be expected, and accommodated. So have other kinds of sex, too!

This sort of thing is a good example of how increased knowledge and communication between partners can assuage a lot of heartache and stress. Learn about yourself. Learn about your partner. Learn how to talk to each other clearly and openly. This is what couples therapy is all about!

Her own publications are in French, but you can read a bit more about Marie Bonaparte here.

The Orgastic Cycle

You will often hear me say that sexuality is a deep and complex landscape. That is largely why it’s wonderful- it’s rich and expansive and can bear our multitudes, if we tend to it successfully. There is one aspect, however, that isn’t so complex, and that is the orgastic cycle.

Some of you may be familiar with the work of Virginia Johnson and William Masters in Human Sexual Response from 1966 (a great year for cars), because it’s what most of us who were lucky enough to have sex ed learned in school. It’s good and valuable work focusing on the physiology of the sexual response. I highly recommend reading it. It’s your body after all. Why not understand it?

Here, I will give an overview of the orgastic release cycle as defined by the Integrative Body Psychotherapy (IBP) Model. This model allows us to understand the emotional landscape involved with each physical response. Here’s the TLDR version, but good luck stopping there!:

Without further reading, you probably have a sense of what each of these stages means. Each of us has a particular relationship to this cycle and therein lies the material point. As Rosenberg puts it, “The way you do your orgasm is the way you do your life.”

For a happy, healthy, and fun sex life, it’s important to have a sense of which phase(s) you’re adept at managing and which ones are more difficult. These phases show up in nearly every aspect of our lives. So let’s look at each a little more in depth.

Intimacy

Intimacy is absolutely essential to this process. It’s necessary that you feel comfortable and safe, that you genuinely like your partner, and that you open up to them. Only with intimate familiarity can you have flow into desire.

Desire

To understand what’s happening in this stage, I like to think of it as an analysis of your raw materials: are you working with a healthy body, and do you let it do its thing? Your body must have the ability to be aroused, and you have to be willing to let it. Factors like clinical depression and “hangups” (a word I don’t love, but it makes its point) greatly affect our ability to become aroused. When I have a client who is struggling with this stage, we begin by ruling out physiological factors via a visit to the doc, endocrinologist, or psychiatrist. While physical symptoms are not at all separate from our psychology, we must know what we’re working with and what resources will aid our journey. After all, if we can’t get the engine started, we aren’t going to get anywhere.

Approach

Approach is about your ability to ask for what you want. Successful approach entails being willing to ask, having different ways of asking (plenty of verbal and nonverbal), and being approachable yourself. If you’re struggling here, you might never be the one asks (or you always are), you feel rejected easily, you let yourself get overtired at night, etc.

Charge

Where desire is the ability to feel drawn to aliveness, charge is the ability to experience it directly. Sexual charge is created by all the lovely touching, kissing, smelling, tasting, thinking, seeing, talking, dancing, holding, hugging, etc. Struggling with this stage can manifest as a need for conflict to be aroused, a feeling of overwhelm, checking out/dissociating, etc.

Containment

Containment is your ability to tolerate the charge that’s been built. Successful containment means savoring the charge for a while. The term “plateau” from Johnson and Master’s work is fitting here. Can you hang out in the nice feelings for a while, allowing for a plateauing effect on your arousal level? One obvious example of containment difficulty is premature ejaculation, but struggling here can also mean making attempts to lower your charge by talking, wiggling, holding your breath, etc.

Release

Now that all that lovely charge has been built up, it needs to go somewhere. Releasing means allowing the charge to flow out of you. I don’t mean just ejaculate, either! The release stage is where the heart opens its gates without knowing just when they’ll be shut again. Holy vulnerability, Batman! Because of how vulnerable you must be, two main problems often arise here: refusal to let go, and the need for super duper specific conditions for orgasm. Releasing successfully means letting go, and staying present while doing so. This is where all that hard work pays off. It’s no wonder we can be “orgasm-focused,” is it? What a beautiful experience this can be when we execute it well.

Satisfaction

I like to think of this stage as your ability to take a snapshot of your sexual experience and carry it with you. After orgasm, your body is being flooded with oxytocin. Will you allow it to wash over you or will you try to run away from it? Achieving satisfaction means staying present a while longer to take in this wonderful experience. Appreciate it. Let it brighten you up. Look your partner in the eyes and store this memory. Sometimes we block our ability to feel satisfied by immediately distracting ourselves, picking a fight, feeling abandoned or guilty, etc.

Intimacy

Completion of the orgastic cycle should bring feelings of increased love, closeness, and relaxation, which fuel us in moving forward. We carry these things with us until the next stage begins again.

Earlier, I said that this cycle applies to just about everything. And I meant it! That’s part of what makes it less complex than all the rest of what might be included on the topic of sexuality. The cycle always has these stages and the same stages show up in different contexts, including nonsexual ones. The experiences that we have, both good and bad, strengthen and weaken our ability to execute different stages. That’s why it shows up all over the place! I’ll leave you with some considerations.

Think about how you typically decide what to eat and what factors affect your process. How exact does a dish need to be for it to be appetizing to you? Think about how you actually consume the food (how quickly, how neatly or messily, how much). And consider how you feel afterwards.

To understand our sexuality is to understand ourselves. Individual and couples therapy is a gift that you give yourself in order to live your life as you should for you. Call or email to schedule an introductory session.

For further reading on this and other IBP models, check out their website and books. I particularly recommend The Intimate Couple.