Why Talk Therapies Cannot Heal:
Self-Awareness, Insight & Behavioral Change vs. Healing
by Chris Wright
In personal and therapeutic growth everyone's talking about healing these days. Books, articles, seminars and workshops all seem to include healing somewhere in the title -- healing the past, healing the inner child, healing your relationships, healing shame, healing co-dependency.
However, by reading these materials or participating in seminars and lecture series, going to support groups or working a program, or in talking with a therapist -- are we actually healing these past wounds? Actually not.
The dynamics involved in these activities, though useful and important in one's personal growth, are focused on the dysfunctional symptoms. They do not reach or in any way resolve the original, repressed wounds or samskaras that underlie and give rise to the problems we face as adults. Let me explain.
Most of us would agree that what has led to our dysfunction as adults stems from experiences in childhood and birth. Death of a parent, divorce, sexual abuse, constant criticism and abuse from an over-dominating parent -- all leave obvious emotional "wounds" inside. But because children are so much more fragile and vulnerable, it does not take much stress to overwhelm their delicate neuromachinery.
There are thousands of subtle, covert ways children feel wounded, neglected or insecure growing up. Not measuring up to Mom or Dad's expectations, feeling that Mom or Dad loved your brother or sister more, feeling put down at the hands of other kids or teachers, that you're not lovable, or pretty, or smart enough. "You never do it right." "I don't have time." "What do you want now!" "No!" "Quit bothering me."
These experiences produce emotional tension inside. They hurt. They can trigger fear and anger, shame, unworthiness. These are feelings that can be too scary for a child to consciously experience and integrate to resolution. So what does the brain do to protect the child? It attempts to anesthetize the overload. It literally "gates" off the full conscious experience, leaving, as if, a scar of unprocessed emotional tension that lives on, buried deep inside, outside our conscious awareness
In fact, the original stressful feelings are buried so well that over time most of us actually don't even know if they are still there. We may be able to remember past events up "in our head," but the painful component of those memories are sequestered away in the subcortical brain systems. The result is that we are disconnected and effectively buffered from the accumulation of unresolved feelings that were registered in the system.
It is like aspirin ridding you of a headache. The aspirin heightens the gates that anesthetize you from the internal tension. The brain no longer "reads" the pressure that exists inside. And you can honestly say that there is no pain inside. For most of us, our repressive gating mechanisms are so effective in disconnecting us from internal, unresolved feelings that it can be very hard to believe that the charge is still there. We can't help but live in denial.
However, we sure can see the effects of these repressed feelings. We can feel the churning deep inside, robbing us of true inner peace. We also readily see it in wounded areas of our personality that we are hyper-sensitive or rigid about, where we seem to have a "charge" inside -- our "buttons" that keep getting pushed by others, and in the irrational fears and insecurities inside that limit us.
The underlying pressure of this unresolved tension drives in us distorted needs -- to overeat, smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, take drugs, overwork, act-out sexually, or use co-dependent relationships to anesthetize the pain.
In traditional therapy we learn to counter these dysfunctional issues with new, healthier attitudes and behaviors. Armed with increased self-awareness and greater understanding we can learn to develop healthier ways of thinking and acting as an adult. "Utilizing the powerful concepts of family systems will help you gain the skills and hope needed to guide you to recovery from dysfunctional living," reads a typical therapy center's brochure. However, does increased understanding and insight into inner dynamics and changing our behaviors actually heal the original painful feelings that lie buried deep inside?
Unfortunately, repressed emotions are not resolved by learning new understandings. Otherwise, the universal answer to healing our insecurities and purifying our consciousness would be simply to read widely or even get a Ph.D. in psychology. We know, however, that regardless of your level of understanding or the sophistication of your beliefs, the underlying churning of these repressed feelings continues deep inside the brain.
You can readily see the affects of this reverberating stress in our bodies and in our health. We each have weakened spillways that collect the repressed emotional tension. For some it shows up in stomach problems, or bowel difficulties, headaches, back problems, insomnia, PMS, fatigue syndromes, a weakened respiratory system plagued with allergies or asthma, arthritis, TMJ, and all the other psychosomatic dis-eases. Just look in someone's medicine cabinet and you will see how their unresolved feelings have been somatized. (And look in their refrigerator to see how they currently attempt to anesthetize these feelings by the type of foods and drinks they consume.)
If increased understanding and making positive changes in one's behavior do not actually heal the original painful imprints, then what does? Certainly the nervous system must have natural, innate mechanisms for resolving inner stress. The system is designed to heal injuries and sickness which disturb its well-being. What would be the natural regulatory mechanisms for resolving stress and repressed emotional tension, thereby restoring our loving, spiritual wholeness?
Fortunately, healing is a very natural, human process. Simply look at a child who starts to be overwhelmed inside -- how does the child naturally and innocently respond? How does the system attempt to resolve the overload of stress? What does the child start to do? He or she begins to cry. Why? Why does anyone cry? What does crying serve to do? It is a release -- a natural resolution of inner stress. In fact, there is a biological imperative for the system to release stress in order to restore our inner balance. That's why when we reach a point inside where we can't hold it in, we begin to cry, or yell, or tremble and perspire. We become "emotional."
Unless, of course, you have learned to inhibit the release, and keep the emotional energy out of your consciousness. Most of us have been taught to suppress our emotions. We have been taught that expressing our feelings is a sign of weakness in a person. In reality, it is the other way around. These emotions when expressed within loving, safe processes actually cleanse you of what is weakening. They are positive biological healing mechanisms. Safely shared with persons you care about and love, they cleanse your inner wounds, free you of their crippling effects, and purify your consciousness and soul.
It is when you hold the toxic feelings inside that we see all the negativity and distortion show up in your personality, in your behaviors, and in your relationships. The more intense the unresolved anger you carry, the more negativity is expressed in your attitudes, judgments and acting-out behaviors. How could it be any other way? Think about it.
When you are sitting on angry, hurt feelings toward someone, they distort your spiritual values, your ability to love, your inner peace. Suppressed angry tension festers and putrefies inside producing hardened judgments, distrust, prejudice, hostility, even hate. Repressed fears eat away at your esteem and disturb your inner sense of security as a whole person.
These unresolved feelings may be forgotten on the surface, but the deep-rooted tension robs you of your natural ease and silence, your sense of joy and self-worth, your vitality and power, and the wondrous sense of challenge in life. Healing this repressed emotional tension buried inside is absolutely essential to purifying your spirit and restoring your wholeness.
"Healing" is in itself an innate, biological process. It doesn't need to be learned. Nor does it involve learning or gaining any information. Simple, uneducated people can purify their hearts of pain, anger and toxic fear as effectively as the most erudite of psychological leaders. The healing process is not an intellectual exercise -- that if you could just figure something out or understand an underlying dynamic, then you would be healed. Rather, resolving repressed emotional tension is a psychobiological process of simply allowing the natural biological healing sequence to occur.
Some talk therapies teach that you can just "let go" of the repressed charge, the resentments, the pain. Get on with your life and forgive. Yes, you can create an understanding, "reframe" an event, or fortify yourself with beliefs that will rationalize away those feelings, making them less accessible inside. Research shows that gating mechanisms in the brain respond well and are bolstered by strong beliefs, insights and meaningful explanations. They serve to fortify our internal cognitive structure. But, like placebos, they are illusory. You have simply turned the radio dial to another station, where the brain no longer picks up the signal from the site of the repressed emotion. As with aspirin, you feel better. But you still remain a prisoner of the accumulated, unresolved feelings churning outside of your consciousness.
The unresolved feelings are registered down in the subcortical "feeling" areas of the brain. Healing involves neurologically connecting your conscious awareness to the site of the repressed feelings and fully integrate the charge to resolution. Allowing the toxic charged emotions into the light of Consciousness -- that's the healing dynamic.
And when you open up the gates and allow hurt feelings from your past into your consciousness you will naturally begin to cry. Those tears, however, are the very tears that you needed to release at the time of the original event to resolve the experience, but couldn't. There simply was not a structure of safety to do so.
Just talking about the past events, telling the details of your story, will not do it. Staying up in your head, analyzing it all, writing the events down in your journal, figuring the dynamics out, gaining new awarenesses in the neocortex -- does not neurologically engage the repressed emotional tension originally imprinted subcortically in the brain. Even talking about your feelings doesn't do it. In therapy and in support groups you discuss your feelings, examine your feelings, understand your feelings, learn from your feelings. But do you "let go" into those feelings and fully re-live the original pain?
Most people do not allow themselves to experientially regress to the unresolved feelings of childhood in talk therapies or in groups. If you did connect to those stress-filled memories you would be filled with sobbing tears, instead of sharing about your sadness; you would be angrily storming at your offenders, not simply talking about your anger about what happened.
Discovering, clarifying and sharing about painful events actually serve to keep you from regressing to the original repressed emotional tension imprinted in your physiology.
What Makes It Safe to Heal?
Just as healing the accumulation of repressed emotional tension inside is a natural process, so is the process that provides in us the security to do so. The conditions that fortify us so that we feel secure enough to open up to those feelings is instinctual and natural to us as humans.
Let's assume that Terry is in a therapy session sharing about his father's death with his therapist, and he feels some tears well-up (the natural biological resolution of the stress). Even though the tears are starting to come out, you can see that he is holding back, that he is not letting himself “let go” into the feelings. And Terry knows that too. He feels the pain inside, but a part of him is alert to how much he allows up to experience. What would facilitate Terry to open up and regress to those repressed childhood feelings, and allow the healing to occur?
Actually, psychotherapists are not trained in graduate school to facilitate this process. Most therapists today serve as effective sounding boards and sensitive educators in providing important self-awareness, useful insight, and healthy behavioral changes in their clients. You sit over here and the therapist sits over there, and you have a conversation probing and problem solving about sensitive issues that you are confronting. The same is true in group therapy.
That can work fine for effective coaching and healthier learning. However, for healing to take place, for us to move out of our head and regress to the underlying, unresolved, original stressful feelings inside, we require new, more natural tools that are structured to provide much greater security.
But what about those people who are uncomfortable or afraid to experience certain feelings? Some people have learned in their family of origin that crying, or showing fear or anger were not tolerated. For some even laughter and having joy were inappropriate and brought painful consequences. So now as adults it may be very difficult and uncomfortable to let go into laughter, or tears, or anger.
And yet, these are all natural human needs which we must gently, safely rehabilitate in order to heal and become whole. Restoring our vulnerability and our freedom to feel, deepening our experience of intimacy inside our selves, and being able to share it safely with others is what it is to be human, to be fully alive.
At The Center For Holistic Therapy we have developed and teach gentle yet effective tools that naturally facilitate moving safely into repressed feelings. These new tools are a significant advancement in facilitating this natural process. They enable people to regain access to the underlying, unresolved feelings inside. And heal together, as peers.
These healing structures provide much greater capacity for safely accessing and assimilating stressful and traumatic memories than ever before imagined. They provide the deeper security that allows us to consciously integrate fully the painful electrical charge. Instead of feelings being overwhelming, in this process the experience unfolds gently, organically, at a comfortable pace. It develops into a deeply rich, connecting experience with long-lost parts of our selves. Leaving you filled with intimate meaning and insight. Cleansing. Freeing. Empowering. Restoring layers upon layers of wonderful feelings of inner happiness and peace inside. All while you accelerate your process of healing and recovery.
I believe that the times are changing in this direction. Gentleness and shared vulnerability are finally replacing confrontation. And the latest seminars, lectures, and popular books make note of the need for us all to get in touch with our feelings. But then I ask: How? And, what makes it safe to do so? Together as peers. It is also increasingly becoming safer in our culture for men to cry. And for women to express anger.
But again: Where is the knowledge, the tools, that teach men and women, boys and girls, how to do so safely, together? In the context of safe, nurturing relationships. If we are going to claim "healing" in the title and content of workshops, lectures, books, and in therapy, then the profession needs to more carefully examine and understand these dynamics, and begin using much safer tools to facilitate healing at our core.
As a result of the tremendous growth of the 12-step programs, there is a growing sense that we can create safe, therapeutic environments among ourselves. But can we learn to open up and safely process the underlying feelings together, and not just talk about them? Can we learn to more fully be there for the people we care about and love, with safer tools that make it natural to share, process, and heal unresolved feelings together?
We have found that those tools and skills are easily learned. In fact, they add an essential dimension to what it is to be human, to feel close, nourished, and supportive in our relationships together.
There is a new world emerging, with new natural technologies that safely allow us to be vulnerable together, feel together, heal together, be at peace together, be human together. Now we only need to start doing the work of healing, together.
Chris Wright is a licensed therapist and Director of
Programs at The Center For Holistic Therapy in Alexandria, Virginia.
He has been teaching primal for over 15 years around the country.
He offers workshops and individual sessions on how to safely process
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