When clients have a low threshold for tolerating difficult emotions, their lives can become extremely limited.
Instead of working through the challenges that can lead to new opportunities, they may choose to stay with the relative “safety” of what they know – even if it’s dysfunctional.
So in the video below, Bonnie Goldstein, PhD, walks you through the mind-body approach she used with a client who was facing just this kind of situation.
Have a look.
These different messages came up for her. We had to work with two parts: the part that wanted to grow up and get away from her dysfunctional childhood household, and the part that was so scared to leave what she knew. Scared to leave what was safe. That becomes an interesting metaphor for all of our clients. Often, they cannot leave what is safe — even a way of sitting. If I need to sit in a certain way to feel safe, then it’s very hard for me to sit upright. Even if I know that this body-based movement will serve me better and will bring in confidence and a sense of competence — not just to someone perceiving me, but in my own brain body connection — this may still be the way that I feel comfortable.
One girl, the same girl I was just describing, was so anxious that she would sit with her hands on her belly. Because if her hands were on her belly, she knew that she would feel a sense of safety. She could quell the angst, the bubbles, and the nervousness. So we looked at that together. As she talked about going to college, she said, “At home, I can sit like this, and that anxiousness that’s always with me is ameliorated by my hands on my belly. And yet at school, I can’t walk around like that. I’ll be too ashamed. I’ll be too noticed.”
We came up with some strategies for her. One of them is, when we work together, we put a pillow on her lap, which allowed her to push onto the pillow and feel a little better. Then we put a weighted blanket on her belly. The deep pressure of the regulation helped her to feel even better. Then she tried wearing a belt wrapped right around her belly button, with higher pants as opposed to low cut pants. With that belt, it gave her a sense of containment. She said, “I knew where my boundaries ended.”
Of course, with each of these interventions we’re asking, “How do you know that? What do you notice happens?” For her, when I said, “What happens when you are wearing that belt?”
She said, “I feel safer. I can just sit back and breathe and relax.”
Of course, I noticed and said, “I notice. Right as you said that, you leaned back, and you took a deep breath.” She giggled and laughed. I said, “Just stay with that new movement.”
We did some exercises with that. I had her undo the belt buckle, and then I had her put it back on, tightening it and releasing it. She came up with just what was right for her body. She said that is an example of a way of quelling the nervousness in her tummy, which was a teeny part of her fear of leaving. Then, as we worked to understand her body-based reactions, she would notice that just the thought of not being at home made her worry that her siblings and her family would come apart.
We became aware that in the dynamic of the culture of her family. She was both the wise parent, or parentified child, and also the protector when her parents were dysfunctional in the system. By identifying that, we could then go beneath the meaning to what her image of leaving home would look like, what might transpire if she was away, and how she feared her absence would lead to “catastrophe” or “catastrophizing,” to use her word.
Then, as we did that, we were always aware of what was happening in the body and through the lens of sensory motor psychotherapy, processing that. We were looking at how the client implicitly makes meaning: what happens in her body, what association happens, how she processes the information, and then what happens with that.
We were looking at her affect all along because she got very quiet, very still, as we would look at the sense of going into the world and the fear that comes with launching to the next thing — that fear of getting what she wanted. The wish that she could just stay safe at home, even in its dysfunction, and all of that became the work of sensory motor processing.
It’s that duality of being aware of it and processing it. Looking for the meaning and changing all the different levels of meaning comes through self-regulation.
Part of equipping clients take on new experiences is giving them strategies to tolerate discomfort and distress.
So if you would like to find out how the top experts in the field (like Peter Levine, PhD; Janina Fisher, PhD; Ron Siegel, PsyD, Shelly Harrell, PhD; and more) help clients build a greater tolerance for emotional distress, click here.
Now we’d like to hear your thoughts. How do you work with clients who are stuck or held back by a low tolerance for difficult emotions? Please let us know in the comments below.
If you found this helpful, here are a few more resources you might be interested in:
Working with Emotional Distress – with Janina Fisher, PhD
Challenging the Fear of Abandonment, with Pat Ogden, PhD
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