Over the past few years,
many people have asked me what Somatic Experiencing (SE) is. Sometimes I give a quick two sentence response, sometimes I give a lengthy exposition, and other times I offer an intro session.
One of the most common things I hear from people after I explain the work is "Oh, so it's like mindfulness?"
The answer is yes, but no. We use the skill
of mindfulness, paying attention to our thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they come and go. We strengthen the 'muscle
' of mindfulness, improving our sensitivity and awareness to sensations and images we might not have been able to perceive in the past.
But SE isn't mindfulness, and the goal isn't to become more mindful. If you did, that's a happy side-affect, as there is plenty of research on the benefits of mindfulness and self-awareness. But that's not my goal when I work with clients.
I'd like to propose something else. A metaphor to explain what I'm doing when I work with clients.
SE is personal training. Only, instead of strengthening your muscles and improving your body mechanics, it's strengthening the fundamental abilities of your nervous system, and improving your resilience.
Some functions of the nervous system:
If you look at your sympathetic nervous system and your parasympathetic nervous system, you find an almost unending list of functions. But here are some big ones:
-Helps you get assertive, speak your mind and set boundaries.
-Helps you exit unsafe situations.
-Helps you motivated, and take care of business
-Helps you calm down and enjoy a peaceful moment.
-Helps you digest your food and have good sleep.
These are mostly behavioral functions, and doesn't even begin to touch on the myriad biological functions of your nervous system.
Obviously this list is grossly incomplete, but just look at those five items. How fundamental are they to living your best life? Can you imagine what life would look like if you couldn't do all of those things?
Well, you probably can imagine, because although most of us can do all of those things to some extent, almost all of us are stronger in some areas than others.
Perhaps you're great at setting boundaries and speaking your mind, but it's hard for you to sit down and have a really tender, connected conversation with a loved one without feeling restless.
Or maybe you love connecting with people, eating good food, and watching fun movies, but when you start considering an idea of some big, long-term project, you suddenly feel exhausted and hopeless.
There are a million examples of different patterns out there. Many people tend to think of these patterns as personality traits. "I'm a go-getter and I never settle down." or "I'm too nice. I never want to offend people so I never speak my mind."
I don't think of it that way. What if those personality patterns were simply what happens when your nervous system is really good at certain functions, and not as good at other functions.
And what if it were possible to train it? What if your nervous system could learn to get better at feeling excited and motivated, without collapsing? What if it could get better at relaxing and feeling safe, without needing substances or tv to settle it down? What if saying "no" to people could become effortless?
Can we train the nervous system?
The way I like to look at my Somatic Experiencing work with people is as personal training for your nervous system.
I had a client (details changed to protect his privacy
) who complained of being a pushover at work. When his colleagues disagreed with him or treated him disrespectfully, he'd leave the situation and fume in his office. Sometimes he'd find reasons to stay there for hours, and it was affecting his work performance. He'd be so mad that he wouldn't return work e-mails, but when people tried to talk to him about it he'd avoid confrontation by saying everything was fine.
In my sessions with him, I noticed that as he described this dynamic to me, whenever he got to the a part of the story where he was mad at something, he'd either start laughing, or he'd got really sleepy and distracted.
I realized, this isn't about social skills. He doesn't need to learn how to speak up for himself. It's about his nervous system: When it starts feeling angry, it gets uncomfortable and quickly pivots into humor or into sleepiness to diffuse the intensity. It doesn't know how to effectively fulfill its function of "get mad, set boundaries."
So I started to work with him on that function. When I could see he was starting to get mad, I'd help him notice the beginning of that anger before
his nervous system kicked in with the laughter or sleepiness. I'd help him practice noticing the anger at very low levels of intensity, and getting comfortable with it.
We would do multiple 'reps': We'd notice the anger, then take a break. Notice the anger a little bit longer, then take a break.
This is unusual, right? As I describe it, you might be thinking, "this sounds uncomfortable and weird." I know what you mean. Please bear with me.
Check this out: After a few sessions with me, doing these 'reps', he tells me a story. He tells me that just a few days ago, his work colleagues were being jerks again. And again, he stormed into his office.
But this time, something was different. His body was a little more comfortable with how angry he was, which allowed him to reflect on the situation a little bit longer, and gave him the fuel to get back up, go out into the hall again, and confront his colleagues on the matter.
The story has a happy ending: The colleagues were actually very responsive to his feedback, and were willing to agree to change their behavior. This was a big win. The hard part wasn't the confrontation, the hard part was being willing to have it.
I never coached him on when or how to communicate with people. That's not my job. I helped him figure out which part of his nervous system wanted to be strengthened, and I helped him work it out. I made sure we didn't go too fast, or do too many reps. I made sure we were challenging his system without overwhelming it.
And he got stronger, and things changed for the better. It was incredibly satisfying work.
If you want to comment or send me an e-mail
, I'd love to hear from you.
If you could strengthen your nervous system, what would you work on?