Witnessing the Nonverbal Story with Somatic Awareness

By Susan McConnell, MA, CHT, “The Internal Family Embodied” Topic Expert Contributor

The following session is an example of how the tool of Somatic Awareness can translate the nonverbal narrative of sensation and integrate it with the verbal narrative. The client’s parts, speaking only through sensation in her head, are welcomed and witnessed. We bring Somatic Awareness not only to the parts that were “speaking” but also to those that were silent—to her largely disembodied lower body.

Rachel suffers with chronic migraines. She has been doing some good work with another IFS therapist but hoped that Somatic IFS could help her specifically with the headaches. My heart went out to her as I heard of the intense and unremitting pain and saw the pain in her eyes. I became aware of a part of mine that wanted to effect a miracle cure. I told her I needed to first work with this part. I focused on the part and the sensations of restriction in my upper body until my body felt more open and spacious. I recalled a lesson I learned from a client who also suffered from debilitating headaches. He taught me that although all my efforts had not cured his headaches, his work with me had totally transformed his relationship to them. From him I learned the difference between a cure and a healing, so this part could step back and trust me.

I then brought my attention back to Rachel. Her goal was to help her parts find another way to communicate with her rather than through the headache. Rachel had a great deal of awareness of the varieties and intensities of the pain in her head from moment to moment. It variously stabbed, throbbed, and ached in her temples, around her eyes, in her cheeks, and even down into her neck. Her awareness of her body below her neck was much less. At first she told me it all felt fine, but it became clear that her lower body was just out of her awareness. Her ankles were crossed so her feet were not making contact with the floor, and as I looked at her body, I had a flash of imagination of her being a paraplegic in a wheelchair.

During the session, we worked together to translate the sensations in her head into words. I would make two different guesses about what the sensations wanted us to know, and Rachel was able to tell from the sensation in her head which of the two statements was true. By this translation process, we learned how her mother had regarded her childhood pains (coaching stoicism and expressing impatience and exasperation) and how alone with her pain her parts had been. As we attuned to the sensations and together listened to them with respect rather than from parts that were either exasperated with them or trying to get them to be different, there were many moments of relief from the intensity of the headache.

Rachel’s lower body began to come alive as her story was being heard. There were involuntary and mostly unconscious movements in her hands and her legs. There were occasional stabbing pains through her right arm. Some of the details of the stories were not entirely new to Rachel, as she has done a lot of IFS therapy. But what was new was the quality of the attention to the sensations and the permission we were giving them. The nonverbal stories were being integrated with the verbal narratives.

I decided to focus our awareness in a stronger way on her lower body. I guided her to uncross her ankles and notice her feet on the floor, and I also helped her scan the muscles and bones of her lower body. I asked her to breathe into her pelvic floor. This seemed to relieve the pain in her head. Then I asked her to focus on the place in her core where the cutoff between the upper and lower body was located. With this, she got an intense, stabbing pain. That translated into a clear “no” to going there in that session, and we respected that “no.” With that, the sensations subsided.

Near the end of the hour, the movements of her lower right arm changed in quality. They were still involuntary, but when she brought her conscious awareness to them, the movements became more lyrical, more graceful, and more integrated. We appreciated the “dance” of her right arm. Neither of us had the expectation that her migraines were cured after one session, but she had learned several things she could do to lessen the intensity of the sensations. She has a direction for future sessions to explore the block between the upper and lower body.

When I followed up with her, she said that this one session had a huge impact on her. She says the pain is down a notch, and she is feeling hopeful again, which is crucial to her recovery.

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