THE HOLDING EXERCISE
TAKEN TOGETHER, these new findings about the changeable adult brain, coupled with my own observations about couples and similar observations of other Imago Therapists, have changed Imago Therapy. First of all, my colleagues and I no longer encourage couples to direct their archaic rage at each other. The new research shows that dwelling on anger has the potential to enhance anger, not defuse it.
I used to think that venting anger was like blowing the foam off a glass of beer: A few puffs, and you’re done with it. Instead, it’s like blowing on a fire—the more you blow, the hotter the flame. On a physiological level, expressing anger on a regular basis enlarges the part of the brain devoted to negative emotions. What you do is what you get. With so much cerebral real estate devoted to anger, an angry response can become a conditioned response.
Another fact about the brain is that the unconscious mind experiences all anger as dangerous to the self. It cannot determine whether the anger is directed at itself or someone else. Indeed, new studies in the neurosciences of a phenomenon called “mirror neurons” tell us that when neurons fire in someone else’s brain, identical neurons fire in our own brain. When others are angry, we become angry. In other words, what you see is what you feel.
So now, we encourage couples to share other emotions they experienced in childhood, such as grief, fear, and sadness. These less volatile emotions underlie the anger, and we have found that expressing them to a receptive partner helps relieve the hostility without reinforcing it.
When couples share their childhood wounds with each other, they deepen their understanding of each other’s past. They also experience renewed empathy for each other’s suffering. Ultimately, they begin to see each other as “wounded” people, not “bad” people. Through this more accurate lens, they can see that most of their conflicts come from pain that originated in childhood, not from any intention to hurt each other.
One of the exercises we use to facilitate the sharing of childhood experiences is called the Holding Exercise. Unlike the container exercise, this exercise helps relieve repressed feelings without generating more negative emotions.
I got the idea for the specific form of the exercise while going for a walk. I found myself looking into the window of a bookstore—a predictable habit for me. In the window I saw a parenting book with the word “holding” in the title. The cover drawing showed a woman holding a child on her lap with the child’s face on the left side of her chest, over her heart. Many mothers instinctively hold their babies in this position. It appears to be a great source of comfort for babies, perhaps because hearing the mother’s heart and being held close to her body is reminiscent of being inside the womb.
As I studied the drawing, I began to imagine couples holding each other in this fashion and talking about early childhood experiences. My intuition was that this primal holding position would elicit a flood of emotions.
When I went home to share this idea with Helen, she reminded of her earlier work with a “reparenting” model of therapy in which the therapist holds and comforts a client—essentially reparenting them. Using her insights, we developed a similar holding exercise. But instead of having the therapist hold the client, we asked the partners to hold each other. We wanted the bonding experience to take place between the partners rather than with us. We asked one partner to sit in a comfortable position and hold the other partner with his or her head across the heart. From this position, they would recall painful childhood experiences while the holding partner gently and warmly mirrored their comments.
We decided to experiment with it at the next couple’s workshop. An older couple, John and Vivian, volunteered to be the first guinea pigs. I instructed John to sit against a wall and then hold Vivian in his arms as though she were a young child. I positioned her head next to his heart. Then I asked John to ask his partner to recall memories from childhood. To facilitate the flow of memories, I suggested that he make encouraging sounds and mirror back to her what she was saying. When she was through expressing a thought of feeling, he might ask, “Is there more?”
After momentary embarrassment, John and Vivian began following my instructions. Vivian talked in a very quiet voice, keeping most of what she had to say between the two of them. John bent over her, listening intently. Their murmured expressions went on for five or more minutes. Then, suddenly, Vivian began to sob. John held her more tightly and began to rock her. Tears filled his eyes as well.
The experience was very powerful for the couple. John’s compassion for Vivian’s pain was evident to everyone in the room. Later in the session, I had them switch roles, with Vivian, and John was able to experience what it is like to feel safe and nurtured as he told his own story. When the two of them talked about their experience in front of the group, they said that they had learned a lot about each other’s inner world and felt deep empathy for each other. Like many couples, they discovered that they had endured many of the same insults in childhood, but had adapted to them in different ways. The unconscious agenda that each brought into the marriage was beginning to be revealed, and their wounds were healing in the process.
When couples take part in the Holding Exercise, they get the response they have been longing for all their lives. Their old brains perceive their partners as surrogate parents. Only this time around, their parents have become attuned parents: accepting, nurturing, calm, attentive, and non-judgmental. Pain from the past can be healed in the present when you receive attention and empathy from a loving partner.