Integrative Psychotherapy - NM
The Path to Emotional Wellbeing
It's Never Too Late to Have a Wonderful Childhood:
Healing Early Trauma with
Pesso-Boyden System Psychomotor (PBSP)
As any survivor can testify, traumatic experience can bring many unwelcome consequences to a person’s life—including frightening nightmares and flashbacks, heightened anxiety, or debilitating panic attacks that make it very challenging to function in the world.  And when people feel at the mercy of these symptoms, helpless to control or even understand them, they are likely to feel discouraged and depressed.

PBSP is a powerful, respectful therapeutic approach that effectively addresses all of these symptoms by helping clients identify the source of their trauma, fully and safely express feelings that may have been suppressed, and create a healing symbolic memory that antidotes the original wounding experience.

The work is predicated on a profound understanding of the nature of memory, which acts as a filter over reality, contouring how we see and respond to the world. Traumatic memories that are out of awareness can evoke very intense responses to everyday events that seem mystifying until we realize that the feeling that is coming up here and now is actually a memory of an event that took place long ago.

As an example, a 50 year-old woman named Mia was recently sitting in my office when a fire truck with a very loud siren went by.  She was suddenly overcome with a feeling of anguish:  “Oh my god!  Just hearing that siren reminds me of a time when my girls were small.  We were in the car driving to the city when we passed a terrible accident by the side of the road.  There was chaos and noise—one ambulance after another whizzing by—sirens blaring.   My youngest daughter was terribly frightened:  She reached to me for comfort:  “Mommy, what’s happening?” I reassured her, “There’s been a terrible accident, but it’s okay, because people are going to help.”

As Mia recounted this, she dissolved into sobs.  When I invited her gently to stay with the feelings and see where they would lead, she connected with an earlier trauma:  “When I was 5 years old my father would beat up my mother and my sister, and no one was there to help!  No one was there to help!”

From this place of awareness Mia was able to fully express her feelings from that early trauma—which she had never processed in 15 years of talk therapy.  While her childhood longings to feel safe and protected were so present, I was also able to help her create a symbolic memory of what life would have been like then—and what she might feel like now--if there had been someone to help—if she had had the protection, nurturance, love and support that every child needs and deserves.

The first time I witnessed the transformative power of a PBSP session (or structure, as it is formally called) in 1991 was during an introductory training presented by Albert Pesso, the co-founder of the work.  A woman, who I will call Annie, was deeply engaged in a role play process, making a “virtual memory” of a loving, “ideal father” who would have been the opposite of the hard-edged military man she actually had to endure as a child.

In the role play, the ideal father spoke:  “If I had been back there then, when you were a little girl, I wouldn’t have been harsh and rough, I would have been loving and playful with you.”  Annie’s face softened as she heard these words; there was an innocence, an openness in her eyes, and she looked like a young child as her body leaned toward him, then snuggled against him for comfort.  More painful memories then surfaced of her actual father.  She tearfully remembered:  “He would be so rough with us—he would always hurt us when we played.”  

The “witness figure,” who sees and names feelings in PBSP, spoke as Annie crumpled over in pain:  “I see how much you suffer, remembering what it was like with your actual father.” She shook her head, grateful for the validation.  Then she looked with longing toward the man playing her ideal father, who was then instructed to say:  “If I had been your ideal father, I wouldn’t have been rough when we played, I would have always been gentle with you.”  

Annie looked gratefully and hopefully at him, shifting once again to a young state.  Though she was not aware of it at the time, her thumbs were contacting each other in a sort of playful dance.  (Since this work is interactive, contact that we give ourselves is often indicative of contact we long for from another person.)  The therapist gave feedback about this, and suggested that Annie make contact with her ideal father’s thumb.   She giggled at the idea and proceeded to initiate what became a joyous thumb game with him. The role player was instructed to meet her energies, without adding anything, so that this symbolic memory would exactly match what Annie needed.

At the end of the structure, the therapist helped Annie to make a memory of the experience that would last, by thinking of herself at a young age, having had such a wonderful ideal father, and noting all the sensory details—of his words, his touch, and the felt sense of his presence.  

 Annie has been a dear friend since that time, and still speaks of her early work with a sense of awe:  “The shift in me was so powerful, so visceral—By experiencing my ideal father, and later my ideal mother, I realized in a way that I never had, what a balanced family is like. That awareness allowed me to see and change a negative dynamic that had been going on with my husband and my daughter for years.”

Since Annie’s father was frequently away from home, involved in military conflicts, her mother did most of the parenting.  Annie had repeated this pattern with her daughter, Sarah, in a totally unconscious way:  when 4 year-old Sarah was “mad at Daddy” because he had set a limit of some kind, she would run to Annie, who would comfort her. Annie realized after the above structure, that she was fostering a split between her husband and her daughter.  With this realization, she responded differently the next time Sarah complained about her dad.  Instead of comforting her, Annie went over to her husband, put her arms around him and said:  “This man, your daddy, is my husband, and I love him very much.  And we both love you.” With that one action, the pattern changed.  Sarah, who’s now 20 years old, was able to bond with her father, and they continue to have a positive relationship.

There were seven of us participating in that introductory training with Al Pesso.  We had all come to Franklin, New Hampshire, where Al lived and worked, motivated by a desire to do deep, personal work as well as to learn new skills that would make us more effective as therapists.

Since we had all heard about the power of PBSP, there was a sense of excitement and expectancy as we arrived for the first day of the six-day training.  We sat in a semi-circle, facing Al, a 60ish man, with bushy eyebrows and intense eyes that radiated curiosity, openness and an eagerness to share this process with us.  We knew that he and his wife, Diane Boyden Pesso, had come to psychotherapy via an unconventional route—through the world of dance.  

Al had studied with Martha Graham in the late 1950’s.  During that time he and his wife had developed an intuitive awareness of the connections between body, mind, emotion, memory, perception and behavior in the world.  Long before neuroscientists became aware of the degree to which autobiographical memory shapes how we see and respond to the world, the Pesso’s got it. From this awareness, they developed an approach to emotional re-education and healing based on the creation of new, symbolic memories of what should have been—richly textured, deeply felt experiences of what it would have been like to have had early needs met by the right people at the right age.  From this perspective, you don’t have to have actually had a wonderful childhood in order to live well in the world; you just need to have a deep sense of what you would feel like and what the world would look like, had that been the case.
For more information, or to schedule an appointment, email, or call 917-544-0723.
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