Intersubjectivity

This is an article I wrote and am still writing in August 2018 on intersubjectivity. I welcome your views, questions and feedback. The article has been influenced both by my personal work and my relationship with my clients. I have also been influenced by the writings of Michael Soth and Jessica Benjamin amongst others, as well as my former tutors on the dance movement psychotherapy program at Roehampton University.

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“What is the ‘real me'?” This is the question I used to ask myself during the time I was engaged in my own intensive personal development program. During those years I was discovering my authentic self, the me that was congruent, the me that had a clear sense of what was going on, the me that knew how to ‘be’ in the world. Well that’s what I thought to be the endeavour. In recent years the question has changed to “Is there a 'real me'?” And if there is, then I have to accept there must be a ‘real other’. Which is where things start to get a little murky. Because which 'real other' are we talking about? I can have a mental construct of you, how I imagine you to be in my head. But that soon get challenged by a real interaction with you – how I experience you in reality doesn’t necessarily match up to my inner representation of you. If I now assume you also have a corresponding inner and outer relationship to me – then the big question is, can and in what way do we touch each other’s inner worlds through our interaction with each other?

Therapy these days is all about the relationship – when, how and in what way do we as therapists make contact with our clients? But what is the intention of focussing on contact? We need to be clear about this - that it's in our clients’ interest. After all, they might not be looking for another relationship, least of all with their therapist! Modern-day neuroscience is discovering what some psychotherapists have been talking about for decades – namely that the nature of the relationship between client and therapist is crucial to productive psychotherapy. But what do we mean by ‘relationship’? We are in relationship with our tomato plants, the person in our local corner shop or the person we exchange a knowing smile with whom we pass in the street. 

 

In this article I will endeavour to look at intersubjectivity, or the ‘I-thou’ relationship in therapy. I am having a subjective experience by recognizing that I have distinct motives, intentions and feelings. And if as a subjective person, I am able to recognize you as a distinct being with a mind of your own, this is the experience of intersubjectivity. I can sense that you are separate from me and yet I am also connected to you. In fact it is in accepting you as separate that I can simultaneously connect to you. Guntrip calls this ‘moments of real meeting’.

 

So what does this look like in the therapy room? We are mutually influencing each other; the therapist has an experience of influencing the client, as well as being influenced by the client. You may be thinking isn’t that stating the obvious? Perhaps. Perhaps we are just naming what is actually a very ordinary everyday interaction. Lets first look at the lived experience of having a subjective relationship with my client. For me its about showing up in all that I am, showing my vulnerability, even my shame and being comfortable with that. Being spontaneous, being playful, being able to stay with the silence, the stillness, the ‘not knowing’. A surrender into the moment, that moment that can never be repeated or denied. And it's about trust. Gradually learning to trust my implicit knowing and enter into the intersubjective field.

 

Now compare that to the opposite kind of relationship where therapy becomes a one-way process – or the ‘I-it’ relationship. This is when the therapist creates sufficient distance with her client to be able to observe what is going on, metaphorically stepping away from the relationship. So lets now see how the I-it relationship might look in the therapy room. I might suggest trying out an ‘experiment’ with a client to bring attention to her way of being or relating – either exploring habitual patterns or trying out something new. Even though the experiment might involve a relational exchange and even though the outcome of the experiment would be unpredictable, in making this suggestion she is becoming the subject of my experiment. A different example – a client wants some advice about how to jilt her boyfriend. If I agree to this and give her advice, I am effectively positioning myself above her, becoming the ‘one who knows’, in the same way as a doctor/patient relationship. Alternatively, and still a one-way process - there may be the reversal of the I-it relationship – we can refer to this as the ‘It-I’ relationship. For example, my client talks to me in a way that overlooks me as a person in my own right, with thoughts, feelings and needs of my own. I become her object.


For many years body psychotherapist, Michael Soth has been looking at relationship in the therapeutic space, specifically the different sorts of relationship between client and therapist with a view to defining what exactly gets played out here and why - and the potential value to the client. He defines a polarity between ‘therapy as relationship’ (the I-thou relationship) versus ‘therapy as treatment’ (the I-it relationship). Soth maintains that both polarities can co-exist (and should) so long as the therapist can hold the tension between the two positions and work with it. In any case if we are to privilege one model over the other, our clients will sooner or later get us back-flipping over into the other.

At the far end of the intersubjective polarity we find the relatively new and exciting work of neuroscientist Allan Schore. He is affirming from a neurobiological perspective what Michael Soth, Jessica Benjamin and others have been saying from a clinical perspective for many years. Specifically, that moments of disruption can be an opportunity to work through something new. Which makes room for ‘enactments’ – namely client and therapist unconsciously replaying a scene from their past within the relationship. For instance my client is telling me a story and I get up in the middle of it to fetch the tissues. She then accuses me of trying to get away from her. I react in a defensive manner and point out I was only doing it for her...etc. I may later reflect on how an aspect of my past has been re-enacted in the here-and-now - for instance, perhaps trying to 'do my best' had got me into trouble. And so the dynamics of the therapeutic relationship are co-created – both client and therapist contributing to the scene. Working with enactments means that we as therapists need to be willing to act out our personal defence strategies as they reveal themselves; or reverting to ‘character’ type. Inevitably this can make the therapist feel they have lost their therapeutic position. Soth maintains that it is this very scene or re-enactment that creates the conditions and opportunity for transformation.

 

This is a way of positioning myself. Is there a right time and a wrong time for this? Perhaps 'wrong' is precluding something important from unfolding that I might never know about. But there isn't a 'right' time either as by definition, we are both unconsciously entering something painful and difficult from the past. Moreover, am I able to trust myself sufficiently to risk surrendering into the enactment? And not try to pull myself out for the sake of saving my therapeutic position? To drop into being fully in this moment whatever that may look like? If you are reading this as a potential client it may not be apparent how this way of working would serve you in any way. For instance, when things get messy, when there's a break down in communication, when things get reduced to the dualistic ‘your reality’ versus ‘my reality’, when we both find ourselves getting caught up in a cross-fire. How can this be ‘therapy’?

 

I do not have the answer, I do not have the rhetoric. But I do find myself welcoming these findings. For a start, whether or not therapists work in this way, it is likely our clients have already picked up on a good deal more than what we are prepared to reveal through words. As Ron Kurtz said, our posture and the way we move is an embodiment of our beliefs. So just by being there, in the room with our client, are we not already entering into an enactment? I wonder whether the harder we try to maintain ourselves within our therapeutic position, the more likely we are to be disappearing down the plug hole.

 

But I can answer why, for me, these impasses create a shift. Because I get to learn first-hand how it is to be in relationship with my client. Because we are hanging out together on an edge. Soth describes the human psyche as an adaptive system that will be available for transformation only at the edge. Of course safety needs to have already been established; this is paramount. Clients need to be stable enough to be receptive, to be in their flow. All very well, but again there needs to be an understanding of what is meant by safety and stability. To help with that, Soth redefines the idea of the 'window of tolerance' to apply to the whole system of the therapeutic relationship, rather than just the client's body-mind. The client--therapist system needs to be inside the 'window of tolerance'. Then, and only then, would I consider bringing my real self into the room and allow my experience to be shaped by what is happening here.

 

There have been various studies to specifically study non-verbal communication in the therapy room. A form of non-verbal communication, affect attunement involves two people sharing an experience of their inner state. One person matches the inner state of another by making contact through the different sensory-perceptual pathways (e.g. gestures, facial expression, sounds, breathing patterns). This is also sometimes described as right-brain-to-right-brain communication. Findings invariably indicate that clients benefit relationally through this kind on non-verbal communication over ‘talking therapy’ alone, particularly if they are working on very early pre-verbal issues.

Benjamin describes this as mutual recognition. Interestingly and not surprisingly, this has now been shown in the mother-infant interaction. Developmental psychology recognises that the mother regulates her baby through her arousal levels; at times she can be soothing, at other times stimulating. But now we also know that self-regulation happens both ways by a process of mutually influencing each other (Beebe and Lachmann) – the baby matches the mother who matches the baby. Furthermore Beebe and Lachmann agree that this co-regulation happens in the therapy room. Classical psychotherapy is often more about relating verbally rather than including the meanings of the body. However, body language, facial expression and tone of voice are key components in interpersonal communication, but it is only comparatively recently known to facilitate therapeutic interactions.

As a dance movement therapist we can create a ‘dance between’ - together sharing patterns, shapes and gestures. We don’t have to be dancing – we can be sitting together, we can be breathing together. There is an attunement on a non-verbal level between us built on matching and mirroring. From here there is newness without meaning. I move with the 'not yet said'. We open into the third body. Below is a quote where I first came across the 'third body' (I have referenced the blog as I can’t find their origin):

 

“There’s me - first body, there’s you - second body and then there are those moments in which our awareness expands and we fully experience us - the third body. It’s me... and you… and something else. It’s the dance we create together. It’s that wordless conversation that embodies something that’s more than the sum of its parts”.

https://openfloor.org/blog/embodied-love

 

This is what Benjamin calls the 'intersubjective third'. And so back to intersubjectivity, this time from the perspective of infant development. This is where it all began and so this is where we need to return to.