The 1990s found me working hard towards licensure as a marriage and family therapist (MFT) in California. In November 1995 I was awarded the precious licence. I tore home from my Cambria PO box with the priceless envelope, opened it in the kitchen with shaking hands, and let out such a scream of joy that my poor cats scattered in all directions, scared for their lives I’m sure. What an achievement! Eight years sober, licensed as a psychotherapist, ready to take on the world of private practice and beyond.
Armed with my MFT licence I could now open an office to see private clients and I felt ill-equipped, so I enrolled in a business development course in the San Francisco Bay Area to acquire the requisite skills. Here I was exposed to ontological coaching for the first time – the work of Fernando Flores, Terry Winograd, and Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. Horizons opened wider than I expected and I met some notable people, perhaps the most influential being Dr Richard Strozzi-Heckler.
The first time I saw him, Richard was dressed in aikido attire – white crossover gi on top and black wide-legged pants called hakama below. He stood in readiness, with three others similarly dressed, poised to attack him simultaneously in what’s called a randori. He handled them with ease, grace and dignity. I watched, mesmerised. One of those seminal moments forever stored as a bright, clear moving image. This man had something I wanted very much – a deeply centred presence, inspiring confidence, calm and safety. I wanted this for myself, and I wanted to provide this for others. For the first time in as long as I could remember, I felt hopeful – here was my path, and a teacher to show me the way.
Fortuitously, a mutual friend was already studying with Richard at Strozzi Institute in Petaluma, set in the beautiful rolling country of Sonoma County about an hour north of San Francisco. I signed up for the next available training, an 18-day course running throughout 1998 called Somatics in Action. Starting here, and through the multiple courses and years that followed, healing and transformation accelerated beyond my wildest imagination.
At Strozzi Institute there was nowhere to hide. And I did love to hide. Stay invisible and narrow and make no waves – remember, be seen and not heard? They affectionately nicknamed me The Mouse. I dressed in black, long dark hair hiding most of my face, speaking only when spoken to, watching, observing, curious all of the time about everyone else. I carefully chose where to sit in the circle. Always opposite Richard. For that way I could keep him in view and keep myself safe. I wasn’t exactly scared of him but held a very healthy respect. He could be gentle but I also knew he could bite, and bite hard. I wanted him to like me. I wanted to be special; the perfect set-up to continue healing, he became a kind of super-parent onto whom I could project every doubt, fear and outrage. I wasn’t the first, and certainly wouldn’t be the last to do so. He had the capacity to hold us all.
Many seminal moments ensued, some gentle, some hair-raising.
I experienced my first somatic bodywork session early on. I lay down on a massage table, fully clothed, and was invited to breathe rhythmically while [my therapist] touched various pressure points around my body with experienced, gentle hands. Within minutes I was cast back in time, gagging and retching as I fought to escape my grandfather. My body convulsed and rippled on the table. There was no time to think or try to be perfect, just safe space to explore what might have been possible had the resources and power of an adult been available to me then. It was all very messy and alarming, yet when I stood at the end of our session I felt transformed. A grown-up, a woman of substance and power who had endured the trauma, survived the abuse, and was equipping herself with skills to relate in new and meaningful ways. I was amazed. I’d spent so many years in traditional talk therapy – with limited results – and here was I, bursting open like a ripe seedpod with this alternative intervention. I couldn’t wait to get back on the table! And get back on the table I did, repeatedly, in the years to come.
Undertaking transformational work before the turn of the 21st century meant trusting the process rather than relying on the evidence neuroscience has since revealed. At the time, all the evidence I needed was Richard’s centred presence, so striking in the randori. His ability to listen calmly, deeply, making me feel moment to moment as if I were the only person that mattered was incredible, like nothing I’d ever known before. And he was able to produce that experience for others, not just for me, so I felt sure I wasn’t mistaken. He didn’t just talk about how to develop an embodied presence, he demonstrated how to have one and engaged us in activities to expand both capacity and competency.1
One of the first things we learned at Strozzi Institute was grounding and centring. Practised over time, this competency becomes embodied so that it can be accessed when under pressure – however much we hope to rise to the occasion: ‘We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.’2 Originating in the martial arts tradition, grounding and centring allow a measured response beyond the unstoppable autonomic nervous system’s reaction under pressure: fight, flight, freeze or fold.
One beautiful sunny day in California I set off for my daily walk on the beach, unaware of this possibility. Strolling along, revelling in the smell of the salty air and warmth of the sun on my face, I noticed people ahead of me on the beach. I registered a dog bounding towards me and assumed he was friendly and wanted to play. Wrong. As the dog came alongside to my left I felt a sharp stab of pain and, time slowing to a standstill, I realised he’d bitten into my thigh. I was rooted to the spot. Totally unable to move or respond. My next awareness was another sharp stab on my right; he’d returned, running behind me and taking a chunk out of my other thigh. By this time the owner realised there was a problem and was chasing him down, brandishing a lead in his hands. He managed to secure both dogs and came over to see if I was all right. I didn’t know. Clearly I was shaken, rendered speechless. He pointed to the blood running down both my legs and asked if I needed help. I was unaccustomed to noticing I needed help, asking for it, or indeed accepting it. I politely declined (at least I’m sure I did, after all that’s how I was brought up) and staggered the hundred or so yards to my home. I was flabbergasted. I drove myself to the doctor’s surgery and got stitched up.
The kindly doc enquired what had happened and if I’d managed to kick the dog. ‘Kick the dog?!’ I exclaimed. ‘But that would have hurt him!’
‘Er, yeah,’ he responded, smiling, with a hint of sarcasm, and then we both laughed at the absurdity of it all. In that moment, I learned a lot about who I am under pressure. I freeze. Most likely disassociate as well. I had had zero ability to respond to the dog’s attack. I simply reacted in accordance with the natural ability we all have in our autonomic nervous system. We tend to fight, flight, freeze or fold. I definitely freeze.
Would it be useful to have greater capacity in these circumstances? Indeed it would. It’s important to have that automatic survival instinct. It’s not about training that out, it’s about being initially triggered into fight, flight, freeze or fold and then having the capacity to respond with something else, opening up our ability to take care of the circumstances appropriately. I can’t ever imagine kicking that dog, but it would have been useful to call out to the owner sooner, or move to protect myself, rather than be attacked again.
And this is not just about dogs on a beach. This is about all kinds of routine experiences in our day-to-day lives. It’s the moment when the boss comes in and says, ‘I’d like to see you in my office’; or we hear an internalised critical voice saying, ‘You’re hopeless, it’s hopeless, give up’; or the train’s late and we’re worried about missing a meeting; or the phone rings and we see someone’s name appear on the screen we’d rather not talk to; or someone says, ‘What would you like for dinner?’ and we’re lost for words even though we’d really prefer Italian to Chinese. In the myriad moments when we’re like a deer caught in the headlights, it’s useful to notice we’re in the grip of our conditioned tendency, take a breath, ground and centre the body, and have other options available. For the most part fight, flight, freeze and fold are less than resourceful states. Instead, how about discernment, eloquence, choice, declining, accepting, knowing what we want and being able to get our needs met?
Life offers us daily opportunities to practise grounding under pressure, some run of the mill and others more dramatic.
The mundane are less striking yet perhaps more important, for they make up the day-today existence shaping us time and again. When someone offers me something I don’t want – one of those free sachets of a mega-face cream – will I cave in to the pressure, or decline with ease? When the drinks order gets mixed up and suddenly I have the taste of unwanted alcohol in my mouth, will I keep drinking or send it back? When sweet treats assigned for visitors sing to me from the kitchen cupboard, will I be tempted by their dulcet tones, or keep resisting? If I can ground and centre in the face of these smaller tasks, I’m more likely to be able to manage the big ones. For what we know is practice makes permanent. (You may be familiar with ‘practice makes perfect’ … yet I prefer the other one, believing perfection isn’t something to aim for at all, it’s impossible.) Here’s both the good news and the bad news: what we repeat, we get really good at. Research3 suggests it takes 300 repetitions to get something into muscle memory and 3,000 repetitions to effect embodied change – if we want to either establish something new or change something which has been embodied over time, it will take 3,000 repetitions for the new process to be automatic, unconscious. For example, suppose we wanted to shift from right-hand dominant to left-hand dominant, it’s going to take that long. And for mastery, research suggests 10,000 repetitions.4
Practice makes permanent
Practice makes permanent is both the good news and the bad news here. For we are practising something all of the time, whether we know it or not. There are the things we deliberately practise – the violin or piano, tennis, golf, rowing, learning to read and spell, cooking, typing, sewing, DIY, photography, driving – and then there are the things out of our awareness. Breathing, chewing, observing, humming, walking, sitting and standing. Aside from the natural human impulses, there are a whole host of things we have to learn from scratch. Remember tying your shoelaces for the first time? Brushing your teeth? Riding a bike? Cooking? What we practise, we get really good at.
This goes for the things we want to master as well as the things we’d rather not. I learned to type 40 years ago. I don’t need to look at the keys, can maintain a conversation simultaneously, and type like the wind. A tremendous asset in this keyboard-driven era, I’m grateful for the skill. But I don’t remember thinking how useful it would be to worry. And I’m really good at worrying. I worry about what time it is, if I’m going to be late, if someone else is going to be late, if I’m dressed appropriately for the occasion, if my heel will break, if I have enough cash, if I’ll get lost, if the car will break down, if the train will crash, if [my husband] will get home safely, that someone I know will die today… you get the idea. Such thoughts meander through my mind most days. They used to be at 70 to 80 per cent volume, now they’re at five to 10 per cent. Big relief. And when I’m stressed about something – like going to the dentist, getting on a plane, running a workshop – the volume increases slightly. I’ve developed all kinds of techniques to manage these intrusive thoughts over the years, and the most useful has been dropping into the body, breathing, feeling the ground underneath my feet and looking to the sky to get some perspective.
What else do I practise? I admit, a variety of useful and less useful things. Perhaps most importantly, I practise staying sober every single day. I take care of my mental and emotional health as best I can, engaging in meditation, self-care and self-compassion, creative and spiritual pursuits, exercise, learning, being in the natural landscape, exploring new things and maintaining important relationships. And I also do things that don’t serve me – I catch myself worrying or getting stressed, eating for solace rather than hunger, watching trash TV, wasting time without the benefit of being relaxed, wandering to social media without need, isolating or withdrawing. That’s why I don’t use the word ‘perfect’. Perfect is an impossible goal. Realising that helps me to accept my fallible, flawed human self, deeply imperfect yet fabulous in that imperfection. And knowing practice makes permanent helps to remind me to move towards the things that serve and increasingly away from the things that don’t.
Being a psychotherapist
The Clare welcoming Bill into her therapy practice in 1999 didn’t know all this yet. She was 11 years sober, excited to be in her first year of training at Strozzi Institute, regularly commuting the four-hour drive to Petaluma. In some ways we were both on the brink of powerful change. I was beginning the next chapter of my personal and professional development with Strozzi; Bill was committing to sustained and quality sobriety. Perhaps both being in this vulnerable state of flux made a difference? I believe our mutual courage influenced the work – deepening it – allowing both subtle and significant change to unfold. Perhaps breaking down my own barriers in Strozzi’s somatic work enabled Bill to do the same? Undoubtedly my emerging confidence and embodiment as a sober practitioner contributed massively to what we could produce together.
I strongly believe practitioners can only take their clients where they have been themselves. If I’m scared of my own anger, how can I facilitate a client getting in touch with and processing theirs? If I’m overly contained (tight and held, impeding impulses to be in movement or expression), then I’m likely to pass on both that skill and an unconscious expectation for others to be equally contained. I wax lyrical about the work at Strozzi Institute because, without a somatic approach to my own development, I wouldn’t have been able to facilitate transformation for so many clients over the last decade. As I let my own light shine, so Bill was given permission to embrace his inherent goodness.
Love and change
Love changes us; lack of love changes us – somehow, even before all the neuroscience research offered proof, we instinctively know this to be so.
I’ve always known the single most significant element shaping my life has been the lack of love I experienced growing up. Neither parent was blessed with natural abilities in that department, both tending towards the narcissistic. Fortunately, there were other benign and loving influences in the environment around me. However, the result has been not just a requirement but a deep need for the kind of reparative attention denied at the outset. After a false start with my college therapist, the Freudian blank-screen one, I’m grateful for other practitioners rooted in presence and healing.
In recent years I have been moving deeper into the inquiry of [the mind-body practice] Focusing, becoming certified as a practitioner in 2018. I’ve learned so much about how to do it, how to be it, witnessing clients change. And I have marvelled at this new possibility: without early experience of limbic resonance, I’ve nevertheless developed competence to provide a safe space for others to step into and experience healing. I don’t say this to brag, but to acknowledge that both the client and the practitioner are changed.
In a 1981 interview, [the American philosopher and founder of Focusing practice], Eugene Gendlin, said:
‘We just really became much more human and I’m quite sure, I wrote that somewhere, that we changed, there is no question about [it]. Now whether the patients changed, we needed to do a lot of research to establish. But we certainly changed.’5
He’s describing a time when, between 1958 and 1963, he was the research director of the Wisconsin study on client-centred therapy with schizophrenics. He talks about becoming more real as a person in the face of those who sensed others’ reactions more quickly than most; he talks about becoming looser and giving up on formalities, in the way we have to when working with children. There’s a requirement for something inherently more real, immediate, an unavoidable call to authenticity and integrity: that my outsides reflect my insides; that I’m telling the truth.
Why is this so important? It’s important to me because acknowledging that love has a role to play in my work transforms how I show up, the kind of supportive supervision I need, the essential nature of continuing to do my own work and engage in self-care. I can’t show up to a client session sleep-deprived, hurried, harried and late, discombobulated and discontent and expect to be present in the way they need me to be. I’m reminded of a time when I turned up for therapy with a therapist with whom I was engaged in long-term reparative work. She’d had a significant surgery and, in my opinion, returned to work too soon. She looked pale and frail and for the first time in our years together, I caught her apparently nodding off. In that moment, I had no ability to say anything, yet the experience was wounding. I’m guessing a child-part felt rejected and unloved when usually she felt love and acceptance. It’s an extreme example, yet somehow really highlights the value of being at the other end of the scale – open, available, real, connected.
Few places in clinical literature use the word love. Even when we all know it’s not sexual love but agape, the word is so loaded and open to misinterpretation that most clinicians simply avoid using it at all.
One exception is by Dr Neil Friedman in his book, Focusing-Oriented Therapy:6 ‘Gendlin says that the therapist-client relationship is of first importance, but I do not think that the word ‘love’ appears in his index. [I just checked. It doesn’t]…The therapist needs to cherish, to prize, to love the client. The client needs to feel loved. Not, of course, in the romantic sense. I am talking agape here, not eros.’
I checked as well and concur with Neil; the web as yet reveals no mention by Gendlin of love in this context. He continues:
‘Of course, seldom do we find the therapist who can live up to such an ideal. I do not. Not by a long shot. I can come to love most clients (‘the person in there’). It is better to turn some people away… Maybe love is not enough… but it sure goes a long way.’6
I found Neil’s writing refreshing. Vulnerable, revealing, authentic – it was easy to imagine him as a shaky being7 with his clients. I appreciate him saying, ‘It is better to turn some people away’ and for that very reason I offer ‘chemistry’ sessions to potential new clients to get a felt sense of who they are and whether we are a good fit. If I’m honest, a part is checking to see if I can love the person in there. Some are easier than others. Sometimes a client will be better served by someone else. For as Neil concludes: ‘[therapy] needs to be undertaken in a spirit of unconditional love for “the person in there”.’6
It was easier for me to love some clients, or at least their loveable parts, than to love others. I worked with many clients over the years in the Bay Area, and some stand out. They are memorable for one reason: there was love in the room. In the synergy we experienced together, love suffused the space between us. I’ve come to believe love opens the way for an intangible, hard-to-describe, transformative process. What to call this? Perhaps it’s spirit, or grace, or intuition; for some it will be closer to God and religion. Whatever the right words are for you, pausing and opening the space for something greater to emerge underpins transformation.
Love and spirit
Revisiting the bodywork session with Bill all those years ago, it’s clear that something to do with spirit, spiritual energy or spiritual presence was at work in the room. While part of me feels uncomfortable with the language, I have a sense there’s something absolutely essential about finding a way to talk about it. I share without desire to persuade anyone it’s an essential element. For some it may well be, for others perhaps not.
Let’s be clear – my own experiences of whatever-this-is that’s so hard to describe is fleeting at best, not exactly an everyday occurrence, yet when whatever-this-is becomes present, it’s remarkable. As with Bill, something was transformed and we began to find our way through the calamity, out to the other side where hope lived. We did it together, even though he was the initiator and source of the intervention. And some would say he was guided by something else – his belief in God and the divine, a guardian angel, a sense of a power greater than him, or us, guiding him somewhere safe beyond the swamp. My experience that day remains unique, although I’ve had some other remarkable moments over the years. Moments I don’t know how to create deliberately: they come when they come and they don’t when they don’t – like love, sometimes there it is and other times, it's simply absent.
[These] moments have come randomly, infrequently and disappear as fast as they arrived. What they have in common is a sense of words coming out of my mouth that aren’t mine, as if I’m channelling some wisdom I don’t own – but only in retrospect. In the moment of delivery, I’m simply saying what needs to be said. There’s a clarity that no other words will do, these are perfect for the job, they are not mine, they emanate from some greater source than my intellect and experience. As if I’ve really, truly, utterly got my Self out of the way and become open to something else guiding. In these moments I don’t feel like a shaky being, rather a conduit for the God of my understanding, or perhaps my client’s. I wish I could remember an example but almost by definition, they only exist in the moment and are soon washed away, leaving only a trace, like the eddy around a seashell in the sand as the tide recedes.
Decades into sobriety and my professional practice as a psychotherapist, I have come to believe that who I am and therefore what I embody is what matters. My toolkit is well equipped. Yet getting out of the way of our natural tendency to heal – providing a nurturing, safe space, sometimes a guiding hand – that’s what best facilitates evolution. While I know I made a difference to Bill, there are times when part of me wishes I’d been able to bring him this assuredness. And we each did our best.
Clare Myatt has been specialising in trauma-shame-addiction since her California licensure as a marriage and family therapist in 1995. In 2000 she became one of Strozzi Institute’s first certified Master Somatic Coaches, weaving together her therapeutic-coaching style in the decades since. Known for her ability to create a safe space, she sees clients in Birmingham, London and internationally via the web.
This edited extract is taken from Clare’s new book, Love & Imperfection: A Therapist’s Story (Coaching International, 2019), and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author and publisher.
1 Strozzi-Heckler R. Anatomy of change: a way to move through life’s transitions. London: North Atlantic Books; 1997.
2 Although frequently credited to an anonymous Navy Seal, this quote is originally attributed to the Greek lyrical poet, Archilocus.
3 Schmidt R, Lee T. Motor control and learning: a behavioral emphasis. In Kelliher J, Julia C, Shanteau N. Access to power: a radical approach for changing your life. Martha’s Vineyard, MA: Spring Street Press; 2014 (chapter 11).
4 Leonard G. Mastery: the keys to success and long-term fulfillment. London: Penguin; 1991.
5 Gendlin ET, Lietaer G. On client-centered and experiential psychotherapy: an interview with Eugene Gendlin. In Minsel WR, Herff W (eds). Research on psychotherapeutic approaches. Proceedings of the 1st European conference on psychotherapy research, Trier, 1981; (2): 77–104. Frankfurt/Bern: Peter Lang; 1981.
6 Friedman N. Focusing-oriented therapy. Bloomington, IN; iUniverse; 2007.
7 Gendlin ET. The small steps of the therapy process: how they come and how to help them come. In Lietaer G, Rombauts J, Van Balen R (eds). Client-centered and experiential psychotherapy in the nineties. Leuven, Leuven University Press; 1990 (pp205-22).