Workshop Review: Somatic Countertransference with Wilma Millar

Reviewed by Josephine Fitzgibbon and Michael Joyce

This workshop took place in the Clarion Hotel at IFSC, Dublin. It was attended by 20 psychotherapists. Wilma Millar is a registered Body Integrative and Psychodynamic psychotherapist who divides her time between a private practice in Belfast and a trainer / supervisor role at DBS.

We hope the following conversation gives a good flavour of the day.

Michael: As a facilitator myself, I could empathise with Wilma’s comment at the beginning, about her apprehension being in front of the group. “ Shot at dawn “ was the phrase she used to describe how she felt!

Josephine: Yes, that remark conveyed a sense of us being on the journey together, a wounded and searching humanity, and throughout the day this was a recurring theme – that, although as therapists we have responsibility for the welfare of our clients, we also need to acknowledge our own fears, shadow and unfinished business.

Michael: I liked the way she emphasised that at unconscious levels we are always triggering one another and that so much of this happens at body level. As therapists, our task is to be aware of our body sensations, impulses and responses and to use these as raw material for the work. And the work isn’t just for the client. There is a constant invitation to us as therapists to examine what is deeply patterned in ourselves. “Habitual and persistent ways of being are already marked in our bodies” was the phrase she used.

Josephine: And these unconscious states are always seeking relationship and this is true for the therapist as well as for the client.

Michael: So a good question to be holding is: are my interventions wedded to my habitual way of being or am I allowing my breath and my awareness to draw me out of my rigidity?

Josephine: We need to work on the edge between risk and safety. Wilma spoke of our tendency to go too quickly towards self-regulation, meaning a false sense of comfort and equilibrium which can keep the client and ourselves in an unhealthy relationship where no growth is possible. It reminds me of a concept in Biodynamic Psychotherapy / Massage. We speak of a client being in a place of neurotic equilibrium and we work towards disturbing that. While self-regulation is the goal, it has to be at a level that challenges the repetition of old patterns and brings us into our primary personality and the core energetic flow in our bodies.

Michael: Attunement to our bodies is central to all relationships, including the therapeutic relationship. We need to be mindful of the amount of energy we use to keep ourselves out of awareness and avoiding, and how that can manifest in our musculature/armouring. On the one hand, this armouring is necessary to contain overwhelming emotion; on the other, it can keep us constrained and frozen. The challenge is to stay sufficiently connected and attuned in order to allow what has become frozen to begin to melt. And that means trusting our capacity to push out the edges of our patterned ways of being and relating.

Josephine: Yes, we did a very interesting and insightful exercise around that. It involved standing opposite a partner for fifteen minutes in silence, each being both therapist and client to the other. We were invited to be aware of what aspect of the other’s bodymind we were most drawn to in the interaction. We then made an intervention internally based on that intuition. Afterwards, we sat and discussed our experiences with our partner. Many people reported an uncanny veracity about their intuition and possible intervention. The exercise served to highlight both the importance of trusting our first instinct and our tendency to override or ignore this through well-practiced rationalisation and perhaps the fear of risk.

We found the workshop to be both affirming and challenging. We were reminded again of our ability to tap into the unconscious material that is part and parcel of the therapeutic process. But we were also challenged to be aware of and to work with what is disavowed in ourselves as well as in our clients. It can be too easy to objectify the client but we are called to an inter-subjective way of relating that requires creativity and spontaneity.

Josephine Fitzgibbon is a biodynamic and integrative psychotherapist and has a private practice in Ballyheigue, Co. Kerry and Abbeyfeale, Co. Limerick.

Michael Joyce is a biodynamic and integrative psychotherapist and group facilitator based in Ballyheigue, Co.Kerry.