Five Layers Alive - In Client Work
Reflecting on the layers in client work
We shared some examples from our client work with each other as we grappled with this piece of theory. We came to notice that spending time in the implosive state of not-knowing is what enables something to shift in explosion. The implosion feels like a death, and so of course we naturally want to escape it, either by cycling back to the familiar impasse, or leaping into premature explosion which has a pseudo air about it – the anger or the tears that the client isn’t really connecting with. Can we just stay with the mess, the confusion, the fixed patterns, but not get caught up in them? If we find a way to stay with what is incredibly painful and distressing, we know that doing this in relationship enables something different to happen. It’s a big ask - finding a way to stay with what our client finds unbearable, and maybe we do too.
We noticed there are different levels and types of explosion. We mentioned a few examples of ‘natural explosions’, where something comes to the surface, breaking through the role layer, but nothing fundamental has shifted in the internal landscape. Perhaps these are like small thunderstorms, clearing the air and bringing in some freshness.
Next there are explosions which happen as a natural progression, where the time is right and there is enough support in place to prepare for taking the next step. All of our experiential pieces were natural steps that had been worked towards over time. Perhaps these explosions are like the knocking down of a jenga tower. Removing that last piece means the structure collapses, ready to be rebuilt for the next round in a new way. These explosions become the building blocks for deeper and more lasting change.
Some of the work with 5 layers brings us to the edge of the client’s window of tolerance, as with Dawn’s work with trauma where we arrived at the edge of dissociation and paused to take stock and deepen relational support. This raised the question: could dissociation be a form of unsupported implosion? In another example from Ani on working with guilt and anger, resonance or missing resonance gives us a clue to what is being skipped over in implosion. These experiences are laying the groundwork and support for being able to move towards and stay with the heaviness of implosion.
Natural explosions with clients
Some types of explosion happen naturally during sessions. How many times have you been with a client who normally appears composed, who becomes tearful and says, “Where did that come from? I had no idea I felt like that.” The tears, the authentic feeling has broken through to the surface through the authentic contact and support felt in the therapeutic relationship.
Another natural explosion occurs when therapist and client explode into laughter. Sometimes in the midst of very serious and deep work, there can also be a connection with humour – sometimes black humour. This is not the same as deflective humour; in fact it is the opposite. By taking a risk to say something absurd or shocking (when deemed appropriate), the resulting explosion of unexpected laughter draws us closer together in authentic contact.
And this example from everyday life:
Walking along a narrow footpath through a field. A man and woman come from the opposite direction towards me. My thoughts are, “I wonder at what point I should step aside to make room? When is the polite moment to do so?” (Conventional, British courtesy – a role)
As he gets closer he says, “Who’s going to give way then?” We play around, jumping to one side and back again to the path. We laugh, the ice is broken. I think to myself, “The world could use more of this humour.”
Dawn - 5 Layers linked with trauma
I have a client who feels a strong pull to revisit the traumatic experience that she labels as ‘the wasteground’. She describes it as like wanting to pull off a scab. Her relational pattern was and is to have been left alone in her distress, and her way of coping is to rush to ‘get her head around it’ so that she feels safe again. She wants to revisit the wasteground to get her head around it.
This rush to make meaning is a false way of navigating the layers. It is the opposite of staying with the embodied experience of each layer. I have to keep slowing her down so that I can stay grounded and embodied, and as I share this need with her, she comes to realise that the way through for her will be through an embodied experience.
It feels important for us to pedal back to the impasse, to hang out for awhile in order to experience this layer in relationship. She is so used to working it out on her own that I need to insert myself in the process with affirmative statements like, “I don’t want you to be alone in this,” and “”I’m here, on your side.” I can see these statements landing with impact, as her face softens, eyes moisten, and breathing deepens. This support is making it into a joint venture.
She described the potential for dissociation as, “The dark place of nothingness, no one there, I just disappear.” I said “I’m not going to let you disappear.” This was a relational breakthrough to authenticity. I could see and feel that she was letting in the support, and afterwards our words confirmed this. If she goes to the dark place on her own, it will likely result in dissociation. Could it be that dissociation is a form of unsupported implosion? But in relationship this has the potential to be something different?
Dawn - Attunement and attachment in client work
Here’s an example of a tricky impasse, where any time I bring awareness to what’s happening, my client experiences great anxiety and the pressure to ‘do something’, to give a response, an explanation.
We both circled around this dynamic for some weeks, noticing and experiencing, and eventually I found some words to describe the dynamic
Dawn: Whatever I say brings up anxiety and pressure – makes you feel you have to work hard. Something’s being repeated here, and I guess I also am working too hard.
Client: When you ask “what do you need?” I feel I have to do something. I don’t know the answer and now I have to think. I just want you to listen and to care.
The energy shifted between us noticeably when I heard those words. I stopped noticing and asking – all those ways of being a therapist – playing a role. I hadn’t realised I was playing a role until this brief exchange, where my client taught me how to just be with her.
Now she showed me more of what lay beneath her role – young, sensitive, vulnerable. She dropped her habitual nervous twitch, her sudden anxious looks. Underneath was something fragile and delicate. How could I meet her there? Words would be far too clumsy, and somehow, even just looking felt too strong and invasive. She was inviting something much softer in me, and I could only find my softer gaze by following her lead. She was teaching me about attunement.
After some time hanging out together in this new energy she was able to say “I’m doing nothing, and I’m not anxious.” I said, “Let’s NOT figure that out.” She smiled shyly, and looked away. Explosion is too harsh a word for what happened, and was this even about implosion/ explosion? We definitely dropped beneath the roles and shifted into relational authenticity.
My client was able to follow this up with the following request, a beautiful description of the qualities of attunement:
What I would like more of
Warmth I get you (understanding)
Patience I hear you (listening)
Softness (vs hard work) Everything is well (assurance)
Gentleness I am here/ I have your back (grounding)
Safety (give her space!) You are doing very well (affirmation)
I care about you
I feel x when you say ....
I notice...(with space, not – I wonder why you do that = explain)
Ani: Experience with client; Feelings of impasse while dealing with guilt and anger.
He looks at me and has this blurry face, he remains calm but his body is clearly frozen.
I get this feeling that I'm running and crash hard into the wall hitting my forehead. I try to be aware of everything in our field and ask myself is it me, who is not familiar with the emotions here & now? Or is he bringing so much stuckness that I feel it resonate?
He starts to talk and tells me one of his stories – a sudden intense experience of anger. When I hear it, the content seems to me intense and strong but the way he speaks about it is so emotionless and closed. I ask him: “How do you feel, when you tell me this story?” And he answers: “I’m fine; just have the feeling that I am telling you the story of another person.”
It’s the emptiness of impasse - the wall he’s crushing. He doesn’t experience these emotions, so he doesn’t know how to deal with them.
As he tells me, he has occasional outbursts of anger or sadness that leave him very surprised - why and how it is happening.
Now, as I am going through the layers, I start to feel that out of impasse he suddenly jumps to explosion, or somehow an imitation of explosion, and he just skips the implosion.
Is it the implosion part that really helps us to stay with emptiness, giving ourselves the space to reflect and get some choices? Even though it feels pressing and overwhelming from time to time?
Implosion could be the bridge between, representing what I feel, what kind of feelings I can recognize in me, which might become a base for safe explosion.
Safe explosion... imitation of explosion – do they make sense?
Karen - Explosion behind the explosive
I have a client who has been very emotional and expressive since the outset, however, I experience this something like a smokescreen as when I try to move towards her experience she doesn’t want me or her to go any where near it. It’s become a role, and she expects me to find it too much and leave her. I don’t do that and instead want to come closer, and she doesn’t know what to do with it. All the while, I am on the edge of my window of tolerance in my capacity to be with so much disturbance. I have work to do to resource myself to stay.
As I try and stay there, over a long time, the distress lessens, she gets quiet, she gets confused, she starts wondering about stuff, her lip quivers like she might cry, but a different type of crying. She doesn’t want to. She starts to shame herself, feels ‘stupid and pathetic’. Over time, cycling between this and the other type of expressing. And then, something like giving up, deeply stuck, much not knowing, something else needs to happen, implosion. She asks for my thoughts…..wow...I am invited in. I say some stuff I’ve said over the years about what I understand and notice of what’s happening. And then, GRIEF. Flowing. The pain of not having had the love she so longed for. Explosion. And surrender into loss. Then, a new sense of solidity, clarity and freshness.
Then there are explosions like deep excavations, where the foundations are so entrenched that they are held onto for dear life. We notice that this landscape can involve leaping over implosion into a sort of pseudo-explosion, and it’s easy to get diverted by this. Karen described an example where explosive distress was the norm and shows a different way of just staying with and not getting drawn in, perhaps taking the therapist to the edge of her window of tolerance. Perhaps these explosions are like dynamite applied to the very foundations, resulting in reconfiguration at a deep level.
Sometimes the explosion is so subtle and gentle that it is more apt to call it a surrendering, a melting, or a softening. Dawn had experience of this in her attunement work with a client, which had this flavour of softening through the layers in order to move beyond impasse.