Embodied object relations in psychotherapy

In this article, I will describe how the experience of squeezing a stress ball (an actual object) evoked intense feelings about relationships for a client (object relations).

one-minute mindfulness exercise

This took place within the context of exploring embodied experience through mindful pauses with this client. Essentially, squeezing a stress ball and paying attention to the embodied experience, as a way of shifting from mindless talk to mindful inner connection.

The client, “C”, had previously worked with embodied mindful pauses in sessions for several weeks. He had come to like it for (1) the stress-relieving aspect of shifting focus and paying attention to the sensation of squeezing the ball, as well as (2) the pleasant surprise of experiencing a different perspective on things after such a short break. I had given him a ball in case he wanted to use it in the course of his day (mostly at work), and he was bringing that ball with him to sessions.

In the session described here, after an embodied mindful pause early in the session, “C” talks about the experience of squeezing the ball during that episode. He says that, at first, it feels good, then it feels bad. More specifically, he realizes that squeezing the ball hard enough to crush it is an impossible task, and it brings him to low energy, a sense of despair. He relates this to “learned helplessness”: If he is aggressive, and seems to win, it is only temporary, he is defeated in the end.

His mentioning “learned helplessness” is not new. However, something feels fresh and new: His relating the concept to the direct experience of “crushing the ball”, here and now, and his experience of defeat following the experience of his intentionality in wanting to “crush”.

[Note: A few sessions before this one, “C” had actually crushed (yes, destroyed) another ball, which was surprising because it was a stress ball, supposedly meant to withstand the pressure of being squeezed very hard, repeatedly. He had not meant to destroy it, and was simply squeezing very hard, harder than other people, but not so hard that it looked to me that there was any danger of the ball being damaged. At the time, we simply laughed off the experience of the ball being destroyed, and I gave him another ball, a rubber one, which appears to be indestructible. We did not at that time deal with the experience of destroying the first ball, whether it was just a surprise, relatively neutral in terms of emotions, as it appeared to be at the time… or whether it may have been a positive or negative experience.]

Back to the flow of this specific session. Based on his comment, it dawns on me that squeezing the ball is not just a neutral experience for “C”. It brings up the meaning that he is in relationship with an “object” that he is attempting to crush.

“C” is aware that this is not just about holding the ball, and we continue to explore what this feels like. I notice myself wanting to “teach” him experientially the difference between an abstract metaphor and meaning-making from a lived experience. This may be in reaction to his referring to what has been happening as “a metaphor”, a couple of times already, and it is still early in the session.

At this point, my own bias is to steer him away from interpreting what happens, and to shift his attention to the experience itself, including his sensations as he holds and grips the ball. In other words, I would like to steer him toward paying attention to experiencing, and whatever felt meaning arises from staying with the experience, as opposed to processing the experience in abstract terms (a metaphor), i.e. with more distance from the experience itself.

So, in this session, I clearly have a teaching agenda (for better or worse), as opposed to just following the client where he happens to be. Obviously, this session flows differently from one in which I focus on following the client wherever the client is.

I remind him, several times as we keep exploring holding the ball, that the point is not the result, what is happening to the ball, whether it is crushed or not. This is an opportunity for him to feel the sensation of holding tight and squeezing. At some point, I say something like: “The ball functions as a sort of feedback mechanism that gives your body a sense of what it’s like to hold tight, to feel the strength that you are using”. The simple fact that I feel a need to keep restating this framework shows that it’s not where he’s at. For better or worse, I’m not just following him where he is, but trying to steer him toward another possible dimension of his experience.

As we keep exploring, I also notice that his body looks very rigid when he squeezes: The harder he squeezes, the more rigid. I encourage him to feel whether there is movement in his body, and to follow this movement if he notices that the arms, or the rest of his body, may want to move.

This time, when he squeezes the ball, he moves his body, but not in the way I had expected: He uses 2 hands to squeeze the ball, he puts the ball on the floor and weighs on it with all his body. His description: “There are a lot of other ways to crush it”.

I notice the opening, the creativity and the sense of glee, of playfulness (“There are a lot of other ways to crush it”). I also notice how he is still focused on crushing the ball. And he is still talking in terms of “metaphor”: crushing the ball, he says, is a “metaphor” (which feels clearly different from what I’m trying to steer him toward: an experience).

Again, for better or worse, I am not just following him where he is, but being more directive. I don’t mean “directive” in a bossy way: In fact, it feels like my comments are a spontaneous and direct engagement that reflects the mood of playful curiosity, the sense of both of us being engaged in a joint adventure of discovery, that I feel between us. I mean “directive” as opposed to simply following him where he is, and being more personally engaged in shaping what happens.

So I get even more explicit. I bring back the notion of “feedback” that seemed to have had some traction with him. I compare using the ball to a bio-feedback tool of sorts, a mirror of sorts, which reflects back the sensation of squeezing, of having strength, of exercising strength, in a way that he can be more aware of it.

Now, as he squeezes, he is paying more attention to the sensation in his arm. He notices the shaking. Clearly, this results from the intensity with which he is squeezing.

Again, I intervene, this time to suggest that he explore a different way of holding the ball as a way of seeing what happens when he does things differently. Specifically, i am suggesting that he try holding the ball as he would hold a hammer: tightly enough that he has a solid grip on it, but not so tight that it hampers the hammering.

These instructions, coupled with the direct reference to holding a hammer or a sword, lead him to hold the ball with a firm grip and to move his arm forcefully. We describe this as the experience of using his aggression to get things done, e.g. being able to make a path through the jungle with a machete as opposed to being blocked by the vegetation that is in the way.

As I describe the session here, my goal is not at all to dwell on how “C” deals with assertiveness and aggression. I am using this as an example of the process of exploring embodied experience with embodied mindful pauses with a stress ball. I am trying to give a sense of the rich possibilities that this can open up, and a sense of how active and creative a process this can be, as decision points keep cropping up in terms what to do next.