Touch can communicate so much. When a baby, who cannot understand speech, is held and cuddled in calming arms, its system begins to slow down and match the calm rhythms of the caretaker. The touch of a lover can be electrifying. Touching a friend who is grieving can help them release some of the grief; holding them can give them the support they need to let it go. When a child is afraid, he is comforted by an adult’s hand or hug. When we shake hands of someone we’re first meeting, we can feel from their handshake what they want to communicate: a limp handshake implies daintiness, shyness or coyness; an overly firm handshake initiates a dominance game; a warm clasp for a few seconds longer than usual can make you feel the person is truly pleased to meet you. In extreme circumstances, everything you need to know can be expressed with a touch: a slap, a kiss, a pull by the arm, a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder.
In Rubenfeld Synergy, touch is an essential part of the work. Synergists often talk about gentle touch. But we use touch in many ways. The lightness of a butterfly landing on a client’s feet in first contact is one type. But we may also cradle a client’s head or shoulder or leg. We may “noodle” with our fingers in the muscle of a shoulder, offer firm, smooth contact as we travel down a leg or arm, provide full support for a hip or lower back, and even squeeze a person’s feet or hands when they need grounding in a difficult emotion.
The most important commonality in all of these touches is safety. Some clients come to us with a history of physical or sexual abuse. Some may have sensory integration problems, or, like many of program head Joe Weldon’s clients, multiple sclerosis or other neurological issues. Touch, for all of these cases, is a complicated issue.
The first and most powerful concern of the Synergist is to make touch safe for whatever client he or she is seeing. If it is not possible at first to make the touch safe, then the Synergist must work with the client in chairs for a while, helping the client get in tune with his or her own body in a different way. I have already seen a few clients where the most that is possible, at least in the beginning, is to have them place their hands on their own bodies, to learn how to comfort themselves, tune into themselves, and hear the messages that their bodies have for them without my hands becoming involved.
One client I saw in my trainee years kept becoming sexually aroused with the touch. He was embarrassed by this, but honest about it. I simply let him know that such arousal was normal, especially because there is generally so little outlet for men to be touched, as adults, in a non-sexual way. Over time he revealed that he’d been abused as a teenager, and because I was in training and not yet certified as a Synergist, we stopped the sessions and he entered therapy. Even here, though, the safety of my touch proved a powerful tool for healing: it was through his responses and my acceptance of them that he remembered the abuse, realized what was happening, and made the connection that he needed further help. He continues to contact me on occasion, reporting on the progress of his healing and considering starting sessions again.
Touch, as that example and many others show, can be a very tricky business when dealing with matters of mental or emotional health. Part of what makes RSM unique is the combination of talk and touch: psychotherapy in most of its current forms expressly forbids any kind of touch, and most bodyworkers are not trained to deal with emotional content. There are good reasons for this: the abuses that were so prevalent in the early part of the history of psychoanalysis, and the boundary-smashing behavior that reached its apex in the 60s when Ilana was training with Fritz Perls, have meant that touch, with all of its possibilities for abuse, has been largely banished from talk therapy.
Yet the power of touch is such that, used safely, it can provide insights, emotional shifts, and healing with great speed and efficacy. If you think of the moments of greatest emotion and power, there are generally no words. Touch is what does the communicating. Touch can teach us to listen more closely, feel more deeply, let the hamster-wheel of our minds shut off for a moment, and get us to the truth of something.
What’s wonderful, of course, is that we also have our words available to us in RSM. Our clients can tell us when something feels wrong. They can describe what the touch feels like or evokes. The Synergist can ask questions, affirm and re-affirm consent for each touch if necessary, and can help support the client with both touch and words to stay with something that is difficult, or to retreat from something too difficult to manage in the moment.
Touch, though, goes straight to the truth of the body, and that makes it perhaps the most powerful communication tool available.