For the last ten years my colleague Sara Fliess and I have worked with groups of marginalized women. Last year we proposed a project to Madre Tierra (Mother Earth), an NGO, that works in housing projects for homeless people at Moreno, one of the poorest areas of Greater Buenos Aires. Madre Tierra hired us for ten months to work with women and children at risk, because of domestic violence, at two barrios. The project I describe here is a unique one where we integrate Focusing with the Capacitar1 healing techniques for victims of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). We worked from August 2003 to May 2004 as a visiting team. Unfortunately, funding was not renewed, so we continue as volunteers every other week at the Community Center. We provide the art material (music, papers, crayons and clay).
The women and their children eat their meals in community dining rooms. Their environment is saturated with an atmosphere of violence that has penetrated the social framework in our country. High levels of unemployment lead to frustration and loss of self-esteem, since no matter how hard people try to find a way to feed their families, they are unable to do so. More than 90% of the women in this project are or have been victims of domestic violence. To add to the problems, a health care system that depends on a poor State is not able to render the services required by a population victimized by below-poverty levels of life.
We decided to create a space where women could feel safe, where they could
share their life-stories and feel unconditionally accepted. We wanted to integrate
them into a framework of new relationships—a different way of relating
to their own bodies and to their fellow participants, and then in their other
The first stage was devoted to “Recovering the awareness of their own bodies.” In sharing their life-stories, the women referred to memories of experiences felt or suffered on their own bodies as if they were split or had numbed the traumatic memories as well as any awareness of their need to play, to feel pleasure, and to contact whatever their bodies needed. I sometimes felt that these women had been “mutilated,” since they had exiled parts of their lives and went on with their ordinary lives as if nothing had happened. We therefore devoted time during our weekly meetings to bringing their attention to their bodies.
Description of the process:
- We tried to consolidate group relationships fostering trust, empathic listening, congruency, and unconditional acceptance of one another’s lives. The participants could relate their traumatic stories in the confidence that they would not be judged or criticized.
- We started our meetings with body-work (Tai Chi) to help them bring awareness into their bodies, experience their wholeness, and recover their capacity to relate with the Earth and the Cosmos, and with their capacity to play, to feel pleasure, to move, bringing forth the awareness of being alive.
- We worked with Protocols of Acupression, which help to relieve emotions through energy meridians.
- Many of the women had previously experienced abuse and ill treatment and expressed fear at the prospect of being touched. To restore confidence in body contact, we learned simple massage techniques.
- During the first weeks of the process we devoted our time to sharing “never told before” stories of their lives.
- After this first period of sharing through talk, tears, and spontaneous gestures, we considered the group was ready to step into the process of “going inside.” We then started the stage of Group Focusing.
- We used the Focusing techniques described by Ann Weiser Cornell and Barbara McGavin to guide attention into their bodies, emphasizing awareness of how the body felt. Once the felt sense was formed, and they had established a way of connecting with it, we invited them to ask it, ”What does it (doesn’t it) want for you?” We then invited them to symbolize the answer in a “language of color and shape,” suggesting that they use color or another form of expression (e.g., modeling in clay) to capture the quality of its response. We emphasized that the point was not to demonstrate artistic skills, but to express ones felt sense.
- We devoted a good amount of time to this process of coming in and out of the inner space so they could mold the clay to express the felt sense together with the transformations which take place when the felt sense feels acknowledged, which then leads to its unfolding and evolution.
- Finally we devoted some minutes to ending the process, inviting the women to honor the experience, thank the body for what it allowed them to experience, and promise that they would return to pay attention to it again in the future.
- We then invited the group to share their experiences from the drawing or modeling. Every time, we reminded them to check inside to see how much and what they were ready to share in the circle, since it is important that each one decides whether she wants to share with the group at all.
- Finally, the participants were offered brief individual sessions. In this environment of Focusing-Oriented Therapy, I also use EMDR. I find that the integrated approach of these “doors of access” to the traumatic core favors a dynamic within the process that has proved amazing.
Cristina shared with me how Focusing has changed her life. First, she said that Focusing has been an easy shortcut to self-knowledge. She said that she could dive into the Focusing process in a natural way, without any effort, “as an old shoe, so comfortable to walk with.” Through Focusing, she has learned a new way to listen and relate with some difficult parts of herself, and now she is trying to do the same when she relates with her family and friends. Cristina is astonished at how Focusing has helped her to modify her violent behavior toward her children.
The great contribution of Focusing is the fact that it may be taught. We intend to begin the next stage of the group process teaching Gendlin’s steps. Our purpose is to gradually achieve partnerships among the members of the group. We also hope that these women may finally own Focusing as a way of life to change old relationship patterns into new ones which may overcome their violent ways of relating with their environment. Focusing empowers these marginal women, as they acknowledge in themselves a great strength to change their lives and their environment. Their capacity to say “I” forms. At this depth they get in contact with their most profound truth, and they recover their genuine freedom. We observe how their discernment becomes clear as their capacity for bodily sensing what they want and what they don’t want grows.
Focusing offers healing to women who could otherwise never have access to expensive psychotherapies in a sadly impoverished country. It is moving to observe the easy way in which these women have access to information coming from their bodies. They themselves are amazed when they realize the enormous richness held in their bodies, and all the strength they find to be able to say NO!—to name what they want, or perhaps to acknowledge that which they have exiled for years and are only now able to recognize as part of their lives.
Susana Díaz, M.D. from Universidad Nacional de la Plata, with a degree in Clinical Psychology from Universidad Católica Argentina, and a Masters degree in Spirituality from Holy Names College, Oakland, California.
1 CAPACITAR is a non profit organization founded and directed by Patricia Mathes Cane that works with Third World populations that are victims of PTSD (for more information see www.capacitar.org).