By Nancy Eichhorn, PhD
Post-Modern Challenges to Embodiment and Human Vitality: A View From The Street and The Therapy Room
with Gustl Marlock
Gustl began his talk at the day long conference honoring The Handbook of Body Psychotherapy and Somatic Psychology with a story about how the book initially came to be.
In 2001, he said, “Halko and I were angry about body psychotherapy in Germany, about what was happening with the regulation of psychotherapy. It was fixed by law to be specialized like medical doctors. It was good for people who practice to get access to insurance money but all the humanistic approaches were out.” The new laws supported psychoanalysis, cognitive behavioral therapy, and psychodynamic therapy, and these practices suddenly claimed the body as if they developed the work, he said.
“We’ve been denigrated for 30 years and now they act like it’s their territory, not mentioning the body psychotherapy tradition. We wanted to show the history. We thought it would be 400 pages, that it would go fast. It took us five years, most of our free time was spent with it. Our intention was to show a long tradition, a diverse field, not a mono culture but a very diverse field, presented by lots of people.”
It was quite successful in Germany (the Second edition sold out) and had a positive impact. Interest in an English version arose. Gustl shared that he and Halko couldn’t do it alone with their language capacity—English is their second language. They didn’t feel they could adequately judge the translations in terms of quality—were they good or not? They needed more English authors to contribute to the book, and to help with translations. They invited Courtenay Young and Michael Soth to join them, who, Gustl said, did most of the editing work.
“We hope it helps to create awareness that the field exists out of many people who have different perspectives, that it creates awareness that other people are around. Our intention was to have more dialogue within our community. It helped in Germany, starting fruitful dialogue and critiques among each other.”
As I flipped through the table of contents, I counted Gustl’s name associated with 15 chapters. He and Halko Weiss wrote all the section openings, both co-authored chapters with various therapists and wrote chapters of their own. Clearly this took most if not all of their free time for years!
Gustl’s presentation focused on: Body and Design in Times of Self Design
He couched his perspective in ‘metta psychology’ a reflective approach as he moved from Freud forward. He noted that if Freud had relied on evidence based, nonjudgmental, method-oriented therapeutic theories, his work would never have happened. Freud, Gustl said, wanted to understand hysteria and focused his criticism on Victorian society—he wanted to change societal norms. Women paid for the societal suppression of sexuality and as sexual beings they needed to be recognized. Mainstream thinking at that time was that women had no sexuality, Gustl said. Excluded by the normative discourse, their only form of expression was in hysteria. Neurosis was not just an illness; psychoanalysis not just a treatment.
Psychoanalysis and body psychotherapy have evolved since Freud’s time. Gustl noted that current expert debate on clinical symptomatic forms leaves out consideration of one’s living environment, and that diagnosis and evaluation occur prematurely—therapists are too quick to draw conclusions and go for healing. There’s no time for ‘metta’ reflection on socialization in the world, of the social context we are immersed in.
Terms like hysterical, rigid, and obsessive were used and are used to control society through suppression, he said. Today we use terms like fight, flight, and fragmentation and the predominant diagnoses include depression, anxiety, panic, ADD, ADHA, and burn-out, all of which hint to what Gustl called a life style disorder. For the individual, there’s a high degree for success/failure in life, demands for high performance have escalated, resulting in depression, exhaustion.
“Ego Ideals” can never live up to these societal demands, he said. We are always the loser, with no hope for freedom. So we hype ourselves up (using drugs/alcohol) and motivate self-enthusiasm, rendering a false sense of lightness, a false cheerfulness that is anchored in culture; cheerfulness has become automated, he said. And humility has receded into the background. Cheerfulness is now couched in consumerism. People put up a brave front. Gustl showed pictures of shiny bright-white teeth, huge smiles cover the hidden retreat, the depression that will and does implode resulting in self-collapse. It’s a hidden cultural disease—our life style determination is not placid in the societal layer/level. The media displays what’s trending, what we need to think, say, do, so we can belong. Ideal images are projected; there’s no marks, no signs of aging. The art of self-design is increasing resulting in enhanced versions of the self and the illusion that we will finally get all the love we missed out on in childhood.
Our Psychosocial Climate
Family is no longer the root of our existence, Gustl explained. And with our Ego Ideal societally set, there’s fear of punishment and fear of losing important love if we don’t conform. According to our Ego Ideal, we must be the best to be loved. During early developmental experiences, our parental expectations were expressed (or not), and we felt loved and acceptable, valuable, if we lived up to those external (and internalized) expectations. Parents projected their frames onto their children, who become a projection of their parents. There’s no room to be a Self, to have one’s needs met. Conformity matters. A lack of mirroring combines with our self not being met, and we cling to the promise of happiness that comes from belonging.
We long for a quality human experience. Yet, we encounter people in our treatment rooms who are in the throes of deep reactions to self-regulation (the ability and inability to self-regulate). Most modern bodies/minds are colonized by narcissistic images, the alienation of self through images. Gustl showed pictures of people enacting self-design via body painting, body piercing, clothing and so forth. Even this form of self-identity and expression no longer reflects individual choice, he said; instead, the patterns and trends reflected in social media regulate our choice—post-modern self-design doesn’t fulfill what it promised, Gustl said.
Discussing the ego centric need for grandiosity, starting with Louis XIV who, Gustl said, elevated grandiosity to the highest limits in Paris (i.e., the hall of mirrors in the Palace of Versailles was designed to reflected his greatness), Gustl explained that we are dealing with the unconscious focus on the grandiose self. Narcissism is a cultural phenomenon, he said and we have to release the narcissistic dynamics to develop the space and acceptance for the self in order to heal. Aspects of the self that split off are stored in the body and healing is not as much about change but creating a felt reconnection with those split off parts. There’s a deep incomprehensible emptiness and fear of plunging into nothingness leaving us to fearfully ask, who I am when I take off the mask?
“I tried to hint in the chapter how to deal with this existential emptiness,” Gustl said, “by looking to the Asian traditions. We see less difficulty with emptiness. We have to deconstruct the images that we have to be someone and let go of the compulsion to have to achieve something. We have to learn to live with less, to accept what is.”