SOMATIC UPGRADE PART 1: TAKE STOCK & APPRECIATE WHAT YOU’VE GOTJanuary 14, 2023
(with apologies to Kermit the frog)
Boundary repair is an essential component of the trauma healing process. Those of us whose physical or emotional boundaries have been ongoingly disrespected or violated; those of us who have been rejected or threatened for even attempting to develop boundaries within our families or in the wider community need boundary repair.
Plenty of communities, including communities of gender, ethnicity, class religion, and bodily configuration or capacity have collectively witnessed their peers and ancestors being harshly punished or discarded, slain or allowed to die for asserting their innate dignity and agency.
In a world of broken boundaries, we need multiple methods for boundary restoration.
One such intervention is a hands-on boundary repair practice taught by my generative somatics mentor, Denise Benson. I call it touch me/stop touching me (tm/stm). I typically introduce this practice during early in-person sessions with new clients.
You can practice a version of tm/stm with a friend or partner.
The Look at Me/Stop Looking at Me Practice
After an urban to rural move in 2018, when most of my somatic coaching practice moved online to Zoom, I created a visual version of tm/stm that I call look at me/stop looking at me. lam/slam for short.
You can find a DIY version of lam/slam in Trauma Survivors In Love Part II.
I have offered lam/slam innumerable times at this point. Over time, lam/slam has evolved into a complex and nuanced practice that can unwind trauma contractions and build new capacities. It’s taught me a lot.
I soon noticed that people tend to find this practice more challenging and stirring than tm/stm. I wondered why.
Turns out, there is alot going on within this practice.
We are mammals with animal bodies; animals register when they are being watched, and they have preferences about this. Birds, for instance, generally prefer ambient attention and auditory check-ins over direct eye contact, even from familiar birds and people.
My somatic work with human animals has convinced me that our animal bodies are constantly tracking our visibility (and proximity) to others, whether we know it or not.
There is anecdotal evidence that neurodivergent folks have an unusual affinity with animals; perhaps this is connected to why some ND folks have a more direct relationship to their animal bodies. For autistic people in particular, eye contact is an intense experience.
Some blind people report being able to feel when they are being looked at.
Visibility is a big deal.
The Paradox of Being Seen
In the human realm, we long to be seen for ourselves.
Being seen is a significant aspect of attunement and attachment.*
Yet, it is common to feel scrutinized, shamed or objectified when someone looks at us, especially when they have more social or situational power.
Being looked at within an unequal dynamic is not the same as being seen.
Instead of feeling affirmed and connected, we may feel surveilled or controlled.
We may be in danger.
Both children and adults, when subject to authorities who do not see us in our humanity, learn ingenious ways to avoid being seen (also known as flight or freeze).
>Monty Python’s How Not to Be Seen gallows-humor (CW: fake violence).<
When it is impossible to escape an unkind or indifferent gaze, we will instead find ways to display ourselves to please the people who have power over us (also known as appease or fawn).
Both of these approaches are worthy survival strategies.
What Happens During the lam/slam Practice
When I teach the lam/slam practice to other healing practitioners, we repeat and debrief the practice until the practitioner is able to empathize with the receiver role and anticipate client responses.
It is crucial to deliver the practice in a way that promotes a safe and empowering learning experience, so I coach practitioners to prepare interventions for when lam/slam stimulates trauma or attachment related material in their clients.
Without getting into all of the specifics of setting up, completing and debriefing the practice, here is what can happen during lam/slam sessions.
First, the core activity of the practice is:
My client tells me to look at them, and I look at them,
My client tells me to look away from them, and I look away.
This sounds simple; it is anything but.
Before lam/slam, Checking in with the Body: Yes, No or Maybe?
When my client “Sul” told me it was difficult to distinguish their own boundaries in the presence of friends or family members, I suggested lam/slam to them.
As I began describing the practice, Sul’s eyes widened and their body became very still.
I prompted them gently, “How’s this sound so far? Does it feel like a yes, no or maybe for you today?”
Sul responded, “I’m scared. I am not sure I can do this.”
I was not surprised. lam/slam, like many somatic practices, starts its work before it begins, either while I am describing the practice, or when I invite my client to give it a try. Simply presenting the invitation may stimulate tears or feelings of fear, disbelief or unworthiness.
As I did with Sul, we then check in with the body to find out if doing lam/slam is a yes, no or maybe at this time.
At this point we may postpone lam/slam and work with whatever is arising.
It is never advisable to rush into any somatic practice; we can save it for later. Either way, healing has already begun.
Even when my client is ready and their body is saying yes, they still may feel apprehensive just before we begin.
At the start, I am respectful of my client’s mood, be it excited or nervous, playful or solemn. I strive to honor their experience of how risky or easeful lam/slam seems to them.
I ground myself in calmness and curiosity.
We create a container by setting a timer for one or two minutes. This first round is an opportunity for my client to dip their toe in, and see how it feels. I instruct them not to say please or worry about being polite.
Then we go back and forth between look at me and stop looking at me several times.
Mery, another client, paused the lam/slam practice to tell me that it felt wrong to tell me what to do with my eyes and posture. To assert what she wanted.
I said to her, “it’s your body. You have a right to not be looked at, just as it is your birthright to be seen for who you are.
It is your right to choose when and how you are looked at.”
Mery responded through tears, “My mind knows that is true, but it is hard to believe.”
For some folks discomfort comes later in the practice.
Tension may accumulate; with each repetition, a growing concern that I will feel pushed around or become annoyed at them for being told, over and over again, what to do.
If necessary, I remind them that I have consented to this practice, and reassure them that I am fine.
After the initial round of lam/slam we debrief the practice so far. All kinds of issues can arise.
The first question I ask during the lam/slam debrief is,
“Did I follow your directions? How do you know? Was it your eyes, ears or intuition that confirmed that I followed your directions?”
This question draws their attention to the new, lived experience that their body has just had.
Then I ask what the experience was like for them.
Often in somatic work, the body has experiences that the mind cannot follow.
After one round of lam/slam my client Frenni said, “I know that you looked at me when I told you to, and you stopped when I told you to look away. It felt really good. But my mind is confused, like, hey, what just happened?”
I reassured them, reminding them that somatics is a bottom up way of learning; it’s body-up transformation.
The thinking mind will catch up later.
Another question I ask my client is what their body picked up about my response to their boundaries, and how I seemed during and after the practice. Again, I ask them to ground their observations in their body sensations.
Usually they sense that I am relaxed and at ease.
When the timing is right, I report my body’s experience of the practice; I let them know how their directions and energy and body impacted my body. I tell them that I did not merely tolerate this practice, I liked it.
Indeed, I rejoice when I hold the lam/slam space for someone. It thrills me to witness my client, perhaps for the first time, claim their space.
After this first debrief, we attune to their yes, no or maybe about doing a second round. Does their body (not their mind) feel done?
Do they want more?
Repeating the Practice
The lam/slam practice lands more deeply with repetition. Within a session or series of sessions, layers of emotion and impact are revealed over time. It is not unusual for my client to move through fear, resistance, disbelief, grief and anger; at some point a sense of loneliness or a longing to belong may emerge.
For some folks the most moving and trembly-incredulous part of this practice is me simply respecting their moment to moment, ever-changing visual boundaries.
I follow their directions promptly without fuss or negative repercussions, neither imposing my own agenda nor withdrawing from them. Just that.
Thus, somatic shock. Disbelief. Tears. Perhaps gratitude.
So in subsequent debriefs, I remind them to consult the senses of their wise animal bodies and let their eyes/ears/intuition confirm that I am not angry, not put out, not on the verge of storming off or withdrawing from them.
Nope. I am still here, attuning to them. Looking and not looking. Looking and not looking. No big deal.
lam/slam can be a revolutionary reset.
At some point in the process, as I repeatedly, reliably rest my gaze on them and quietly remove it when directed, they may experience a sense of wonder and possibility, even a fierce sense of rightness, a knowing that they have always been entitled to this kind of interaction.
When my client Prem reached this point, he exulted,”I knew it! When I was a kid, I knew I should have been looked at with respect; I knew they were supposed to give me space. I was right!”
Common lam/slam Themes
After doing this practice with clients almost a hundred times, some themes have emerged.
During lam/slam we may touch into issues related to safety, boundaries, surveillance, shame, belonging, attunement and attachment. Being able to choose how and when we are seen and not seen also impacts our capacity for regulation and co-regulation.
Safety and Boundary Setting
Safety issues are always near the surface during the lam/slam practice. This shows up initially as a fear of the consequences of asserting boundaries. We brace ourselves and wonder, Will I be punished for setting a boundary? Will I be rejected for declining attention? Will I be disappointed if I ask for attention?
Safety and Surveillance
The second way safety issues show up during lam/slam is when the body feels markedly safer during the stop looking at me part. When I look away from my client, I invite them to attend to the sensations in their stomach, shoulders, jaw, eyes or respiration. Many folks notice a significant easing and relaxing in their tissues and breath. When I look at them again, they can feel their shoulders or jaw or gut re-tighten.
These results may be at odds with my client’s social values about eye contact or visual connection. They may view their bodily response as unacceptable or unbelievable. In this case it’s useful to go back and forth between looking/not looking a few more times to confirm their body’s live preferences. To discover what their boundaries actually are.
Useful debrief questions after this experience include, “When you were a child, were you allowed to have breaks from being surveilled (judged/assessed)? Were you allowed any private space or downtime?”
Shame is an unspoken presence during lam/slam work. Lam/slam may evoke different kinds of shame: the shame of being watched with mistrust, the shame of receiving a judgemental look, the shame of being perceived like an object.
Not being seen in your full humanity is demoralizing. Past experiences of not being seen and understood can leave a residue of a low grade or acute sense of unworthiness.
Finally, we may feel ashamed of our basic human need for attention, especially if our bids for attention were squashed by others.
Boundary Stories of Origin
If, like Sul, we lose touch with our own boundaries, it is valuable to uncover our personal and communal/ancestral boundary stories of origin.
Depending on our ancestors’ social location and life experience, being able to be invisible may have been a crucial survival strategy that they passed on to us.
For children, for people with disabilities who are subject to abuse in private spaces, for racialized and alt-gendered people who are habitually targeted in public spaces, hiding equals safety.
If a child’s or adult’s past survival has depended on them performing or showing up on caregivers’ or authorities’ terms, then the brain/body will assume it is too risky to refuse to be visually available in the present.
Whether our safety depended on being visually available on-demand or being able to hide under the radar, lam/slam practice can unearth our body’s formative safety templates.
What are the impacts of these two strategies of hiding and performance?
Belonging versus Safety
As generative somatics teaches, trauma survivors must make terrible choices between safety and connection, by either sacrificing safety for connection, connection for safety, or both.
The successful self-concealer achieves physical or emotional safety at the expense of receiving the deep nourishment of being known and affirmed by others.
The successful performer who presents themselves as required by the projecting eyes of caregivers and authorities achieves (narrow, conditional) connection and acceptance. They also achieve the safety of not being rejected or cast out, all at the expense of being seen as they are.
Underneath the survival hustles we remain hungry to be regarded with respect and love.
lam/slam can help us reclaim our innate longing to be safely, authentically seen by other beings.
Attunement and Self-Attunement
lam slam can be used to enact nurturing attunement by building in a one-two minute time container around the practice and then checking in with the body’s yeses, nos and maybes.
I can model attunement for my client by asking: “Are you done, or do you want more?”
I can invite my client to practice self-attunement by asking themselves, “Am I willing or unwilling to be visually available at the moment?” or “Do I want/need to be seen?”
Healing and Re-learning
Each time we practice lam/slam we give our soma data about new possibilities and ways of navigating the social world that are authentic and self-affirming.
At its best, lam/slam gives our animal body/brain lived experiences, concrete evidence that we deserve choice about how and when we are seen.
lam/slam can also help heal attachment and attunement wounds, and support co-regulation.**
These practices can restore to our bodies a healthy sort of entitlement, that sense of:
I deserve time to be free from scrutiny. To just be.
I deserve affirming, respectful reciprocal relationships.
I deserve to be appreciated for clearly asserting my needs.
Camera On/Camera Off
A more informal way to explore lam/slam dynamics is to invite my client to turn their camera on or off whenever they want.
Some folks protest that this is silly or unnecessary; it will not make a difference to them whether the camera is on or off.
I respond by saying, “Our bodies do not always respond the way we think they will; let’s find out how your body feels about the camera being off.”
Most of the time, when they turn their camera off, their body palpably relaxes.
I encounter this skeptical reaction so often that I marvel at how deeply we are trained, from a young age, to disregard the basic boundaries and preferences of our own bodies. We become accustomed to being denied safety. When I compare us with other animals, it’s clear they do not deny or override their basic boundaries in this way.
If we do not have social permission to experience our discomfort with being on display for others on demand, then it makes sense that we learn to self-gaslight. Such self-dismissal is a form of dissociation that numbs the pain of being deprived of mutually respectful social interactions.
What I Hope You Will Take Away
For the healing practitioners who are reading this, I hope you take away an enhanced appreciation of the power of your presence and gaze. When you respond respectfully to your clients’ visual boundaries you support boundary repair and the healing of attachment wounds. Further, visual attunement helps to co-regulate your clients.
If you are reading this for your own healing, I hope you take away an appreciation for how meaningful–or fraught it is to be visible/invisible to others, and how important it is to be truly seen.
I hope you are curious about your body’s visual needs and boundaries, and that you will consider cultivating that sense of entitlement to choose when, how and by whom you are seen.
We all long to be seen, but it’s not easy being seen.
May all beings be seen in our wholeness.
*As TraumaGeek puts it so beautifully, “Cultivating nervous system attunement over time creates secure attachment with self. Attunement is how we know which somatic exercises to use, when a helpful time to use them is, and when to skip pre-scheduled somatic exercises. Attunement is checking in with our body to see what it needs based on the signals and cues we’re getting and then doing our best to meet those needs (exactly like attuning with a child). Doing scheduled somatic exercises without attunement can cause trauma. Overriding our body’s needs to do Polyvagal exercises is never helpful. I can’t develop a schedule of somatic exercises that will work for anyone else – I can only do that for me because I’m listening to my body (and the schedule of exercises has to be flexible enough to change when my body’s needs are out of sync with my usual schedule).”
**More TraumaGeek: “Intentional co-regulation is the most impactful somatic practice. Most people didn’t get enough co-regulation in childhood and this created a neuro-developmental delay which makes the body more likely to get stuck in stress responses. Maturation of the nervous system through co-regulation can happen at any point in life if we have access to regular and consistent co-regulation (many hours per week). Co-regulation can be with animals and other elements of nature as well as with “safe enough” people (people who are in a coherent flow state).”
If you would like to experience the lam/slam practice with Dr. Tarakali, you can book a session here.