Taking Over

By Ron Kurtz
From Readings in the Hakomi Method, 2010

Taking over is one of the two or three most important techniques the method has. The use of mindfulness as it’s done in Hakomi is certainly unique. But, while mindfulness, which is borrowed from spiritual practice and is always used in Hakomi in much the same way, techniques like taking over are specific in their application and different every time. These “little experiment” techniques, such as taking over, are immensely inventive; they make the work very powerful and creative in the hands of a good “experimentalist”. So, I want to describe a little bit about why taking over is so powerful.

As I reported in my book Body-Centered Psychotherapy, taking over evolved out of something that happened during a workshop I gave over twenty years ago. A woman in a therapy process was getting very close to some extremely painful memory. She was lying on her back and as she came closer and closer to remembering this thing, she arched up off the floor, supporting herself on her heels and the back of her head. I felt so bad watching her that I decided to help her. I put my hand underneath her back and offered to take the weight of her body. When she relaxed and let me do that, the experience that she was keeping outside her consciousness immediately flooded her whole being. It came up as soon as she relaxed. Instead of feeling fear and anxiety, which she had just been experiencing—feelings that were being managed by the involuntary arching of her back—she now experienced only an overwhelming sadness. This sudden transition was a great surprise to me (and I think to her). It surprised me how easily the feared experience could be brought into consciousness, just by helping a person manage her avoidance of that experience.

Later on, I associated this technique with one of the basic things Feldenkrais did in his work. To understand taking over, it will help to understand what Feldenkrais did and why he did it. Feldenkrais would take the weight of whatever part of the body he was working with. He would move it for the person. He wanted to teach people to move more effectively, with less effort. He would work with some people who couldn’t move properly, like people with palsy, or who, for one reason or another, couldn’t move an arm or a leg at all. He wanted to show how to move and how to move as easily as possible. As part of that teaching, he took the weight of the arm and made the movement for the person, over and over again, the same small movement, maybe fifty times. If the person couldn’t extend her arm in a smooth way, if her arms shook so much she couldn’t reach out for a glass of water and drink it without spilling it all, he would teach her how to do it. He takes all the little movements that are needed and he does each little movement with her hands, her wrists, her forearms. Each one, fifty times. As he does this, he watches the person’s breathing. At some point the person relaxes and the breath becomes freer. This is the point where the person can feel the movement. It can sometimes take ten or fifteen minutes for that. But, when the person can feel the movement, they can also make the movement. Once something is experienced, the mind can find a way to recreate it. After all, whatever you experience is already something that the mind has created. How else could it have happened?

A big part of the problems with movement, even for ordinary people, is this: when they try to move, for example to turn their heads, they use more effort and more muscles than are needed. They try too hard. And, they haven’t learned to use only the muscles that are needed. As a result, they are more tense than they need to be and that tension makes it hard for them to feel what an easier movement would feel like. For example, a person turning to see something might move his torso and shoulders and head and neck as if they were an indivisible unit. To remedy this, Feldenkrais moved each part by itself, so that the person could learn to differentiate one part from another. When they had learned that, the person could then move only the parts that are actually needed to do what he is trying to do. He gets the person to feel what that minimal effort/maximally efficient movement is like. And he does it by doing it for the person, over and over, until the person gets it. “You can’t do what you want till you know what you’re doing”, he used to say.

He takes the weight because he wants you to give up the tension. He does the movement for you, because he doesn’t want you to effort. It is the tension that makes it difficult to feel. That’s why the woman arched as she did. Some part of her mind, by creating this arching, had produced an enormous amount of tension in her body…. so she wouldn’t feel the sadness. The arching was involuntary, as far as her conscious mind was concerned. If felt to her as if it was “just happening”. But at some place outside of consciousness, it was of course deliberate. The point is—and it’s not news—tension blocks feelings.
Here is an example. Some people believe, without being conscious of the belief, that they have to do everything for themselves, that no one will help them. This makes many ordinary things look much more difficult than they really are. People with such beliefs and perceptions become tense with the determination to succeed in spite of their isolation. The bodily expression of this determination is a mobilization of the muscles of the eyes, jaw, neck, shoulders and chest and legs, which says in effect, “I am ready to face life’s challenges alone”. This use of their body helps them to keep their loneliness and weakness out of consciousness, when these feelings threaten to emerge.

So, when we offer to take the weight of the shoulders and if the person gives us some of that weight, a moment later she feels the sadness that was waiting and right after that, a memory of being left alone comes into consciousness. This is the power of taking over.
This is a general pattern: tensions are used to manage painful experiences. When a person is managing painful experiences this way, at some level she believes she must do that. And this belief and the tensions it controls are habits. The woman had to arch the way she did. To her conscious mind, it just happened. So, when I offer to help her I’m offering this help to a part of her mind that believes it needs to manage the experience. I’m offering to be an ally to this part. I’m not trying to break through her “defenses” or to take anything away; I’m recognized as someone there to help. Something deep inside her recognizes that I’m on her side. This is another important part of taking over: the therapist is perceived to be an ally by the parts of the mind that manage painful experiences.
A prevalent way to think about management behavior is as “resistance”. A therapist who challenges the resistance might, if a woman arched up as the woman above did, push down on her until she collapsed. If the therapist did that, it might very well have the effect of evoking contained sadness and hidden memories. It would work, so to speak. But it would also have the effect of turning the therapist into an enemy of those parts of the person trying to manage that experience. It would feel like the experiences were being forced out; that they were involuntary. The therapist would not feel like an ally. And the likely, long-term result would be a lot more “resistance” which, in my mind, would be justified and inevitable.

“It’s like speeding up in a car when you’re lost; the result usually just enables you to get lost over a wider area.” —Arno Penzias

There are a few general forms of taking over: passive, active, physical and verbal. All of them have the quality of supporting the client’s emotional management behavior. They all carry the message: I’m on your side, I’ll help you do whatever you believe you have to do to protect yourself, even if those beliefs themselves are not conscious. This makes an ally of the unconscious and, for a therapist, there is no more powerful ally than the client’s unconscious. When I offer to take something over, the person doesn’t have to allow that, she doesn’t have to give me the weight, if she doesn’t want to. There are people who can’t give up the weight up their shoulders. They don’t trust that much. That’s another advantage of taking over: it’s voluntary! The person proceeds at her own pace. People go deeper into themselves when they’re ready. There’s no sense of being forced. The method is nonviolent.

Here’s one more example. There are people who tighten the backs of their necks to keep from feeling hopeless. When I practiced bioenergetic approach myself, I would ask such a person to lie on a couch facing down with his head out over the end of the couch. Then I would push on the person’s head until their neck muscles gave out, at which point they felt their hopelessness. Nowadays, I put such a person in same position and then, with my hands on the person’s forehead, I offer to take the weight of the person’s head. If the person accepts my offer, he can now practice, little by little, relaxing the neck muscles without collapsing or completely holding back. While I have the weight of their head, the person can experiment with feeling his hopelessness. That’s the essence of taking over. To support a person’s management behavior so that he can at his own pace, voluntarily relax it.

In the same way, we take over the reactions someone has to a statement given as a probe. Those spontaneous thoughts are very often also a form of management. When you take that over, it has the same effect as taking over any management behavior. The person voluntarily lets another person be that voice in order to allow himself to bring the hidden emotions, beliefs and memories that, without our ever knowing them directly, run those parts of ourselves we have not faced before.

Taking over is a way to offer a person a chance to relax, to give up some effort. Even when you are taking over a thought, by having someone else vocalize the thought, that’s relieving tension. More accurately, it is the parts that operate from an involuntary place that give up the effort (if they wish to). When that happens, the person often begins to feel what was hidden from consciousness, like a painful memory or a dangerous impulse. So when we take something over, what very often happens is an emotion or image comes quickly and easily into consciousness and an emotional process is initiated.

For all these reasons, taking over is a powerful, nonviolent, creative set of techniques and a great part of what makes Hakomi the method that it is.