Therapy in the Dungeon, Part 2

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June 1999

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1999 by William A. Henkin

<Q> I've heard you and other therapists speak against "doing therapy in the dungeon," but I've experienced a good deal of personal healing in some of my scenes and I know other people who have as well. So what exactly is the problem? What's wrong with using a scene to feel better?

<A> I think I answered a similar question some time in the past, but in case I misremember, or in case you didn't see it, I'm happy to try to clarify what I know can be a confusing issue. And in passing, though I have certainly spoken against "doing therapy in the dungeon," I don't think there's anything wrong with using a scene to feel better: if doing scenes didn't make us feel better, or if they made us feel worse, few of us would come back for more.

Let me make two distinctions at the outset. First, when I write about therapy in today's column I'm referring to the deep intra-personal work some people do with a therapist to understand themselves and to free themselves from behavior or experience patterns they find distressing. Second, I am making a distinction between what constitutes therapy – especially psychotherapy, which is, I infer, what you're asking about – and what is therapeutic. Both words come from the Greek therapeia, which means to cure or to nurse. Various medical and non-medical interventions in disease, dysfunction, and disability processes are rightly considered therapies insofar as they deliberately seek to nurse or cure on the basis of some program or plan that can be applied, tested, and replicated at least to some extent, including chemical (or chemo) therapy, physical therapy, hypnotherapy, voice therapy, sex therapy, and psychotherapy in its many forms.

At the same time, anything that nurses or cures us, or makes us feel better, might be considered therapeutic to some degree or in some circumstances. Exercise may be therapeutic for people who are mildly depressed, for example, not only because it helps to remove our attention from our internal concerns, but also because it can stimulate the production of brain chemicals that make us feel better. Praying, meditating, or performing spiritual rituals may be therapeutic for people who feel anxious or overwhelmed because they are activities that can alter our brain wave patterns in ways that relieve stress. A prolonged sensual whipping may be therapeutic for some people who know how to process the experience when we want to reach deeper than usual into our feelings of anger, or to cry, surrender, or touch on emotions, images, or memories that might arise with the gradual, rhythmic, methodical build-up of energy and the subsequent release of endorphins associated with intense physical sensation.

One way or another, all three situations I mentioned in the preceding paragraph could be considered therapeutic, especially when they have some form of catharsis as their goal, because with catharsis we build up steam, we break through, we climax, we relax.

Catharsis, another word we get from the Greek, means purification, and whether it comes through running, praying, whipping, or something else, depending on my predilections, this kind of catharsis is often felt as a peak experience – Abraham Maslow's term for a remarkable, memorable high point that does not necessarily teach me about myself or lead to changes in how I live my life. On the other hand, I generally feel good after such a cathartic experience, and it is quite arguable that feeling good can be therapeutic in itself.

In psychotherapy, catharsis especially refers to the kinds of emotional purification that can come from relieving or purging fears, complexes, and other inner difficulties through a process of becoming aware of them and expressing them to another person in a safe space and especially in a conscious fashion. Psychotherapy often seeks to be therapeutic – to nurse or cure – but in therapy the relief associated with catharsis is not as likely to be a peak experience of ecstasy or calm as it is in running, praying, or whipping, and in therapy catharsis is not usually the goal: rather, it's the door.

In therapy catharsis often happens at the juncture where one portion of a piece of therapeutic work is completed, and another portion begins. Catharsis is not only the point at which I purge or relieve a tension that has been troubling me, for instance: the catharsis itself makes it possible for me to begin to come to terms with what I've discovered about the nature, origins, associations, and consequences of that tension. A deep catharsis may result in a profound insight; or the recollection of some emotionally traumatic experience; or an abrupt recognition of how some behavioral, intellectual, or emotional pattern I had never even seen in myself before has been controlling my life in deleterious ways. It can have repercussions that illuminate other incidents in my history, alter the way I live in the present, or change the course of my future life. These are repercussions I have to examine and work through if the catharsis is going to release me from my patterns, rather than simply give me temporary relief. Since everyone has blind spots and no one has eyes in the back of his head, it is extremely beneficial if I can process my work, including such catharses, with steady, ongoing assistance from someone I trust who knows how to work with that kind of material in ways that are relatively safe and relatively likely to help me live with greater satisfaction in the future than I have before.

Now, however much I may love and trust my play partners and lovers, it is extremely unlikely that they can provide this kind of support as I work through the issues that come up in my day-to-day processing, let alone those that arise from my cathartic experiences. The reason is not just a matter of training and experience: although both are important, even a play partner who is a seasoned therapist has not agreed – and, practically speaking, cannot agree – to be available to me on a regular and confidential basis just to support my work without becoming personally involved, with no vested interest in its outcome so that I can move through my own material at my own pace to my own conclusion, and with no expectation that I will ever be available to her in a similar way. Play partners, lovers, and other friends want, need, and deserve a more equal relationship than what I can expect to have with my therapist – and so do I. I want, need, and deserve a relationship that allows my friends to share their lives with me, as well as it allows me to share mine with them. In the dungeon the energy exchange that goes both ways is about both or all of us who are involved in the scene, and most happily it is about our erotic pleasure. The energy exchange also goes both ways with my therapist, but in the consulting room it's pretty much all about me as client, and it's work that often may not feel like pleasure at all.

Certainly I can find a scene therapeutic, and certainly I have done so. But if I'm bent on nursing, curing, or healing myself I can also find lunch therapeutic, or getting a parking ticket, or washing the dishes, or reading War and Peace: what I make of my experience is entirely up to me. In a scene I may purge a feeling for awhile and have a great time doing it, and I certainly hope to feel better as a result. In the process of therapy I seek to identify and come to terms with patterns that prevent me from being fully myself, and start to change them into forms of living that enable me to become more fully who I am.

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