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Making the Most of Your Whole Self: Being an Embodied Therapist

Making the Most of Your Whole Self: Being an Embodied TherapistSince human beings communicate through their bodies long before they learn to talk, the language of the body is essentially our native language. As we develop we add words to our communication; however, body language remains our most basic means of recognizing our needs and expressing ourselves (Chace with Dyrud, 1993; Kleinman & Hall, 2006).

Movement defines us from the moment we are born until the day we die. From the first kick in our mother’s womb, until our dying breath, we participate in the dance of life and experience the power of movement (Kleinman, 1993).

Inherent in the dance of life is the ability to share the emotions of others. This notion appears to be intimately linked to the functioning of mirror neurons. According to an Italian researcher, Giacomo Rizzolatti, “Our survival depends on understanding the actions, intentions and emotions of others. Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation – by feeling, not by thinking (Blakeslee, 2006).”

All successful therapy involves an interaction between the mind and the body (Kleinman & Hall, 2005, 2006). Dance/movement therapists work directly with feelings using the whole body as an empathic receptor and responder to the patient (Harris, 2008). This facilitates a process that allows therapists to discover and trust their innate ability to “attend” empathically, respond authentically, and translate nonverbal experiences into cognitive insights. Dance/movement therapists are taught to hone their native language into therapeutic skills that free them to spontaneously develop on the body language and nuances of those they are working with. Responding to the patient’s nonverbal signals, including tone of voice, facial expressions, eye gaze, and bodily motion, can reveal the otherwise hidden shifts in states of mind and body. Resonating with these expressions of primary emotions requires that the therapist feel the feelings, not merely understand them conceptually (Siegel, D. J., p. 290, 1999.)

The therapist’s own experiences of embodiment, ability to access unconscious material, and way of being in the body, is part of their sense of self, and plays an important role in the relationship between therapist and patient (Kleinman, 2004). Supporting this premise, Virginia Satir (p. 27, 1987) eloquently states “When I am in touch with myself, my feelings, my thoughts, with what I see and hear, I am growing toward becoming a more integrated self. I am more congruent, I am more ‘whole,’ and I am able to make greater contact with the other person.”

Techniques and concepts that underlie dance/movement therapy can be used to teach traditional therapists skills that can assist them in sharing the experience with their patients.

The artist Pierre Gauguin said, “I close my eyes to see.” When therapists are able to “see” from the inside out, through their experiences, they are able to understand in a way that goes beyond cognitive reasoning or thinking.

A hallmark of people with eating disorders is their tendency to try to control their feelings and focus on body distortions, obsessive thoughts and concrete, black and white thinking. As one patient explained, “It is much easier to focus on how many calories I have consumed in a day than it is to deal with day to day events such as arguments with my parents, getting good grades, or feeling accepted by others.” Patients who suffer from trauma, as well as those who become addicted to substances, frequently possess similar patterns in their quest to stay “safe” by detaching from their bodily felt experiences.

Helping patients with eating disorders reawaken their bodies by connecting with their feelings is critical to their recovery. People with eating disorders have shifted their life focus to make it about food, weight and the physical body. The challenge of therapists is to shift the focus back to the more natural way of living that includes experiencing feelings. Ignoring internal states amounts to burying feelings and the burial site exists in the body itself. Since feelings may fester underneath the body’s surface and erupt when they become intolerable, it behooves us to help our patients develop a stronger relationship with this vital part of themselves (Kleinman & Hall, 2006).

In order to facilitate experiences that help our patients experience and “move” their feelings, we need to not only be able to move our own feelings, but to understand how to do this without losing our therapeutic balance. Essentially, maintaining appropriate boundaries is necessary in order to balance attuning to our patients while simultaneously attuning to ourselves (Bloomgarden, Mennuti, and Cohen, 2003, p.9-10). Gerstein, Botwin & Kleinman (2004) state that “exquisite attunement to one’s self can permit therapists to sift through and discard feelings that indicate that they may be over-identifying with patients, while still allowing for the possibility that they may be also tapping into the patient’s issues in an embodied, less conscious, fashion.”

Making the Most of Your Whole Self: Being an Embodied Therapist

Susan Kleinman, MA, ADTR, NCC

Susan Kleinman, MA, ADTR, NCC, is a Board Certified Dance/Movement Therapist, National Certified Counselor and Certified Eating Disorder Specialist, Creative Arts Therapies Supervisor and Dance/Movement Therapist for The Renfrew Center. She has published extensively, presented widely, and is the recipient of many awards and honors.

APA Reference
Kleinman, S. (2018). Making the Most of Your Whole Self: Being an Embodied Therapist. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.