By Don Allan

Like many others, I discovered J. Konrad Stettbacher and his book, Making Sense of Suffering, through Alice Miller's recommendation of his version of primal therapy in her book, Banished Knowledge.(Editor's Note: Miller no longer recommends Stettbacher's version of primal therapy). But luckily, my first session using Stettbacher's method in July of 1993 was a genuine breakthrough for me in the quality and intensity of my ability to connect with deep feelings. The success of that first session helped to clarify for me some of the advantages and disadvantages of this new method of self-therapy.

On the negative side, in counseling myself, it is often difficult or impossible to break through my own defenses. A therapist is needed to see the defense for what it is and to find a way to work through it. But for me, an even more significant hazard of working alone was that the deep work dredged up old feelings of pain and depression which brought my progress to a standstill. I needed to have an experienced guide present to help find the way through the abyss.

Working alone also carries the risk of getting hurt, yet again the way the infant or young child was hurt, when nobody was there to provide comfort when needed. Isolation increases the severity of every injury. A therapy conducted in isolation does not provide the opportunity to contradict the terror of having had to go through the pain alone.

But on the positive side, some of us can turn self-therapy to advantage. Stettbacher's writing empowered me. At last, an experienced therapist was telling me that I could do this therapy on my own, without hurting myself and that the benefits far outweighed the risks. Through the pages of the book, I felt a curious transference take place. Someone out there, even though I had never met him, was expressing confidence in me, something my own father had never done. It felt like he was reaching out personally to me to give me the information I needed to take the next step on the road back to myself, my true self. And it was easier to trust him as a therapist because he was telling me I could do the work without a therapist.

But the feature of Stettbacher's method that worked most effectively to achieve my personal breakthrough can be seen clearly only in the context of my personal background. During the last 12 years, I have used Re-evaluation Counseling (RC), also known as Co-counseling, as a means of helping me to achieve deep catharsis. I have always needed to feel an extraordinary degree of safety in my sessions in order to gain access to deep feelings. Having a regular co-counseling partner during the last seven years has been important for me to feel safe enough to allow my deep feelings to surface.

For many years my co-counseling sessions had resulted in continuous, but slow and gradual, progress toward deeper emotional release. But in the spring of 1992, I came up against a wall and I was forced to recognize that all of my progress had carefully avoided the deeper anger and fear which constituted my most difficult material.

The wall became apparent when three life-threatening events precipitated an emotional crisis. Within the relatively short time span of three months my life was threatened by an unmedicated psychotic man, I was attacked by two pit bulls while riding my bicycle and a violent young man suddenly and without warning punched me in the face and broke my jaw. After each incident, I talked a lot about the terror I had experienced during the event, but I had difficulty expressing my fear in my co-counseling sessions.

Somehow my life-long defensive pattern of denying my fear seemed to be winning out. I could not get beyond talking about my terror or making connections with terrifying experiences from early childhood, infancy, or birth. Perhaps a good primal therapist could have pushed me through my defenses quickly, but what actually happened without a therapist was gentle and powerful.

For six weeks after my lower jaw was broken, my jaws were wired shut, and I was physically unable to open my mouth to cry or express emotion. Finally, one afternoon, about two weeks after my jaws were unwired, I sensed some of my feelings surfacing. I decided to take the opportunity to do a Stettbacher session which I had been reading about. I worked first on letting out some anger by beating the ground with a rubber hose. Then I used a tape recorder to record what I was feeling. Suddenly, I felt like I wanted to hide from the outside world. I walked inside of our small cabin to be sure that our nearest neighbor couldn't hear me. I began to cry and I sensed that my urge to hide was a familiar childhood feeling. I felt that I couldn't allow myself to express my feelings when others were around. I made the conscious decision to allow myself to feel as safe as I needed to be.

My session continued for about an hour with some of the heaviest release of feelings I have ever experienced with much crying, shivering and teeth-chattering. Images passed through my mind of the times I needed to cry as a child, but my parents would not permit me to cry. I remembered the times I had gone off by myself to hide, to hold in my feelings because I was not comfortable sharing them. But pushing up through these childhood memories was a vague sense of the terror I experienced as an infant when I feared sudden disaster. My parents argued and fought and vented their rage at one another during my first year of life. Was I sometimes the object of their anger? I have no clear memories except the feeling of abandonment when my natural father dropped out of my life after their divorce.

Although my session did not provide a clear memory of what happened, the terror I felt in my session was real and familiar. Was I reliving my experience as an infant? Was it the many months of colic I experienced when I cried frequently without relief from pain? Was it my birth? I can only guess, yet, I know that I broke through an important barrier just by being able to feel my terror. I have much more work to do in future sessions in order to uncover my repressed memories.

I remained very conscious of giving myself permission to have a good session by myself. I realized that the issue of counseling myself is not just one of providing safety for myself to release my feelings, but loving and caring my myself and accepting myself unconditionally the way my parents never could.

After the session, I recognized that I had achieved what was for me a breakthrough in releasing fear and terror. Counseling myself was the key factor in providing the necessary safety I needed. Although I had counseled regularly and established a great deal of safety with my regular co-counselor, still more safety was possible and needed. In order to discharge fear and terror, my deepest and most difficult material, I needed and achieved another deeper level of safety by counseling myself. I needed to be there by myself without another person present.

The tape recording of my session was very helpful. During my session, I verbally expressed what was going through my mind at various times throughout the discharge process. I played it back the next day and made notes. Now I'm able to use the notes in my sessions with my regular co-counselor to recall memories concerning some of my deepest material.

While the session I have described was the most successful self-counseling session I've ever had, it was not my first attempt at counseling myself. I'd tried it on other occasions when my co-counselor was not available. I've usually gotten better than average results during my self-counseling sessions because I make the decision to have these sessions at times when strong feelings concerning present or past hurts are spontaneously coming to the surface. I can provide the counseling session for myself immediately instead of having to wait for my scheduled session. On the relatively few occasions when I have counseled myself, the risk of getting stuck has been outweighed by the value of being able to have a session immediately.

I do not intend for counseling myself to replace sessions with my regular co-counselor, and none of what I discovered here about working on my distress diminishes the significance of my patterned isolation. Isolation remains a major concern for me, and counseling myself tends to buy into that pattern. Nevertheless, I believe that in this case, the benefit of added safety outweighed the hazard of feeling isolated in my session. I know that it's possible to be alone without feeling isolated. There are times when I've been alone in nature or alone while reading, writing, or thinking, and I have felt a deep connection with all humankind. I did not feel abandoned or isolated while counseling myself -- just safe.

I feel empowered in other ways using Stettbacher's method. I can do these sessions whenever I want. I don't need to hold in my feelings until the appointed time to meet with my therapist. And after I begin my session, I don't have to end it before I'm ready in order to accommodate someone else's schedule.

I realize that in many ways I can do for myself more than any other therapist can do for me. I can be there for myself all the time. I don't have to give myself advance notice when I need a session. My schedule is completely flexible in meeting my needs, and I can give myself the highest priority. And no matter who my therapist is or how many co-primalers I have in a support group, they can never be there for me as often and reliably as I can be there for myself.

For me the advantages of doing some self-counseling outweigh the disadvantages. But I am equally certain that I cannot do it all myself. I need a therapist. At best, self-counseling is a helpful addition to having a therapist present or to doing group work with other self-counselors.

I appreciate J. Konrad Stettbacher for having the courage and good sense to write a book which places the power of change in the hands of the individual, not in the hands of a therapist whose professional techniques must remain tightly guarded secrets. It seems that Stettbacher, along with Alice Miller, sees the magnitude of unnecessary suffering in our society and that the only hope of large scale relief from suffering is to place the tools of change in the hands of large numbers of people.

Don Allan will be a therapist during the 1998 voyage of "The Ark" which is a 40-day intensive therapeutic program for individuals interested in personal growth and/or training as a therapist. Don lives in Minnesota and is involved in building a primal community in the area.