Primal theory of personality started with observations
of the process of psychotherapy and has grown within the
pragmatics of the therapist-client interaction.
Theory construction of this sort provides a series of
assumptions which are intimately tied to and guide
therapeutic practice. Such assumptions usually cover the
genesis, development and modification of organismic
malfunctioning. However, since therapists have some goal
for their clients, a theory of wellness develops alongside
the theory of "neurosis.
Some primal assumptions are firmly validated and those
more recently generated from the cutting edge of practice
are more tenuously held. Others have not held up because
new data have proved them false. What follows are
general statements of our theoretical beliefs and a summary of the basic assumptions contained.
One's notion of reality is based on how he selects and
processes incoming data (Spinelli, Pribram, 1967). How he
selects and processes input is a function of the structure of
his nervous system. (Festinger, 1967). This, in turn, determines the quality of his consciousness (Sperry, 1951). The
structure of the nervous system is a result of genetic determinants evolving over millions of years, in a dialectic
i with the environment - from the conception
of the organism, through ontogeny and continuing for the
life of the organism. An organism is structurally determined by an interaction of what it is and what environment it lives in. A paramecium in response to a highly
acidic or low oxygen environment will manufacture
specific proteins to accommodate and survive. These
become actual physical modifications to structure and
further affect how the animal will function. This is ever
continuing and is a process of growth for living
organisms. The higher up the phylogenetic scale the more
pronounced are the effects of inadequate environments
(Simeons, 1960). That is to say, the more advanced the
animal the more profound are the effects of developmental
For most humans the in utero environment can be inadequate and stressful, providing for less than optimal
development. If the womb environment is extremely
depriving, the fetus can only experience life as dangerous.
He has limited reactions to danger, all of them physical
and a function of the primitive lower brain. As he learns to
respond to stress in this way it forms the structure and
possibly prototypic responses of his later life, so that any
later stress will evoke these early feelings. In other words,
he learns to respond to stress with severe autonomic reactions such as panic or shock. These extremely painful circumstances that can be a part of prenatal existence are not
remembered consciously. As the cerebral cortex forms it
becomes capable of repressing and symbolizing the pain
recorded in the lower brain. What has traditionally been
considered to be a fairly uneventful state in terms of the
effect on one's later life - the first nine months - is actually the most significant time in a human being's development.
Deficiencies in the womb environment are exclusively
physical - the need for oxygen, nutrition, fluids, growth,
proper temperature, balanced hormonal, endocrine, and
enzyme supply and genetic strength. In addition, Janov
describes what he calls the "central reality" of the infant,
which includes the need to grow and develop at its own
pace, to be held and caressed, to be stimulated, to be kept
comfortable, to be fed, and to be allowed to follow its own
growth impulses. An infant has no way of fulfilling these
needs himself; when they are not met he is left feeling
helpless, frightened, unprotected, and unloved. These
feelings, too, become a basis for how the adult perceives
himself and the world.
As the infant matures and his needs continue to be unfulfilled the situation begins to compound in seriousness.
He will pass through a number of important developmental states for which he is inadequately prepared. These are
physiologically triggered events meant to correspond, by
reason of evolution, with a cumulation of physical and
emotional readiness for its happening. These stages
happen whether or not that individual is prepared for
them. If, because of severe trauma, a current hostile environment, or previous assaults on its developing
mechanisms, the child is not ready for the next stage, we
may find an individual whose behavior and attitudes
reflect either an arrest at a certain developmental stage or
an incomplete development (Pearce,1977). For example, a
child should be ready at around age 10 months to leave his
mother and begin to explore more independently the
world around him. However, he will need to return frequently to assure himself that his mother is still there and has not left him. If his past experience has taught him to
doubt that she will be there when he returns, he may opt
to never "leave." This child may eventually become the
overly dependent adult, unable to make decisions,
passive-aggressive, asthmatic, etc. On the other hand,
another child may have learned as an infant that its signals
for attention and to have its needs met were ignored.
Adapting himself to this limited nourishment this child
formed an attitude of independence, "I can do it myself,"
long before the appropriate age. His personality is molded
with not only independence, but a withdrawal from
closeness and intimacy and an inability to form significant
In primal therapy we feel that it is not enough just to
discuss these arrested or inadequate levels of development.
In the therapeutic setting it is also necessary for the client
to return not only to the memory, but also the feelings
associated with it.
Our culture is anti-feeling. Children are expected or
forced to shut off their feelings; they lose the opportunity
to let their feelings out, to connect them, to place them in
some kind of perspective within their lives - and, to add
further injury, the child, in feeling the disapproval of his
parents, begins to feel the same negative reactions to his
own feelings. Hence, we see the adult not only suffering
with anxiety, depression, or inappropriate behavior he
cannot seem to control, but hating himself because of it.
There is then further shutting down of his real self and a
stronger reinforcement of neurotic and defensive
In summary, our assumptions are as follows:
- Experiences are stored in the organism from the moment of conception on. This notion runs counter to most
psychological and medical belief that the embryo, fetus
and even the newborn are insensate (Ferreira, 1969).
Witness the way circumcision is performed on the
- Because the organism is dependent on the environment to have survival needs met and because, gratuitously
or otherwise, they are not always met, some of his experiences are traumatic.
- The earlier in the development of the organism a
traumatic experience occurs, the more profound the effect.
- Experiences of a hostile environment or of events
which are life-threatening or traumatic are blocked from
full impact or awareness and distort straight line growth.
Cells modify shape or structure; body parts lose sensibility; events are forgotten or not perceived by the senses; etc.
- Fragments of blocked experiences continue into
adult life. A seemingly unconnected numbness in the left
hand of an adult may later be associated with repeated
slapping of the left hand while learning to write as a child.
- Experiences stored in the organism are retrievable.
That is, they can be felt again.
- Defenses that interfere with growth are jettisoned by
the client at his own pace.
- Feeling and integrating earlier blocked experiences
and expressing previously unexpressed feelings is of
- Our culture supports the suppression of both the expression and memory of negative feelings.
- Education is necessary to identify feelings and the
sensations which signify feelings especially those which
are remnants of early trauma.
- Feeling is the basic material and modus operandi of
The Setting and Format
The setting in which we do our work is somewhat unusual and will be described here. The Center has one very
large group room, several smaller group rooms and a
number of small individual rooms. There are no windows,
and the floors and walls are padded and sound proofed.
Pillows, blankets and kleenex are the only furnishings.
Sessions are usually carried out in dim lighting. The facility is open 24 hours so that clients can 'feel' on their own,
or with another client who will sit for them, or can meet as
a group without a staff member present, at any time.
Another important modification of usual psycho-therapeutic practice is that the rooms are scheduled for
three hours per session. Sessions run from one to three
Our full program involves a 3-week intensive during
which the client, who is devoting full time to his therapy,
is seen daily for a session lasting up to three hours. His
therapist is on call and additional emergency sessions may
be scheduled. He is seen twice by a therapist of the opposite sex from his primary therapist and may attend up to
six group sessions in addition to his regular session. At
groups he becomes familiar with the other therapists.
After the three weeks he has the choice of individual or
group sessions from the therapist(s) of his choice. We
recommend an 8-12 month period to be committed to
Introduction to Client Population
The information in this section describes clients who
have had the full program, the core of which is the 3-week
intensive. This past year, (1978-79), we have been experimenting with variations on this program to the extent
that we now take some clients on a once or twice a week
basis. In time we will have data on this new group.
The typical applicant for our full program has been
contemplating coming into primal therapy for more than a
year (as high as seven years). He or she has usually read
The Primal Scream, (Janov, 1970) or other primal
literature and searched out our Center . Often a usually
non-feeling person will describe having and experiencing
deep feelings while reading primal material. Some describe
a deep "inner knowing" that this process will help. They
then set about planning their lives so they can take the
time out for the commitment the therapy requires. At this
time many of our applicants have been referred by former
clients.(Some applicants have been led to have high false expectations which have to be dealt with in the initial enquiring interview.)
By the time they apply, they are usually highly
motivated to become involved in, if somewhat fearful of,
the process. However, since they have only a dim perception of the depth and extent of their pain, it is in the first
six months that the 2.%.5% who will have dropped out,
leave. The bulk of these leave during the first month.
A further description of our client population.
(These data are based on an N of 250 consecutively
As a group, our clients when contrasted with national
1. Greater birth traumas (pre- & post-mature, breech,
Caesarean section, twin, over 10 pounds at birth, especially
long or short labor, birth defect or injury).
2. More trouble with the law, previous psychotherapy
and hospitalizations (mental), suicide attempts, "mental illness" in the family, drug and alcohol dependency or heavy usage.
3. More siblings.
4. Fewer marriages: with an average age of 29 years, in
this sample 53% have never been married (national norm
5. Greater unemployment: 42% (national norm 8%) are
unemployed. This is colored by the fact that a number of
people come from distant places and give up their jobs just
to do the therapy.
Of the more recently treated 180 clients of the 250 on
whom the data were available, 95% had multiple psychophysiological disorders. The highest incidence (range -
21%-81%) were in following systems: muscular / skeletal,
gastrointestinal, respiratory, special senses & cardio-vascular.
It is our impression that our clients have had more
childhood abuse (psychological, sexual and physical) than
the population of patients seen in clinics by independent
While we do not use clinical diagnostic categories in
reference to our clients it is also our impression that our
population has included persons whose primary diagnosis
would fall into the psychoses, neuroses, personality disorders, psychophysiologic disorders and special symptoms as defined in the DSM II (1968).
In summary, then, we have a multiply handicapped
client group who have experienced extreme problems in
living and are highly motivated to change their life
Who benefits most.
As with most therapies, a highly motivated client who is
committed to enduring the pain and discomfort of the
struggle to be real is likely to change for the better.
However, there are several types for whom the process is
Persons who are in touch with their bodies seem to
move into the process and benefit more easily from primal
therapy. This stems from the fact that during the therapy
session we focus on the body, faces, gestures, large
movements and sensations. Since we are after the recovery
and expression of feeling, and feelings start in the body it
is important to move to that level as soon as practicable.
(General rules for guiding the therapist are to move
from the present to the past; general to the specific;
cognitive to physical.) We also think that physical data are more reliable of
what's happening in an individual than is cognitive data.
This again, leads us to consider it more efficient to work
with body manifestations.
People who are in touch with their bodies may show it
in several ways. One such group are they who somatize
their pain. This may range from the severe asthmatic or
arthritic to the person who carries tension in parts, or all,
of his body. When they come to therapy they already have
body manifestations of their underlying pain and are easily directed to these entrances of channels into their feelings.
A second group are in touch with their bodies in
another fashion. Even though they have learned for the
most part, to ignore body messages (for example: "You're
tired, it's time to stop"), in favor of some more pressing
internalized environmental message ("Quitters never
amount to anything") they are still aware that the body is
saying something. With a little help in focusing they begin
to find their own "track" into their past history. Persons
in this group are often easier to work with than most.
Another group who benefit are people who "can't get
anything done." They seem to combine the traits of
neurasthenic neurotic, asthenic and inadequate personality. They are often on welfare or Medicaid. (We have been unofficially commended by Medicaid for our record in getting patients off their rolls.)
They spend much of their early therapy dealing with feelings that stem
from birth and pre-birth trauma. The positive changes
that occur in this group are generally slower in coming
than the group mentioned above. There is a long period of
slow growth followed by a blooming in which they take a
place in the world consistent with their chronological age.
One reason for the slowness in movement with these people seems to be that in addition to feeling their feelings in therapy they must also learn to do things in the real world
they never learned as children - coping mechanisms other
persons have in their repertoire even though they may not
be using them efficiently or at all.