Psychotherapy and Training Collective of New York

It's Never Too Late to Have a Wonderful Childhood: The Healing Power of Symbolic Memories in PBSP Therapy

by Portia Franklin, LCSW

I will never forget the first time I witnessed the seeming magic of PBSP therapy—a woman, who I will call Annie, was deeply engaged in a role play process, making a "virtual memory" of a loving, "ideal father" who would have been the opposite of the hard-edged military man she actually had to endure as a child.

In the role play, the ideal father spoke: "If I had been back there then, when you were a little girl, I wouldn't have been harsh and rough, I would have been loving and playful with you." Annie's face softened as she heard these words; there was an innocence, an openness in her eyes, and she looked like a young child as her body leaned toward him, then snuggled against him for comfort. More painful memories then surfaced of her actual father. She tearfully remembered: "He would be so rough with us—he would always hurt us when we played."

The "witness figure," who sees and names feelings in PBSP, spoke as Annie crumpled over in pain: "I see how much you suffer, remembering what it was like with your actual father." She shook her head, grateful for the validation. Then she looked with longing toward the man playing her Ideal Father, who was then instructed to say: "If I had been your ideal father, I wouldn't have been rough when we played, I would have always been gentle with you."

Annie looked gratefully and hopefully at him, shifting once again to a young state. Though she was not aware of it at the time, her thumbs were contacting each other in a sort of playful dance. (Since this work is interactive, contact that we give ourselves is often indicative of contact we long for from another person.) The therapist gave feedback about this, and suggested that Annie make contact with her ideal father's thumb. She giggled at the idea and proceeded to initiate what became a joyous thumb game with him. The role player was instructed to meet her energies, without adding anything, so that this symbolic memory would exactly match what Annie needed.

At the end of the session (or structure, as it is called), the therapist helped Annie to make a memory of the experience that would last, by thinking of herself at a young age, having such a wonderful "ideal father", and noting all the sensory details—of his words, his touch, and the felt sense of his presence.

Annie has been a dear friend since that time, and still speaks of her early work with a sense of awe: "The shift in me was so powerful, so visceral—By experiencing my ideal father, and later my ideal mother, I realized in a way that I never had, what a balanced family is like. That awareness allowed me to see and change a negative dynamic that had been going on with my husband and my daughter for years."

Since Annie's father was frequently away from home, involved in military conflicts, her mother did most of the parenting. Annie had repeated this pattern with her daughter, Sarah, in a totally unconscious way: when 4 year-old Sarah was "mad at Daddy" because he had set a limit of some kind, she would run to Annie, who would comfort her. Annie realized after the above session, that she was fostering a split between her husband and her daughter. With this realization, she responded differently the next time Sarah complained about her dad. Instead of comforting her, Annie went over to her husband, put her arms around him and said: "This man, your daddy, is my husband, and I love him very much. And we both love you." With that one action, the pattern changed. Sarah, who's now 20 years old, was able to bond with her father, and they continue to have a positive relationship.

There were seven of us participating in that introductory training with Al Pesso, the co-founder of PBSP, on that warm July morning in 1991. We had all come to Franklin, New Hampshire, where Al lived and worked, motivated by a desire to do deep, personal work as well as to learn new skills that would make us more effective as therapists.

As we arrived for the first day of the six-day training, there was a sense of excitement and expectancy. We sat in a semi-circle, facing Al, a 60ish man, with bushy eyebrows and intense eyes that radiated curiosity, openness and an eagerness to share this process with us. We knew that he and his wife, Diane Boyden Pesso, had come to psychotherapy via an unconventional route—through the world of dance.

Al had studied with Martha Graham in the late 1950's. During that time he and his wife had developed an intuitive awareness of the connections between body, mind, emotion, memory, perception and behavior in the world. Long before neuroscientists became aware of the degree to which autobiographical memory shapes how we see and respond to the world, the Pesso's got it. From this awareness, they developed this approach to emotional re-education and healing based on the creation of new, symbolic memories of what should have been—richly textured, deeply felt experiences of what it would have been like to have had early needs met by the right people at the right age. From this perspective, you don't have to have actually had a perfect childhood in order to live well in the world; you just need to have a deep sense of what you would feel like and what the world would look like, had that been the case.

Portia Franklin, LCSW