1. Toward and Away
2. Like it / Don’t like it
3. Boundary-Setting Script Rehearsal
“Toward and Away” is a well-known physical proximity exercise that can be done with groups, couples, and individual clients.
One person stands still and their partner, facing them from a few yards away, moves slowly toward the still person until the still one detects some sensation of alarm or hesitation and then tells the person coming toward them to stop. Clients usually need a few attempts at this to become sensitized to the somatic cues of their own boundaries, and it tends to be a satisfying process of self-discovery. Variations can include approaching from the sides, from the back, or with varying speeds.
In groups, two lines of participants face each other and practice with the person facing them, taking turns. Couples do this with each other. Therapists can also practice this with their individual clients, volunteering as the "still" person if the client needs a demonstration of tracking somatic cues related to boundaries, threat, and safety.
Like it/ Don’t like it
One of the ways to introduce different aspects of relational dynamics is to designate one side of the room (or piece of paper if constrained) as “like it most” and the opposite side as “don’t like it at all”. Call out likes and dislikes at intervals, especially in regard to interpersonal dynamics, and have clients organize themselves along the spectrum for each statement, evaluating and expressing how much they (and their neighbors) like or don’t like something. This exercise has endless room for creativity, but examples relevant to the setting of interpersonal boundaries include statements such as:
1) I like being alone when I’m angry;
2) I like to resolve conflict immediately;
3) I respond well to a thoughtful or expensive peace offering; and
4) I really like being held by someone safe when I’m upset.
This can be adapted to work with groups, families, couples, and individuals. It creates a safe space to playfully and honestly self-assess, understand each other, and express our individual preferences and shared neuroses.
Boundary-Setting Script Rehearsal
A fan of action methods, I have rarely been disappointed by combining somatic tracking with empty chair work to create a powerful therapeutic intervention. Using trauma physiology and affect tolerance to inform the practice of communicating interpersonal boundaries is a satisfying iterative process. The integration of somatic practice and action methods makes space for organic expressions of healthy aggression, dissociative adaptations, attachment behaviors and other coping strategies that make up the meat of therapeutic insight. This increased self-knowledge leads to a greater sense of choice and capacity for effective communication once attended to and worked through.
The process is this: A client (with moderate affect tolerance) imagines someone they need, or needed, to establish a boundary with in the empty chair. As they attempt to articulate their boundary setting, the therapist helps them identify and process the feelings and instincts that arise and inhibit their honest expression of needs in their actual relationships.
This exercise is ideal for individual sessions and group therapy. It can be useful in couple and family therapy, although it’s worth noting that the tension of the exercise increases dramatically when the invisible subject in the empty chair also happens to be visible, present and observing the exercise from the same room.
Provided by By Sonya Denise Ullrich, MS, AMFT, SEP, ABMP
Sonya Denise Ullrich, APCC, SEP is a practitioner with twelve years of experience in somatic trauma resolution and twenty years in manual therapies. She has a background in Somatic Experiencing, Feldenkrais, PACT couple therapy, and human ecology. She currently practices somatic psychotherapy throughout San Diego county, assists trainings in touch skills for trauma resolution, coordinates regional events for the California Association for Professional Clinical Counselors, and teaches workshops on touch skills for couples.
She worked in a range of addiction treatment settings in California and Arizona and has developed addiction treatment programming based on somatic trauma resolution and attachment theory. She is passionate about interdisciplinary social science and global health. She is pursuing opportunities to research the use of touch cross-culturally and use participatory methods to develop culturally appropriate programming for trauma resolution.
Learn more about her work online.