Attunement in Hakomi Therapy: Bringing ‘Self’ to the Surface

We are not our thoughts.

Many arrive at psychotherapy with a limited or unstable sense of Self. They feel unsure, conflicted, or “blank,” sometimes acting out in ways that seem confusing, disconnected, or out of control. Maybe they have never been to therapy, or they have experienced talk therapy but never really felt any different.

Hakomi experiential therapy fills the blanks—those unknown or unknowable interior spaces—by teaching us new ways to know and feel Self, completing a map that appears complete from a distance but muddled or blurred up close.

To notice is to know.

Mapping through Attunement

When a parent is attuned, he or she is noticing and responding to the nonverbal needs of the child. This is not simply noticing when a baby is hungry or needs a diaper changed. It’s a continual dance—a feedback loop of action and expression between parent and child. It includes both physical and emotional needs, and much of it happens automatically, more often when a parent feels secure and present.

When the parent is insecure, the child sees and responds to that, doing or becoming what it needs to soothe the parent, denying that child a full sense of Self.

Attunement does not change who we are. It changes the way we relate to who we are. It affects our awareness and expression of Self. It directly affects our comfort from moment to moment by promoting internal conflict or integration—framing Self as enemy or ally.

In the safety of a loving, attuned relationship, an infant first experiences Self reflected by Other. Bodily sensations form needs and behaviors, send a signal out into the world, and trigger response from those around us. Our caregivers identify, name, and often reflect judgment as we experience expression of various parts of Self. We develop a vocabulary of sensations connected to emotions. Throughout the process, we are internalizing a set of rules, learning to navigate interpersonal relationships, learning how to treat Self and handle emotion, and creating a sense of identity.

Many of our internal conflicts were inherited by noticing and absorbing the responses of caregivers. If they ignored or dismissed our needs, we learned that we did not matter. We either disconnected from our bodies, desensitizing from overwhelm, or we developed some part of Self to contain unwanted traits—those qualities that upset our caregivers. Either path separated us from a stable sense of Self.

The Common Trauma: a World of Human Contact

What happens when a parent becomes distracted? Self-absorbed? Dissociated? When activated, believes that certain traits or behaviors are not acceptable, that they might draw threat?

What happens when attunement breaks down?

John Bowlby, founder of attachment theory, said, “What cannot be communicated to the [m]other cannot be communicated to the self.”

When a parent doesn’t “get it”—fails to understand the needs of a child—the child becomes seemingly inconsolable, the parent gets frustrated, depressed, or angry, and the child internalizes the parent’s reaction to this need.

Sometimes the missing puzzle pieces turn out to be those parts of Self from which we’ve separated for the sake of survival, for the preservation of connection to caregivers.

In some cases, where external reflection was lacking, the missing pieces were never defined or constructed.

As trauma pioneer Bessel van der Kolk wrote in The Body Keeps the Score, “Treatment needs to address not only the imprints of specific traumatic events but also the consequences of not having been mirrored, attuned to, and given consistent care and affection: dissociation and loss of self-regulation.”

Hakomi Therapy: Internalizing a Safe Base from Which to Explore

The process of Hakomi therapy often includes internal exploration, eyes closed. For many, the therapist represents our first experience of our “witnessing self” (our nonjudgmental observer) and our attuned, compassionate parent. When we have spent years separated from bodily experience (very common in response to trauma), an attuned therapist has the ability to see things we may not notice as we focus inward: a nodding head, a constricted posture, a quivering muscle, a fist we didn’t know we formed, or our halted breath as we unconsciously attempt to contain unacceptable or seemingly unbearable emotion.

When we feel seen and accepted, we become open to exploration. We see and accept ourselves. Our world expands. Connecting these missing physical components to the internal experience brings new awareness: a depth and breadth, a multidimensional map of moment-to-moment experience, and a greater understanding of Self as these many interconnected, interdependent parts. (And, for many, a sense of Self as greater than the sum of these many parts—a vantage sometimes impossible to reach before noticing the nature and interactions of the many parts.)

According to Hakomi’s founder, Ron Kurtz, the word “Hakomi,” in ancient Hopi, means, “How do you stand in relation to these many realms?”

A Compassionate Construction of Self

Self finds definition through interaction with Other. If our primary attachment figures show us we are wanted and welcome, we internalize that message, treating ourselves as welcome and wanted.

Many of us, at some level, both crave and fear the idea of finding someone willing and wanting to remain with us through our entire range of experience—to validate everything that we intuitively know we are. For many, attunement itself remains a missing experience.

The process and presence of Hakomi therapy, for many, provides this missing experience.

In tracking multiple forms of experience and relating with loving presence, therapy at this intimate, bodily level conveys healing messages:

  • “I see you.”
  • “You matter.”
  • “This is what you’re feeling.”
  • “These are the physical sensations of this emotion.”
  • “This is the quality of your thoughts while in this state.”
  • “This is how you habitually react to these thoughts.”
  • “These are some other strategies.” Or, “These are some options to try when you notice these sensations.” Or, “Let’s try this.”
  • “Your anger/enthusiasm/silence/sadness/frustration/fear/joy/confusion/etc is not too much. I am not afraid or bothered by your emotion. I will not punish it and I will not leave you.”
  • “I want to be with you. Let’s sit and feel this together.”

Meeting Our Unmet Self

Many of us came into the world feeling unmatched, unseen. We learned to hide parts of Self in order to fit, or we simply did not see ourselves. Aspects of Self were reflected inaccurately or not at all.

Secure attunement provides a gradual process of developing eyes to see. What begins with external reflection by Other becomes an ongoing practice of self-reflection: introspection and introception—feeling and exploring our inner world. With a surrogate attachment figure who understands the corrective potential of attunement, we have an opportunity to experience a new awareness and integration of a core Self—a core that naturally withdrew from a world in which it felt unwelcome.

Much as we internalize parents, the simple process of sitting with an attuned therapist is an experience we can take in, make part of our identity, and refer to as a model for ways to notice and honor Self.

Many individuals arrive at therapy unaware of missing pieces, trying to complete a puzzle that has no form. A grounded, defined sense of Self begins to form when we see our traits, qualities, habits, and bodily movements reflected without judgment. We find missing pieces that may have remained invisible for a lifetime, until an attuned witness, with compassion, acknowledged, accepted, and echoed back to us these valuable and wanted aspects of Self.

© Copyright 2015 by Jeremy McAllister, MA, LPCI, therapist in Portland, Oregon. All Rights Reserved.