Does primal therapy work? One woman's primal therapy journey.
Updated: Jun 26
From a very young age, I felt different to the rest of my family like I didn’t belong. As I got older, I thought that surely I must have been adopted (which I wasn’t) as I felt so alone and separate from my family. I wanted to belong and thought that there must be something wrong with me as my parents seemed to care so little about me. I was unaccustomed to touching or being touched. I remember Mum brushing my hair, but there are no memories of hugs and cuddles and kisses. No memories of affection or love. There’s just nothing there. I remember at Kinder it was weird and felt uncomfortable when other little girls held my hand. I hadn’t learned how it felt to be liked by someone, let alone what it was like to feel loved. I became a good girl and behaved how I thought Mum and Dad expected me to, but it never got me the love, affection and attention I yearned for. I had felt alone and sad for most of my life.
I know now that my Mum was actually a bit crazy at times and when I was very young, she would speak inappropriately in a sexual way about my Dad and men in general. She would be on the verge of hysteria, with this crazy wild look in her eyes. I didn’t know how to tell her to stop because I was young and she was so scary. Her words affected me so that I felt deeply ashamed of my body and my sexuality. As I grew, I became scared that when my Dad looked at me, he would want sex with me. When watching TV in the lounge room, I used to sit in my chair across from Dad and make sure that I wasn’t showing any skin from my tiptoes all the way up to my ears, because I was afraid my Dad would want sex with me.
I remember when I was very young someone touched my little breasts inappropriately, I think it was my Mum, but I can’t remember a face. I was left feeling confused and scared of men but also unable to feel comfortable and safe with women. The only times I felt safe was when I was on my own, and even then I was often afraid some man would break in and rape me. Now as an adult when making love with my partner I sometimes do not want to be looked at. If I see the desire in his face, I close off and want to run away and hide from the panic I feel. So we have to stop, and if he holds me tenderly in a non-sexual way, I start to feel safe again.
As my family had newly immigrated to Australia, there were no relatives around. Mum and Dad avoided talking to each other, and there was a lot of tension between them. They rarely socialised with friends, so I didn’t learn how to make small talk or to get along easily with others. I remember my family playing board games together and going out for drives to explore the countryside but I don’t recall feeling safe or loved with them. I still have trouble feeling like I fit it in and often feel inadequate socially, and even though I can socialise now it can be a strain for me, and I prefer small groups or to be on my own.
I started dating, and my parents let me know they thought I was “up to no good” when I was out, even though I had only kissed and cuddled my boyfriend. That crushed the last of my self-esteem and I soon let my boyfriend have sex with me. I had become emotionally numb and unable to recognise my own needs and wants. I had not learnt how to work out what made me feel good or bad and didn’t really know how to say ”No” to anyone because I was so conditioned to finding ways to please others.
During my teens and early twenties, I felt like a chameleon. I would become what I thought was wanted from me. I was such a doormat with no personality of my own and few friends. By my mid-twenties I had moved out and was living alone and felt depressed and not “normal” like other people. I was different. I thought something must be wrong with me but didn’t know what it was. I was having sexual fantasies about my Dad which made me feel ashamed, so I sought help from a few different psychiatrists and psychologists, but they didn’t help me to feel better, and I actually started to feel worse about myself.
I had started to experiment using alcohol to numb the way I felt and was becoming increasingly depressed. I suffered from a constant headache and backaches, and I just knew I had to get help somehow. Then a friend discovered primal therapy, and I noticed how she was changing for the better. So I started the therapy too because I didn’t want to be left behind and who knows it might help me.
I was so shut down emotionally it took me quite some time to be able to learn how to allow my feelings to come to the surface. Someone suggested that I pretend I was an actress during a therapy session, and act the way I thought I felt, in other words, to magnify the emotion that I thought was present in my body at that moment, and it worked. The old saying about fake it till you make it helped me to access my feelings further so that I gradually learnt how to tune in to recognize them in my body and release them.
The feeling that came up most often was sadness, and I cried and cried, often not knowing why. All I knew was that I felt better afterwards, so I kept coming back and letting it out. Seeing and hearing other people express their feelings in primal therapy group was so therapeutic for me because it made me feel more normal. It really helped me when the therapists shared some of their own life and therapy experiences. It made them real to me, not distant like the other health professionals I’d seen, and this sharing helped me to feel less self-conscious which made it so much easier for me to talk about my vulnerable feelings.
There were times when I was sure I wasn’t getting to the bottom of the depths of the pain that was coming up for me, and I learnt that my way was to release it in bits at a time, and gradually it felt like I was getting to the core of it. I found that as I expressed my emotional feelings during therapy, out in the world, I was often more able to choose how I wanted to respond to different situations, instead of just reacting to them as I had done all my life.
I found that another way to express things was through making noises and moving my body around (kicking movements, flapping my hands, stretching my neck and arching my back are a few examples). Using words sometimes just didn’t do it for me and seemed to distract me from the feeling I was trying to express. Often, I had no idea why I was doing these movements, and I just kept going to the session because I was finding that I generally felt better about myself after an emotional release session there.
After a while, it didn’t matter to me that I didn’t understand why I felt the inexplicable sadness and moved in strange ways. Of course, I would have liked to make the connections to be able to join the dots at the time. But the process often wasn’t that transparent to me. I had to learn to trust that I would feel better anyway after a session and that things would make sense down the track because that’s how the therapy often worked for me.
After I’d been in therapy for a while, I began to put myself and my need before those of my mother, so that I wasn’t taking care of her emotional needs because I was putting myself first. I felt like one day when she dies it would be no big deal as we weren’t close and I wouldn’t miss her. Then my Mum committed suicide. It was really tough. I was shocked at how the impact of her suicide rocked my world, and I kept going numb emotionally so I could cope. But I kept on coming in for primal sessions and releasing the excruciating pain of the hurt, the guilt and the tremendous anger I felt towards her. I’m still struggling with my neediness for love by putting other people before myself, but now I recognise how much I struggle with the huge fear that if I don’t do what other people want me to, then I run the risk that they will turn away from me too... just like Mum did.
Sharing what I’ve been working on after a session or after the group was very difficult at first. I didn’t want to be the focus of attention and often felt I wasn’t worth listening to. I was ashamed and too embarrassed to share. I was so nervous, but the sharing has actually proven to be an essential part of my growth. The acceptance and support I received from others in the group, as well as the therapists, helped my low self-worth. The feedback from sharing my journey not only helped me. It helped make sense of things and gave me concrete ways to actually make the changes that would be necessary for me to do things in a better way - to achieve better outcomes for myself.