How does Integrated Feeling Therapy (IFT) differ from classic Primal Therapy?
Jeff Cohen: My initial training was in primal therapy, from 1981 through 1986. As a practicing therapist, I began seeing both the strengths and weaknesses of the classic model of primal therapy. The main theoretical strength was the concept of the three layers of pain (first, second, and third line pain). This was a brilliant leap forward in our understanding of mental illness. The main clinical strength was the development of a process whereby the therapist assists the client to follow the line of pain from present day distress all the way back to the beginning of their life. At this point, early preverbal trauma can be accessed. Primal therapy held that by feeling this early pain, neurosis would be cured. I discovered through my work that this was not the case. In fact, that belief turned out to be one of the main weaknesses of primal therapy, and this is where I emphatically diverge from classical primal theory. Just feeling the pain is not enough to heal. The analogy I like to use in describing my discovery is the following: just feeling that the well is empty (as in cathartic primal experience) doesn’t automatically give us the ability to fill up the well. In other words, feeling the lack of love, feeling the various manifestations of physical, sexual and emotional abuse that so many of us endured doesn’t, in and of itself, give us the tools we need to learn how to love and be loved as adults. Primal mainly teaches us how unloved and rejected we were. In my opinion and clinical experience that is not enough to cause healing to occur.
How does healing happen in IFT?
Jeff Cohen: IFT is built entirely on the concept of learning how to love and be loved. This is a crucial departure from classical primal work. In IFT, the client does not just feel old pain, but rather is engaged in an actively transformative process. IFT gives a person the tools they need to become truly able to give and receive love. I believe that very little real healing happens until this transformation occurs. It’s moving from being the victim to being the victor. The entire therapy (including the training of IFT therapists, the intensive, private therapy, group therapy, and couples therapy) has this as the primary goal of treatment: transforming the unloved child into a loving adult.
How does this transformation into a fully loving adult occur?
Jeff Cohen: First of all, I view the therapist-client relationship as crucial to healing. The modeling, the feedback, the honesty, the integrity of this relationship is the most important “tool” to aid in the transformative process. If is often through this relationship that the client first experiences trust in another human being. In order to truly love, we must be able to trust in another. We consistently challenge the client to take the information gained from IFT to go out and make positive changes in their lives. This is often the harder part of therapy, harder than just feeling old pain in a therapy room, yet this is where true healing begins to occur. In order to do this, the client needs to have the will, in other words, the combination of desire and strength, to change their lives. The relationship of trust between the therapist and client provides the bridge to assist the client in the integration of past pain to present day change. This is the heart of the work.
How does “will” affect therapeutic outcomes?
Jeff Cohen: Therapeutically speaking, will is a combination of the desire and strength to effect change. It is the crucial determining factor to success or failure in therapy, and involves the client letting go of old patterns of behavior while actively seeking new positive choices and ways of being. Since the old patterns were rooted in early relationships based on the deprivation or denial of real needs, the client needs a lot of support during this time. The process is akin to taking baby steps, in that often it is three steps forward, two steps back. Support is provided through both individual and group therapy, and the physical environment at the therapy center – peaceful waiting area, soundproofed and padded walls, soft lighting. The message is one of safety, confidentiality, and respect, which create the right environment for healing. This allows the “will” of a person to find a true voice. Clients become connected, often for the first time in their lives, with their true healthy adult needs. Clients become empowered to transform themselves from the abused and hurt child of their early lives to become productive, creative, loving members of society.
What has been the evolution of group therapy in IFT?
Jeff Cohen: In my early years of doing group work I followed the classical primal therapy model. Clients would come into a large room, lie down, and for 1 ½ hours try to access their feelings. Therapists would go around the room and try to help people go into their feelings. This would be followed by a half hour post-group, when people would share what they felt their primal was about. Then everyone would leave. Over time, although many clients deeply felt their feelings and had tremendous insight into the roots of their pain, I observed that feeling pain and having insight was not enough for many clients to effect change in their lives. People needed guidance at this point. My frustration with the limitations of this type of group led to the development of the IFT model. I began thinking of the dynamic of a dysfunctional family, in which the real self of the child isn’t recognized or supported to grow. Vulnerability is often not allowed, creativity is often squelched, honest confrontations aren’t allowed or supported. I found myself exploring ways to structure the group to function as a supportive, guiding family. I felt that this corrective group therapy experience combined with the deep work of individual therapy would enable me to help people in a more effective way. I developed the IFT model of a therapy group, which has a number of unique aspects. Lasting two hours, it starts with a 10 minute meditation that I designed to help each client focus inward to get in touch with the most important issues to bring up in the group. Group then proceeds to a deep sharing by each client. It includes asking for support to do the difficult things in life, asking for honest feedback about a problem, and learning how to honestly confront, and be confronted by, another person in the group. These are all encouraged and eventually expected from all the group members. Music, dance, or theater may be used to release repressed feelings and get our energy moving. Clients are encouraged to share personal expressions of creativity, in whatever form that might entail. Of course, deep feelings arise in the group, but they are not the focus; the focus is to give those in the group the tools they need to use their insights to effect change in their lives. The combination of this type of group, in conjunction with private therapy is profoundly transformational.
- An IFT group teaches the client how to find a healthy support system outside of therapy.
- An IFT group shows the client that change is possible at any age, at any time of life.
- An IFT group helps the client recover from psychological injuries.
IFT groups include people of many different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. What is it about IFT that attracts so many different types of people? Why is IFT able to provide such effective treatment for such a wide-ranging patient population?
Jeff Cohen: I have found that no matter how different our backgrounds might be, what we want and need in life is similar. We all need to love and be loved. We all need to have creative, productive work. We all need people we can share our deepest selves with. IFT is built on a transformation of the self. People are drawn to IFT for those reasons, regardless of their background.