In our last post ‘Punch bags, boxing gloves, and psychotherapy – setting the scene‘ we looked at setting the scene for any bag work to take place, mainly exploring three safety rules: no harm to self; no harm to other; no harm to environment. We also briefly explored some of the ways a therapist can start to gather some information about the client by observing the client on the bag without any direction/instruction (other than the rules mentioned above of course). In this post we will discuss using the bag for anger expression, focusing on non-verbal communication from the client, your (the therapist) interpretation, and working intuitively from moment to moment. Later posts will then look at stress work, and other kinds of work that can be done using a punch bag, bringing about therapeutic change for the client.
So how do we decide that bag work might be useful? Is it only considered when ‘anger’ comes up in the therapy room? Suggesting therapeutic work using the punch bag is often because the psychotherapist notices it has come to mind during a therapy session, probably in response to what a client has brought (presenting problem) or is speaking about. The therapist then offers bag work to the client as a way to explore, understand, or resolve the brought issue, and then discuss ‘how’ the proposed bag work might be useful. However, if this kind of work is new to the therapist, it is likely that the first work with a client will be around anger or stress management initially, so consequently, this is a good place to start.
Firstly I think it highly important to highlight that anger is a positive emotion to feel. Many view and experience anger as being negative, however anger is natural and like other natural sensations within the body, has a message to give. Authentic anger solves a problem, and needs to be directed outwardly from the self in order to deliver this message, such as setting a needed boundary, moving people away from you, letting another know you are unhappy with their behaviour, or fighting for your survival or existence in the world. In Transactional analysis we use the term ‘authentic’ as opposed to ‘inauthentic’ anger which often serves to ‘cover’ another emotion. Working with anger on the punch bag can either be with authentic, or inauthentic anger, as anger in any form still needs to be expressed outwardly, and often helps to uncover any covered or associated emotions.
Secondly, a small caveat for therapists unfamiliar with body work, bag work, or martial arts; it might be useful to become familiar with anger/bag work first, in order for you to work effectively with your client, perhaps with the use of a mirror to identify your own body script. Any personal issues with anger should, of course, be dealt with before attempting to work with your client’s anger. Modelling safe and healthy anger is far more potent than talking to your client about how to express anger safely and healthily.
Embedded within the invitation to a client to externalise or express anger, will be a permission to become angry, and to show their anger in front of you (the therapist). This invitation may go against strongly held beliefs and values around anger itself, or the expression of anger, depending on the clients past upbringing (“women don’t get angry”, “it’s dangerous”, “somebody always gets hurt”, the modelling of violent anger, non-angry family systems etc). The skill then, is for you to interpret any signals from the client, and use enquiry to establish the safety of any possible anger work. Already we are doing ‘body work’ here, observing non-verbal clues about the clients ‘anger’ system. These clues could be anything from large obvious movements, such as a step backward/pushing self back in the seat, a sharp intake of breath, to small changes in breathing, facial expressions, minor muscle changes, and eye movements/pupil dilation. Although not always necessary, an understanding of these clues may lead to your offering of further permissions to the client as needed (“it’s okay to say no”, “stop when you need to”, “you can experiment and have fun”, “you can make as much noise as you need to” “you can hit the bag as hard or as soft as is comfortable or natural to you” etc), a withdrawal of the exercise, or the holding of information for further assessment.
Now imagine for a moment what it might be like (you may have already experienced this), for somebody to invite you to start punching a punch bag in the middle of the room, and then just stand or sit nearby to watch. Some of you may start to feel rather uncomfortable, as this way of working is rather paradoxical, such as asking somebody to be spontaneous ‘right now’. Often the therapist will need to be part of the process, to demonstrate and model some ‘okay’ anger first. Depending on the client (who may just go ahead without noticing the therapist at all), you may need to ‘take it in turns’ to help the client familiarise themselves with the bag and/or the expression of their anger.
Some clients may need to ‘learn’ how to express anger, and this may become apparent during the bag work itself. I like to demonstrate the expression of anger in two distinct forms, healthy and unhealthy.
- Unhealthy anger involves an invasion of either our own, or somebody else’s personal boundary; on the punch bag I normally demonstrate this as a rather exaggerated aggressive full body move into the bag, usually with a ‘snarl’ like expression on my face, and verbally with an aggressive ‘growl’. My body will be leaning forward and will eventually make contact with the bag.
- Healthy anger involves the ‘holding’ of our boundary or meeting somebody else’s square on; I demonstrate this with my body balanced and in line (shoulders over hips, hips over knees, knees over ankles), and fully ‘grounded’ to the floor with a low centre of gravity (from the abdomen), holding one arm outstretched in front of me, with my hand inches away from the bag in a ‘stop’ like pose, I usually accompany this with a loud ‘no’. At no point does my body hit the bag.
These two polarities of anger serve to integrate anger as a whole, to know what is in the middle and to discover our own body script of anger and what will work for us. Clients can be invited to copy and demonstrate these two states, and consequently experience the differences between the two, learning on both a physical/kinaesthetic level as well as a cognitive one, in fact it’s usefully to ask them to identify the differences using both their thinking and feeling responses.
Once acquainted with moving their body and striking out with their fists in a rather controlled manner, they can then be invited to experiment with what’s in-between, and also perhaps experiment with using their voice to express the first words or noises that come to mind. This invitation often brings up many issues relating to their self-confidence, self-esteem, and their belief system, sometimes in the form of old internal recordings around shame. Observing their behaviour immediately following the invitation will give you clues to the clients past. I often find that clients are most likely to adapt initially, (perhaps pleasing you at the expense of feeling shame or discomfort), and this is another good opportunity for you to become part of the process; to normalise making noise and shouting.
In martial arts we use a particular technique called ‘kiai’, this is a channelling of core energy (from below the navel point), releasing it through a shout, at the point of contact (this is, of course a rather basic explanation, and actually the kiai is worthy of a little research in order to help clients externalise ‘all’ of their anger or stress).
I believe that learning and teaching the breathing and voice expression involved in kiai is fundamental to any bag work with stress and anger. Anger in its very nature belongs outwards from ourselves, and the holding of both our breath and voice expression means that the anger is internalised and harmful to the self. Clients could potentially release anger and stress fully and completely by this method alone, without any physical contact with the punch bag, so often the channelling of energy is what I pay great attention to. So much information can be discovered through observing how the client holds themselves, and their breath, and therapeutic work can then take place, gently allowing a full cathartic release to take place.
A small note here about swearing. Some clients just go ahead and use swear words as a way of releasing their anger. I actively encourage swearing during anger work to interrupt any adaptive response, a permission to swear as an adult (the permission is heard by the clients Child ego state) who is no longer bound by parental rules. This can free up a client’s fantasy that they will be told off, or that they will shock/hurt the other (the therapist in this case, although the fantasy is more likely to involve the internal replaying of old parent tapes).
Clients will usually find their own rhythm when hitting the bag; sometimes without missing a beat! Pay attention to this rhythm, notice what it is telling you. You may use this rhythm to experiment, change it to a slower beat, faster, intermittent, random etc. Ask them how they react to each change, and how this relates to their anger. They may wear themselves out very quickly, ask how this relates to their life or life story. How are you interpreting the client’s rhythm? What are your reactions? Any transference and countertranference will be informative and may change the therapeutic direction of the exercise (an example of the therapist feeling extreme fear as countertransference, may decide to end the exercise in favour of connecting with the clients fear, rather than their anger, or unpack the experience, to establish ‘who is scared’).
Depending on the type of relationship you have with the client will depend on whether you have contracted for a set amount of time to do the bag work, or agreed the client will let you know that they have had enough, or completed the work. However, you may need to use your intuition to know when the client has had enough, as their experience and belief system may not yet have the ‘knowing’ when to stop, this is especially true to clients that ‘please others’ and adapt.
Leaving a good chunk of time at the end of the session enables a settling and cooling down period, and some time to discuss, unpack and integrate the experience. Returning to the sessional contract can clarify the therapeutic value of the exercise, establish any further work, and if the client got what they wanted from the session. I usually invite the client to experience any sensations within the body through a five minute meditation, either guided or in silence. This can be particularly important to help clients who primarily use their ‘thinking’ to make sense of the world, to expand and grow their kinaesthetic awareness as there are usually lots of obvious physical sensations going on within the body to focus on.
Although anger work (using a punch bag) on the surface may seem to be nothing more than releasing some energy and having some fun, for the therapist it needs to be well thought through, being mindful of safety aspects (e.g. potential for shame), the clients diagnosis (e.g. potential to reinforce their patterns), and the treatment plan (e.g. potential harm if not contacted for, or therapeutically beneficial). Modelling and taking part in the process is extremely important for the therapist, and can be a great ‘growing edge’ (challenging yourself as a therapist). Body work, anger work, and punch bag work can form a ‘part’ treatment of the ‘whole’, and help both you and the client gain understanding, enhancing the therapeutic relationship, and ultimately completing the therapeutic contract, ideally with the client becoming healthy, content, and autonomous.
In the next blog (part 3) I shall discuss stress release using the punch bag, and other therapeutic uses.