A Syndrome of Failure
When abreaction becomes an embedded groove, it’s like a hellish path to nowhere. It is a defense disguised as a feeling, so it creates no insights and produces no resolution. Instead, abreaction promotes recurrent act-outs that can get reinforced by repetition. When powerful first line is present it doesn't generate genuine insights. In fact it can give birth to fake or far-out "insights." That is the danger of so-called rebirthing therapy, which deliberately plunges patients into first-line pain out of sequence, when they are not ready for it. The technique overwhelms the integrating capacity of the brain and the patient is flooded with strange ideas and bizarre notions. Suddenly, he is “at one with the Universe,” or perhaps “merged with the Almighty.” And if the therapist is mystical, he may not find all this so strange. I have seen people who have gone to rebirthing centers and come to us pre-psychotic. (More on the dangers of rebirthing therapy in a moment.) In these cases, the sequence or order of feeling has been interrupted. The result is serious; we simply cannot order evolution around but rather, we must obey its dictates. Clinically, that means knowing how to identify the right feeling track for the patient and keeping the session on that track, a skill that is trickier than it sounds.
Since abreaction is not curative, patients are trapped in a forever need “to feel.” Nothing is ever resolved so the pain is never felt or emptied out. Thus, in a very sinister way, abreaction can induce a recurrent neurotic behavior that mimics primalling. The pain is forever present, so people are more likely to be triggered. In fact, it is more present than before the abreactive process set in, because all these triggered feelings are called up into consciousness without ever being resolved. They are 'there" all the time, ready to be triggered again with very little provocation.
Abreaction creates a closed circuit of pain, an endless loop travelled over and over whenever part of it is triggered. And every trigger – however different it might be – will bring up the same abreactive feeling: "I want to die. I am in too much pain. I want to die." It will not be attached to anything specific at any time and will remain a litany, or a series of sensations repeated forever. Like a starved monster, abreaction will swallow all these different triggers and feelings to incorporate them into the same loop of physical sensations and/or disconnected feelings. They are all processed by the same defense system. It is truly amazing to contemplate the brilliance of a defense system that can reroute painful feelings into abreaction in order for them – the feelings – to remain unconscious.
Patients who abreact become very entrenched in their "primal” style and very resistant to admitting that what they are doing isn’t "the right way." And of course, they aren't open to change it. Why? First, because it means to them that they aren't doing their therapy right, a reaction associated with feelings of "I am wrong/bad." Secondly, it is hard for them to accept that all the time, effort and money spent for "feeling" was actually a waste. It is hard to accept that what they were doing was not good therapy and, in fact, might have harmed them.
Another element that also makes the patients resistant to change is that abreaction can make them feel better temporarily. Indeed they have released some tension. However, they could run a few miles and have the same result, a false sense of relief. If the abreaction goes on for years, like in the case of people who self- primal for a long time, it may not be reversible: the grooves are too strong as they have become a neurological defense in and of themselves. Most of the time, this abreactive groove is powerful, persistent and deeply entrenched.
I remember the case of a woman who had been self-primalling for about 20 years somewhere deep in a very remote part of the world. Her style was a persistent screaming. That is what she thought the therapy – "The Primal Scream" – was all about. She could go on screaming for hours in a very piercing voice, at the top of her lungs. It was, of course, devoid of all real feeling, content, context, and resolution. She didn't know why or about what she was screaming; she had no memories attached to it. She did "feel" like screaming because "she was in so much pain." It was very hard to listen to, and totally unmoving. As we might expect, she never had any insights and wasn't getting better. Reversing that groove proved to be very difficult.
Trying to stop a patient from abreacting and switch to a whole new way of "really feeling" the pain is usually a long and difficult conversion. That is because the defenses have been reinforced by the abreaction. So trying to get to these real feelings, with all their pent-up force, immediately summons the abreactive defenses created precisely to keep them at bay. The patient is pulled into the abreactive neurological groove, where they feel comfortable. Trying to reverse the pattern can be even more painful than in the regular process of tearing down defenses in therapy. Some patients have never been able to finally annihilate the abreactive trend, so sadly they never get better.
Ultimately, the clinical outcome of abreaction is a syndrome of failure. No insights, no resolution, no getting better. Same act outs, same symptoms, sometimes getting worse. Mostly the tragedy in abreaction is that the patient is going through all this agony forever and with no pay off.
In contrast, real feelings don't need to be felt forever, there is an end to them. In Primal, beyond a certain amount of feelings that had to be experienced over and over for a while – depending on how much pain was attached to them – the need to feel decreases with each felt feeling until, at some point, we hardly ever have to "feel" the old pain again.