The Mighty Social Engagement System

I remember the first time in my adult life where I was “seen” by a therapist. It was like being a child and seen by a parent in an almost embarrassing manner. As if all my defenses dropped away and I was immensely “with” that person.

The second time I felt something, like a something I was holding onto dropping and being seen but I didn’t feel as young this time. This therapist had an extensive background in Zen meditation and Catholic spirituality.

The third time this occurred I was seen by a certain individual who was sort of like a facilitator of an obscure meditation group. He was just so immensely present with me, that it felt like every fiber of my being all throughout my body relaxed in a quality of relaxation that took me by surprise. It was an intense rush of feeling alive of which was much much more powerful than the first two experiences.

I mention these experiences to highlight how powerful something called the Social Engagement System is for human beings and how it is utilized in relational approaches to psychotherapy.

This idea comes from a neurological theory called the “Polyvagal Theory” which simply states that our social behavior, or lack thereof is mediated by specific parts of the Vagus nerve. The nerve that runs down our entire torso and branches off to where he normally feel those sensations called “Feelings” when an emotional system is activated.

You know, when you feel something in the front of your body.
The polyvagal theory from the work of Dr. Steven Porges is for my work in this approached of AEDP, more important than Attachment Theory in my opinion. Attachment theory focuses a bit too much on the early past attachments and mother-infant relational dyads (one on one relationships). Whereas The Polyvagal Theory focuses on any relationship and moment in a person’s life span. This comparison and how both theories inform relational-experiential psychotherapy is more for another post

What I want to summarize about the social engagement system is that social engagement, true deep trust in being oneself in another’s or a group’s presence more rare than we may imagine and immensely precious.

It is a rare occasion indeed when we let ourselves be completely seen, relax with others, let down our normal defenses against relating, behold the true person in front of us and share the deepest and most hidden parts of ourselves. Or what we were not even aware of but seems to bubble up to be worked through in rare moments with trusted others.

This is why feasts occur in religious traditions such as holidays. Or people go out to eat for dates. Eating together means a sense of trust and we relax when we eat, in an indirect way saying that we trust that we can relax to eat around the others.

Or why in states of love and infatuation, deep secrets and feelings arise.

This is not mere relating as we would others on the street, coworkers, or other casual meetings between people. This is feeling existentially with someone. Feeling understood, never judged or reacted to, held in presence, related to authentically and so on.

I won’t go into the neuroscience of this theory. I’m writing this post to express the power of this deeply wired but usually latent potential for deep relating. It usually occurs in moments of love, such as with parents or family as a child, or with one’s closest friends or partners.

What sets the AEDP approach apart from any other relational approach that I have had the pleasure of coming across, is how explicit it makes of expressing joy and appreciation of the other, of boldly making the positive aspects of the client as visible as possible and expression of positive relational experience. AEDP therapists are also significantly more active in this process than other relational psychotherapy approaches.

When methods such as this begin to bring the latent social engagement system back online, people can begin to thrive in live, to relate to others without projections as “true others.”

It has been my path as an adult to cultivate my social engagement system so that I can relate to others authentically and to spread it to others both to accelerate the psychotherapeutic process.

For more on these ideas, look through these links:

Dr. Steve Porges Polyvagal Theory

Good Summary of the Social Engagement System

Using the Social Engagement System



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