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



Free Association

(Note: this was an old post that I had originally written for a more academically oriented blog that I discontinued, so it may use more clinical language than my more recent posts will use.)


Free Association Isn’t Dead!

This title is meant to reference a famous magazine article (I think it was Time) that announced on the cover that Freud isn’t dead. I remember a professor in my psychology undergrad who referenced the cover in a presentation about psychoanalysis. Now I am not a psychoanalyst but recently I have begun to see what of his theories have stood the test of time.

First, is transference. Is it any wonder why transference and counter transference are widely taught in modern social work or counseling programs? Next, there is the idea of ego defenses. They’re everywhere, albeit re-constructed on in many ways they have stood up to much empirical testing and exist to keep reality distorted and difficult affects at bay. For some reason I always think of Beck’s cognitive distortions when I think of ego defenses. I believe he was an analyst at one point.
Anyways, a quick look upon the EBSCO search engine revealed a surprising number of hits. Many from modern day psychoanalysts and many from other fields such as research. Why am I interested in free-association? Why do I think that it’s relevant?
What are we as clinicians doing in therapy? Why talk, listen to stories and so on? Why, because we are waiting for associated material to arise in relation to narratives that can be worked with. How is memory formed? By associations. What are the moments that cause vivid memories to be stored? Those moments during high sympathetic arousal. Pain and pleasure cause long term potentiation in the brain. Before Freud abandoned the trauma theory on neurosis he discovered disowned memories and affects would arise when the mind was taught to flow freely. Defenses would stop this flow and as worked through they would reveal more places of disowned experience and memories.
The analyst Ferenczi believed that the ability to free-associate in and of itself was a marker of termination of therapy (Free Association). What does this mean? When one’s experience can flow without having to be defended one is healthy. The world of psychoanalytic interpretation and over theorizing is hubris. I’m saying this harsh statement from an experiential humanistic standpoint. I do love many ideas in psychoanalysis but the over theorizing has always been a limitation to the field.
Perls and Jung were both influenced by early Freudian ideas but took free association in other directions. Perls taught a continuum of awareness where free association was moved to the realm of the body and behaviors (Naranjo). Jung taught his active imagination where the image generating aspects of the mind were cultivated freely. Then there was Karen Horney who wrote the first self-help psychoanalytic book (Horney). Her method is essential to let the mind flow when issues arise until the cause of the feeling or character pattern comes to light.
Some describe free association as exposing the cracks in the mind and how this leads to a deeper contact with energy-motivational systems leading to greater wholeness (Barratt 2013). This same author, himself a psychoanalyist makes a great argument for the use of the body in free association. In a way that seems common sense to me, free association has a relation to imagination (Lothane 2007). Even though Jung rejected the free association method (Hoffer 2001), his method of active imagination could be likened to a free associating or free flowing of the mind in relation to one’s subjectivity brilliantly represented by images. Even psycholanalysts with a foot in hard neuroscience (who’d ever thought) argue that free-association is a holistic mind-body method of bringing implicit memory to the fore (Klockars 2004). Barratt above also describes the method as radically opposed to Cartesian dualism. Lothane (2006) makes an argument that a therapist is much more effective if they are in touch with their own flow of associations in their mind and body in dyadic relationship. This reminds of a superb book called “Attachment in Psychotherapy” where Wallin (2007) writes at length about being in touch with somatic and cognitive associations in relation to the client’s process. At times the author’s examples of his associations are so spot on to what is unconscious in the client it is freaky. As if he has this 3rd eye that can see inside the other. I’m sure mirror neurons and other great things from the field of interpersonal neurobiology can explain these phenomenon easily.
A final interesting aspect of free associating that I have found in a surface researching of the topic, is that positive affect appears to relate to more global associations while negative moods and states cause more narrow and binary associations (Brunye et al. 2013). For example, a person in a negative state has the tendency to associate warm with cold, light with dark and so on. A person in a positive state may have an enhanced tendency to association warm with Summer breeze, or light with a feather. This brings to mind clients living in an inner world of dysphoria, generally depressed to feeling terrible from their struggles. Their world is much more constricted and defended. Their minds may lack the tendency to go towards narratives that bring out healing on their own and thus need guidance for this to occur. Sound plausible?
Personally, I am not a psychoanalyst, although I have studied much of it to see what gold can be milked from the field. So I am not very apt to sit behind a client while they lay on a couch and free associate while I interpret with a notepad divided in half. But I have found great benefit in assisting clients to free associate in “spurts” when stuck on an issue or when there’s a felt-sense (more on this later) they’re stuck with feeling. I say things such as “let your mind flow around it without censoring anything” or “just let whatever comes up be and tell me what’s happening.” Something like that. It can be difficult for more guarded, anxious-dismissing attachment styles to be able to let their mind-body system flow for the fear of dreaded vulnerability or emotion in general to arise. Then the other end of the spectrum: anxious-preoccupied or disorganized individuals may easily associate but may appear overwhelmed by any part of their narrative of associations that arise. I find deep breathing and mindfulness techniques to bring them out of their inner world helpful. I’m sure you have your own.
Overall, I find that anything that leads to a communication between body, mind and emotion facilitates the person as a self-righting process. It’s even fun to do on your own, you truly cannot predict what will arise.



Barratt, B. B. (2013). Free-associating with the bodymind. International Forum Of Psychoanalysis, 22(3), 161-175. doi:10.1080/0803706X.2012.729860
Brunyé, T. T., Gagnon, S. A., Paczynski, M., Shenhav, A., Mahoney, C. R., & Taylor, H. A. (2013). Happiness by association: Breadth of free association influences affective states. Cognition, 127(1), 93-98. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2012.11.015
Hoffer, A. (2001). Jung’s analysis of Sabina Spielrein and his use of Freud’s free association method. Journal Of Analytical Psychology, 46(1), 117.
Klockars, L. (2004). Linking mind, body and language: Free association revisited. The Scandinavian Psychoanalytic Review, 27(2), 105-112.
Lothane, Z. (2007). Imagination as reciprocal process and its role in the psychoanalytic situation. International Forum Of Psychoanalysis, 16(3), 152-163.