The Intention Method
(Identity-oriented Psychotrauma Therapy, developed by Professor Franz Ruppert)
This article is one I have wanted to write for a while, and I was finally prompted into action by correspondence with Marta Thorsheim of the Norway Institute for Traumatology, and her correspondence with Kathleen Man Gyllenhaal, the producer of the film In Utero, and a blog that Kathleen started with the Huffington Post called Why It’s Time to Stop Attacking Moms.
The method of the sentence of intention, now called The Intention Method, has a history of development over some 25 years, alongside the development of the theory of Identity-oriented Psychotrauma Therapy (IoPT). This theory has informed the development of the method, and the method has acted as a research tool for the development of the theory.
This is as it should be. Theory must relate to reality, and reality must confirm the theory, or present the theory with further questions to be addressed. The best method answers the questions presented by the theory, and the theory offers a framework in which to understand what happens in the method. This development of theory and method alongside one another has allowed for the development of a method that fits… that directly responds to the requirements that the theory throws up as necessary.
Therefore it makes no sense only to discuss the method without talking about the basic theoretical framework as it relates to the method. However, as this essay is intended to give a detailed account of the method, and the theoretical underpinnings are complex, I will only give some basic tenets of the theory as they put specific requirements on the method. It remains for the reader to explore the theory further in the books of Professor Ruppert and myself, and other blog posts on my website (www.vivianbroughton.com).
The Intention Method has its origins in Psychodrama (developed by Jacob Moreno in the 1920s ), therapeutic sculpting, Family Reconstruction Therapy (Virginia Satir, 1970s), and the Family Constellations work of Bert Hellinger (1990s). All of these were used to help a client (sometimes called the protagonist) explore their psychological difficulties. As such they are all psychotherapies. They were all mainly done in groups, using group members to play prominent family members and, at times, other relevant elements.
The development by Bert Hellinger took the ‘role-play’ work of Psychodrama and Family Sculpture to a new place that he called ‘representation’. The distinction between ‘role-play’ and ‘representation’ is an important one:
Role-play - chosen group members are given information about the family member they are to play, such as physical stance, attitude, sometimes common sentences used. The aim is to help the client find new ways to interact with the family member, and perhaps to have the emotional catharsis they couldn’t in reality as a child.
Representation – is quite different. Chosen group members usually have very little information to go on, often none, and are free to follow their own experience, whatever that is, once placed in the ‘constellation’*. Representatives could move, speak, and express feelings, thoughts and ideas, whatever they came in touch with while being a representative.
The assumption we work with is that the experiences of the representatives will have some useful bearing on the issue the client is interested in resolving. This is of course a big assumption. Nevertheless, after some 30 odd years of many people using this basic phenomenon, and nearly twenty years of my own experience, this assumption proves itself again and again. ‘Representatives’ often come up with information they could not possibly know, experiences that belong to the client, but he has never actually been able to put into words, even factual information that the client doesn’t know, but is able to corroborate afterwards.
The phenomenon is not yet fully explained, but the closest we come to an explanation is the notion of ‘resonance’. So we think of the representative ‘resonating’ with what he or she has been asked to represent, and in a sense resonating with the unconscious mind of the client whose work it is.
The phrase ‘limbic brain resonance’ was coined by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon, psychiatry professors at the University of California, in their book A General Theory of Love, to describe the non-verbal emotional connection that develops between people, primarily mother and child in a good bonding situation. In other words we are all far more connected with each other than just our conscious mind connection. The resonance phenomena can be directly linked with neural associative memory as mentioned in the General Theory of Love book as neural network theory (see comment from Alexandra Smith below).
*The term ‘constellation’ was initially used by Hellinger in his development of Family Constellations. In our work we do not use the word ‘constellation’ any more, but instead we talk about ‘a personal exploration’ or ‘personal work’.
Before going on to describe the actual process I would like to point out several things from the theory that inform how the method is worked. These involve primarily an understanding of what trauma is, and its lasting effect on the person, together with the theory of very early, even pre-birth, foetal, traumatisation.
Primarily trauma is beyond ‘fight and flight’. It is a situation where the victim is completely helpless and overwhelmed by the forces at play. If one has the possibility of ‘fighting’ or ‘fleeing’ one is not completely helpless, and to describe this as trauma is not correct. The real trauma reaction is freeze (as in immobility, resignation, giving up) and fragmentation (as in dissociation and psychological splitting).
In relational trauma, which is most commonly what we are working with, it is a situation where the other person (the perpetrator) has all the power, and the victim, the traumatised person, has none.
There is of course much more to say about this, but for the purposes of this essay its importance is this: any later situation in which a person experiences helplessness, and feels overpowered in any way by another is likely to unhelpfully re-stimulate the original trauma.
This has profound implications for how a therapy is managed. If the therapy is one that in any way creates a power imbalance in favour of the therapist (bearing in mind that most people go into therapy willingly giving sometimes extraordinary power to the therapist) there is a danger of re-traumatisation, and a continuing and confirming experience for the client of their victimisation and helplessness.
The traumatised person’s life is sometimes entirely configured in a multitude of ways around their sense of victimisation and helplessness, and part of their trauma survival structure is to see authority and power, and the solution to their difficulties, as outside of themselves, in others. The perception is that they need someone else to rescue them, and for them the therapist is the personification of that person in the therapeutic environment. The therapist must avoid colluding with this attitude of helplessness, since the reality now is that the person is not helpless. The attitude of respect for the person’s here and now ability to take charge of his therapy and make his own sense of his life is lived out in the approach and presence of the therapist. She is not the interpreter of reality, nor the manager of the work. She is there with the whole of her being to hold the space, to hold the procedure and to try and understand what happens, but she does not organise what happens or ‘run the show’ in any way beyond establishing the basic framework (see below).
The therapist is sometimes called a facilitator, and there is sense in this, because really she is there to facilitate the client doing her own exploration, not to choreograph what happens, but to learn from what happens in a way that is helpful to the client in making sense of what he sees.
So the therapist’s approach is a continual disciplined attitude of trust in the client as the person who knows the answers (albeit often not consciously) and as being able to take charge of his of her therapeutic exploration.
Most ‘original’ traumas are pre-verbal
The second point is that for most of us the original trauma we experienced was very early in our lives, even pre-birth, therefore at a time that is beyond our cognitive memory, and so cannot be talked about with any personal memorable information. In general we are dependent on those adults who were around during our incubation, birth and months after birth, primarily our parents, for information. However this information cannot always be trusted; it is often a half-truth, a distorted truth or at times not true at all. There are many reasons that parents may be economical with the truth, primarily due to their own traumatisation, which means that the stories about us are abstracted from the emotional pain of the parents… they are often just stories.
An additional factor is that any later experience of trauma is always in part a re-stimulation of the primary trauma; the experience of helplessness pervades and crosses time. In the recently released film In Utero, which is an exploration through therapeutic experiences and research data from the neurosciences of the life of the child in his mother’s womb, one of the presenters said “All trauma is foetal trauma”. In other words, as I have said above, all later trauma has its origins in and reminds us of our early foetal trauma.
So if we are to work with experiences that occurred before conceptual memory kicked in (usually around 2 or 3 years old) we have to be able to access the information of these early experiences as it is stored in the body. We cannot rely on cognitive memory, which is often distorted in itself. But experiential memory that is stored in the body cannot lie, although of course our interpretation of the physical phenomena may be far from the truth. So we need a method that can usefully access this information, and the Intention Method can be extraordinarily effective at doing this.
One final point is: if we are working with trauma the space created for and by the work needs to be experienced by the client as sufficiently safe.
Back to the theory for a moment: our basic trauma theory says that our instinctive and uncontrolled reaction to trauma is splitting; the unbearable experience of trauma is split off and often rendered unconscious. The splits after trauma involve three parts of the self: the traumatised part (the split off trauma), the original healthy part (which can function well when we feel safe), and the survival part (see diagram). This last is the internal mechanism that simply will not allow us to go further in our therapeutic exploration than feels safe. It has been called in more conventional therapies ‘resistance’ or defences. We call it the ‘survival self’ because it literally is that part of us that comes into play to ensure our survival at the time of the trauma. Its continual function is to keep the trauma experience unconscious, and so until we are sufficiently ready it will interrupt us if things get too much for us. It provides a safety mechanism.
So we need a process that:
- allows the client to be in charge;
- is able to access very early, pre-verbal information;
- can provide a failsafe mechanism to keep the process manageable and safe enough for the client, and finally…
- provides useful insight, shifts in perception and an environment in which the expression of the split off trauma reaction can be experienced when the client is ready.
This last moves us to understanding the healing process of trauma. Much current trauma work aims to help the client manage the symptoms of their traumatisation, those symptoms that are listed in the current DSM 5 category of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which, incidentally, does not provide a definition of what trauma actually is, only the likely experiences that might cause, and the evidence by which one can ascertain that something traumatic has occurred, the symptoms).
We propose that healing trauma essentially means integrating the psychological splits that are the result of trauma. This is simply put, but requires commitment and time. The ‘survival self’, described briefly above, is not who we really are; it is a way of being that we unconsciously developed to protect us from re-experiencing our trauma. So one way of describing the healing process is an exploration to discover who we really are… our true identity. This is not simple or easy; we think of it as a step-by-step process of reclaiming ourselves, reclaiming our identity from the ravages of trauma. This cannot be rushed; the unconscious survival instincts in the person cannot allow it, so it is done by shifts in perception, new insights and understanding, and, when possible, coming into contact with the traumatised part of ourselves.
The Intention Method…
A Sentence of Intention
The work begins with the person who wants to explore an issue (I shall call the client), deciding on a sentence of intention. This may take some while, since the person may not have a clear idea of what they want. Eventually the person distils his intention into a sentence that he can write on a flipchart. This might be something like “I want to feel more at ease in myself” or “Why do I feel so anxious a lot of the time?” (For more on the Sentence of Intention see here)
How this is stated and the topic is entirely up to the client. It is his intention, and can only be put into words by him. The therapist/facilitator listens to everything the client says but makes no suggestions and does not interfere in any way in how the intention is developed.
When the client develops his intention into a sentence he writes it on the board. This then forms the framework for the enquiry, and the way in which we keep to this framework is that the individual words of the sentence are all that is represented.
The work starts with the client choosing one word from his sentence of intention and asking someone in the group to resonate with this word. (The work can be done in an individual session, but I do not intend addressing how this is done in this essay.)
So the beginning phase is two people: the client himself and a group member who agrees to resonate with the word the client has chosen. For example, if we take the first sentence exampled above the client might choose the word ‘ease’, so the beginning phase would be him and a person resonating with the word ‘ease’. Together they explore their experience, in whatever way they choose. They are both free to move, speak or not, but in general to follow whatever their impulse is. Note: it cannot be assumed that the experience of the person resonating with a word like ‘ease’ will be in any way related to what the word actually means. Often the actual experience is quite the opposite, so perhaps feeling jittery, anxious and ill at ease.
After a while when nothing more seems to arise the client may choose another word, and another person to resonate with this word. Again, now, all three people continue to explore and report their experience.
This continues until either:
- All the words are present and whatever insight is available has been gained, or
- Enough words are present (ie not all) to prompt enough insight or shift for the client
- Occasionally only one word is represented, and this is enough, but more often several words need to be included for there to be a shift of perception, or insight.
Generally it is up to the client to decide when is enough. Sometimes the work just comes to a natural end and the client is satisfied; sometimes the client decides it is enough because such a great amount of information is shown that he decides he has seen enough for now. To go further might overwhelm him and thereby risk a re-traumatisation. Often what is seen has a powerful impact on the client, even to the extent of turning his whole perception of his life to date around. This sounds dramatic, but it is more often the case than not. On occasion the therapist may suggest to the client that it is enough, perhaps if she senses that more would be overwhelming for the client; however it is best if it is a clearly negotiated consent on the part of the client.
At the end those who have represented are dismissed and the work finishes.
Explanation of the method
There are various points that are important to emphasis about the method:
- Theoretically we are looking, through the resonance with the words of the intention, at the intra-psychic world of the client in relation to the issue he wishes to address. Therefore all representations are deemed to be parts of the client’s psychological state. In this sense it is an ‘intra-psychic exploration’.
- However it frequently happens that some representations are recognisable to the client as aspects of his parents, or even grandparents. This is the internalised representation of these people, i.e. as the client holds them in his psyche.
- Often resonators’ experiences as they report them are recognised by the client as things he experiences himself.
- The experiences of everyone involved change as the work progresses; sometimes representatives’ experiences may change completely. This often happens when something is said that has not been said before, i.e. when secrets are spoken out, or the previously ‘unsayable’ is said.
- The relationships between the different representatives (i.e. different words) change, evolve and move, and through this offer useful information for the client.
- The meaning of the different words often changes and evolves as the work continues… so for example the word ‘know’ may turn into ‘NO!’, or the word ‘connect’ may become the ‘mother’ or another part of the client, or the word ‘uncontrollable’ may start to protest at being controlled.
- There usually seems to be an intrinsic integrity to each of the words as they are expressed.
- The meaning of the sentence of intention often turns out to mean something entirely different to the original sense of the sentence. This is difficult to convey here, but it is often the case that a simple sentence will show such incredible complexity of meaning that one could not have possibly thought at the beginning.
- The complexity of meaning that is revealed points to many layers of meaning and experience that inform the original intention.
So, as an example, if we take again the first intention stated above: “I want to feel more at ease in myself”. The sentence would be entirely different if it were worded “I want to feel more at ease with myself”; or “I want to feel at ease with myself” (leaving out the word ‘more’); or “I would like to feel easier in myself”; or “I want to be more at ease in myself”. On the surface these are all ways of expressing the same thing. But they aren’t. If you say them to yourself you may start to feel some of the difference in emphasis and feel. These differences frequently become massive in the resonation work, often pointing to things that no one could have anticipated before.
And again, taking the same intention, the sub-text of this sentence is: ‘I don’t feel at ease in myself’, and from this comes the question Why? In my experience, more often than not, what happens in the work directly answers this question; in other words what is shown in the work is exactly the reason why the person doesn’t feel at ease in themselves. This is extremely important and often new information for the client... to see exactly what underlies his experience of dis-ease is fundamental to changing it. We cannot change something if we do not understand the whys and wherefores of it.
It is hard to convey the actual experience of this work in a written essay; to set it out as above is an intellectual explanation of something that is frequently profoundly moving at the time. To really understand this method one must experience it, as an observer at the very least, but to stand in and resonate with a word for someone else’s exploration is quite an extraordinary experience. I am often working with people who have never done this before, and almost always they are themselves quite profoundly affected by this experience alone. And then to make a personal exploration, to be the client, and decide on your intention, write it up, ask people to resonate with your words, and see what happens is a unique experience. As a therapist of this work of many years now I can truly say I never, ever know what is going to happen, and more often than not am as surprised as anyone at what does happen. I think of it as a collaborative venture between client, therapist, resonators and observers where often everyone benefits in some way.
Broughton, V. (2014). Becoming Your True Self: a handbook for the journey from trauma to healthy autonomy. Green Balloon Publishing, UK.
Broughton, V. (2013). The Heart of Things: understanding trauma - working with constellations. Green Balloon Publishing, UK.
Ruppert, F. (2008). Trauma, Bonding and Family Constellations: Understanding and Healing Injuries of the Soul. Green Balloon Publishing, UK.
Ruppert, F. (2011). Splits in the Soul: Integrating Traumatic Experiences. Green Balloon Publishing, UK.
Ruppert, F. (2012). Symbiosis and Autonomy: Symbiotic Trauma and Love Beyond Entanglements. Green Balloon Publishing, UK.
Ruppert, F. (2014). Trauma, Fear and Love: How the Constellation of the Intention supports Autonomy. Green Balloon Publishing, UK.