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PSI Institute

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PSI Institute

254 Lincoln Road



New Zealand 



 +64 (0)27 657 2106





Learning to Comfort and Soothe Yourself

by Judy Lightstone  2012

In human infants and children, the ability to comfort oneself is learned through extensive experiences of healthy "bonding" with one's caregiver/s from early on. Healthy bonding requires long periods of holding, cuddling, mutual gazing and adoration between child and caregiver/s, and that the child is kept safe and protected from abusive or violent experiences, especially in the family. Early emotional neglect, childhood abuse and/or the unavailability of reliable soothing in early childhood, which can be due to many causes, such as illness in the caregivers, can have dire consequences when the child grows into adulthood.

We now know that such safety and bonding are necessary for the infant's optimal brain development, which results in the child's ultimate ability to learn how to comfort him/herself. A child that grows up unsafe, and/or without this "bonding and holding" will be vulnerable to experiencing repeated unnecessary alerts set off by the "survival" (hind) brain throughout their lifespan; signals that survival is threatened even when it isn't. These signals shut down optimal functioning of the "human" (thinking) brain, leading to difficulties in word retrieval, interpersonal skills, and concentration when such skills may be most needed.

When an adult can't naturally self-soothe, s/he may become dependent on tension-reducing activities that can appear self-destructive, but in actuality are desperate attempts to calm the body down by, some by forcing a flood of endorphins. Such tension-reducing activities include smoking, drinking, self-harm, compulsive gambling, overeating, purging, self-starvation, and sexually risky behaviour. Compare this to people who grow up safe with loving and supportive caregivers, who are able to self-soothe with little effort as adults because the learning is deeply embodied from infancy.

The combination repeatedly experiencing anxiety in situations that aren't actually dangerous, with a compromised ability to calm oneself when such anxiety does occur, also makes it more difficult to fall asleep at night or to get a full regenerative experience from sleep. Having difficulty soothing oneself can also mean having difficulty taking in comfort from others, even those who are trying to be kind and supportive. This can cause problems in one's most intimate relationships. All of these difficulties fall under the psychological category of "poor affect regulation," which understandably often results in a tendency toward the kind of harmful attempts at tension reduction described above.
Standard forms of “talk therapy” that do not address this physiological shutdown are unlikely to be effective, because the client will spend a lot of time feeling unsafe. When feeling unsafe, the talking (‘human”) brain is not working adequately enough to integrate verbal interventions. This is called “top down” therapy – because it addresses the “higher” brain functions while ignoring the lower brain functions, such as survival reactions.

There are a number of therapeutic approaches that work from the “bottom up.” These are especially effective for those suffering from the effects of "poor affect regulation."  These approaches are described below, and have been integrated into PSItm (PsychoSomatic Integration) Therapy

1. Sensorimotor Psychotherapy
2. Ego State Therapy

3. DNMS Developmental Needs Meeting Strategy (Shirley Jean Schmidt
4. Best Foot Forward

5. Relational Therapy


Click here to find out about upcoming training and here to find out about general training and supervision options.


1. Sensorimotor Psychotherapy   Founder: Pat Ogden


History of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy

        In the 1970's, Pat Ogden became interested in the correlation between her patients' disconnection from their bodies, their physical patterns and their psychological issues. As both a psychotherapist and body therapist, she was inspired to join somatic therapy and apsychotherapy into a comprehensive method for healing this disconnection. SPI offered its first course in the early 1980's under the name Hakomi Bodywork. Influenced by leaders such as Bessel van der Kolk, Emilie Conrad, Peter Levine, Peter Melchior, Allan Schore, Ken Wilber, Onno van der Hart, Ellert Nijenhuis, Kathy Steele, Stephen Porges, and Martha Stark, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy draws from somatic therapies, neuroscience, attachment theory, and cognitive approaches, as well as from the Hakomi Method, a gentle psychotherapeutic approach pioneered by Ron Kurtz. ( SPI conducts trainings throughout the world, and has gained international acclaim over the past twenty years.

        Sensorimotor Psychotherapy integrates both cognitive and somatic methods in the treatment of trauma, attachment, and developmental issues. It is taught internationally to psychotherapists and allied professionals who want to include somatic interventions in their clinical work.


2. Ego State Therapy

Founders: John Watkins

The concept of segmentation of personality into discreet parts of self has been around for many years, but has only recently been validated scientifically by new brain scanning technologies. These technologies, by measuring blood flow patterns in the brain, demonstrate how ego states form around neural clusters that fire together repeatedly (and therefore "wire together").  Such neural nets form the basis for most implicit learning - such as learning how to ride a bicycle - a skill that improves and eventually "clicks" as the neurons, which fire together in the same pattern whenever riding is practiced, form a network with a particular skill set. When such a neural net forms in the context of a relationship, it will develop a unique point of view and way of behaving.

Ego states exist as a collection of perceptions, cognitions and emotions in organised clusters. An ego state may be defined as an organized system of behaviour and experience, whose elements are bound together by a common principle. Ego states may also vary in volume. A larger ego state may include all the various behaviours activated in one's occupation, whereas a smaller ego state might be formed around a simple action, such as using a mobile phone. They may encompass current modes of behavior and experiences or include many memories, postures, feelings, etc that were learned at an earlier age.

The human mind is a collective "family of self" within a single individual. How well these "family" members get along, and how effectively they cooperate can vary considerably from individual to individual.  This segmentation has been called many names over the years, depending upon which psychological theory is being used. In Freudian language we are all divided into Ego, Id and Superego; Jungians refer to "complexes" which are described almost identically to ego states; Transactional Analysts talk about the internal Parent, Adult and Child; and Psychosynthesis refers to "sub-personalities." Ego states exist on a continuum of separateness, with the most extreme dividedness being caused by the most extreme early relational trauma. Although everyone has ego states, those states formed in response to loving supportive experiences do not tend to require psychotherapeutic intervention. When ego states are more split off and engage in internal battles, Ego State Therapy can be employed to help resolve some of these conflicts, often using techniques found in conflict resolution, group or family therapy, to enable a kind of internal diplomacy. This approach has demonstrated that complex psychodynamic problems can often be resolved in a much shorter period than with analytic therapies.

3. DNMS (Developmental Needs Meeting Strategy) basis for use: scientific: To read an article demonstrating the efficacy of the DNMS, click here:

Founder: Shirley Jean Schmidt

The Developmental Needs Meeting Strategy

(DNMS) is a therapy approach synthesized by Shirley Jean Schmidt, MA, a licensed professional counsellor in private practice in San Antonio, Texas. Its development was informed by a number of well-known therapies and disciplines, such as neuroscience, developmental psychology, ego state therapy, inner-child work, and EMDR. It is based on what is known about how a child’s brain develops within a healthy family.

The Basis for the DNMS

Children grow and develop in stages. Each developmental stage involves a set of needs which should be met by parents or caretakers. The degree to which your childhood needs were not adequately met at a given developmental stage correlates to the degree to which you may be stuck in that stage. If you’re stuck in childhood, there’s always a risk of something retriggering a child part of self. For example, you may feel like an adult one minute – then something upsetting happens and you’re suddenly seeing the world through the eyes of a sad, angry, or fearful child. This could account for behaviors, beliefs, or emotions that you have now, that you do not like and do not want.

Getting Stuck: Unmet Developmental Needs

Children become stuck when they cannot make sense of highly significant disturbing or confusing experiences. This is obvious in the case of outright abuse or neglect by a highly dysfunctional parent. For example, a child who was assaulted during her father’s violent outbursts may carry a fear of men into adulthood. In less obvious ways, children can become stuck when well-meaning, caring parents are simply not sufficiently equipped to meet certain needs. This can happen if the child’s needs are particularly complex or obscure, if a parent has parenting skill deficits, if a parent has emotional baggage from the past that compromises good parenting, if the overall family or environmental situation is very stressful, or if any combination of these is true. Children who expect their loving, caring parents to meet their needs well are confused when their needs are ignored, misunderstood, or trivialized instead. When this happens often enough, or around significant issues, the child will get stuck in those experiences. When there is a good match between a child’s needs and a caregiver’s parenting skill, the child will grow up feeling secure. When the match is not so good, however well-intentioned the parent, a child will accumulate emotional baggage. The bigger the mismatch, the more baggage accumulates.

What are Ego States?

The brain is composed of billions of individual cells, called neurons. These neurons form simple and complex neural networks which hold specific information about the behaviors, beliefs, emotions, and body sensations associated with specific experiences. Complex neural networks can become ingrained when positive experiences occur repeatedly (such as praise or encouragement), when negative experiences occur repeatedly (such as neglect or verbal abuse), or when highly traumatic experiences occur.

These types of complex neural networks can take on different points of view, like sub-personalities. For example, a neural network formed experiencing praise and encouragement may have an “I’m worthwhile” point of view, while a neighbouring neural network formed experiencing verbal abuse may have an “I’m worthless” point of view. Likewise, a neural network holding a highly traumatizing experience may have an “I’m not safe” point of view.

An ingrained neural network with a point of view is an ego state, or a part of self. It is very normal to have parts of self – everyone has them. We experience parts of self when we feel ambivalent. Perhaps you can recall a time when one part of you wanted to tell a lie while another part wanted to tell the truth, one part wanted to get drunk while another wanted to stay sober, one part wanted to eat smart while another wanted to eat junk, or one part wanted to give generously while another wanted to be miserly.

Ego states can develop in reaction to both positive and negative experiences. Ego states formed by positive/affirming experiences live in the present. Ego states formed by negative/wounding experiences, such as trauma, abuse, neglect, or unmet developmental needs, are stuck in the past. Some ego states are large, such as the part of self that includes all the behaviors and experiences of a person’s occupation, and some are small, such as one holding the experience of a single event at age three. Ego states are dynamic and change over time - usually becoming more ingrained (for better or worse), as new events are interpreted based on past experience and bias.

Parts of self can interact with other parts of self, in a cooperative or combative manner. Because ego states can have different points of view, they can have competing agendas. That can lead to internal conflicts or double binds. You might be aware of times you have felt an internal battle about something you should or should not do, or should or should not believe about yourself.

The DNMS can help wounded ego states have the corrective emotional experiences necessary to get unstuck from the past and come forward to live comfortably in the present. It can also help resolve conflicts between ego states. All this can lead to positive changes in emotions, beliefs, and behaviors.

What is the DNMS?

The DNMS is a therapy for getting parts of self totally unstuck from the past. Getting unstuck can be considered a process of archiving past hurts. For example, in a typical office there is an in-box on the desk, a file cabinet next to the desk, a file cabinet across the room, and archive file cabinet down the hall. The in-box contains the most current papers. The archive file cabinets contain the oldest records, not vital to day-to-day business. The archives are available, when needed, for researching the past. When we are stuck in past hurts it’s as though the old painful experiences that should be in the archive cabinet, are in the in-box. We have to deal with them every day, whether we want to or not. We want to file them away, but have no idea how or where to file them, so sadly they stay in our in-box. Getting unstuck means we can finally archive those old experiences. Our previously unfinished business gets finished. Our memories of the painful experiences still exist, but they are no longer charged with powerful emotions and no longer irrationally intrude on daily living.

The Three Resources

The DNMS can help people get unstuck from the past by using Resource parts of self to meet the needs of child parts now. These Resources can provide the wounded child ego states the necessary corrective emotional experiences required to heal old wounds. This needs meeting work helps child parts feel safe and securely attached to competent caretakers, so they can safely shift attention from the past to present time. One of these three Resources is a Spiritual Core Self. A guided meditation is used to help clients connect to a Spiritual Core. The other two Resources are a Nurturing Adult Self and a Protective Adult Self. There are many skills and traits a competent adult should have to be a good-enough parent. Most people already have these skills but they are not always consolidated into a sense of self readily available for this work. Again, a guided meditation is used to get clients securely connected to adult skills and traits they already have, such as compassion, empathy, understanding, caring, courage, protectiveness, etc. It won’t matter if you don’t manifest these skills all the time. If a skill is applied even once, it is in the brain somewhere, and the meditation finds it. The skills are consolidated to form the Nurturing and Protective Adult Resources.
Together these three Resources form a container called a Healing Circle. Wounded child parts are invited inside the circle, and asked what they need most now. The Resources are able to meet that need. Then they are asked what else is needed and the Resources meet that need too. The Resources will keep meeting needs until all the needs have been met. Child parts can form a real relationship with the Resources – a relationship that can be very powerful and healing.

How Does the DNMS Work?

When developing children get their emotional needs met by parents, their brains develop special neural pathways linking emotional centres to thinking centres of the brain. These neural pathways allow a child to grow into an adult who can self-soothe and feel secure, even when bad things happen. If these neural pathways did not adequately form in the brain when a person was little, the DNMS can help. It appears to be able to create these neural pathways now, so a person can become the healthy secure person they would have been if needs had been adequately met in childhood.
With the DNMS, child parts that have been waiting years to get their needs met, finally get the understanding, acknowledgment, and validation they need and deserve. As needs are met they will become less attached to the fears and concerns of the past and more present in the here and now.

4. Best Foot Forward

Adapted from:  (anecdotal)
founder: Krystyna Kinowski

"Put Your Best Foot Forward" is an offshoot of EMDR.  It can be done in one session and it empowers clients who have habitually difficult stress responses. It focuses on changing the way the stress is experienced in the body, rather than uncovering the historical origins of the problem or teaching stress management skills. It is especially helpful for those who have trouble getting in touch with their positive qualities.

Best Foot Forward is a non-logical, right brain kind of process.  It begins by helping clients retrieve positive bodily experiences they may not be consciously aware of.  It begins by having the client take a physical position that approximates their emotional state, and to then find a physical position that feels the opposite to that. Imagery is then evoked in a structured three-part sequence. The image/emotion/sensation triad then becomes the felt evidence on which to base a new more positive belief. The felt experiences are then used to reprocess the problem the client wishes to change. The entire process allows clients to find from within themselves a physically felt counterbalance to a difficulty that has plagued them despite awareness and self-help books.

The consensus from therapists who have attended the workshops is that this is an empowerment protocol; the consensus from clients is that it increases confidence and self-trust. Working with the protocol is continually surprising and frequently very moving. Although we may not always know where the client’s resource imagery has come from, it always feels “just right."

for more on the "Put Your Best Foot Forward" approach, see 


4. Relational Therapy - Description taken from the Toronto Institute for Relational Therapy:

Relational therapy is a powerful, effective model for working with individuals who suffer from chronic emotional, psychological, and/or relational distress. Relational therapy is based on the following principles:

  1. Emotional well-being depends on having satisfying mutual relationships with others.

  2. Emotional distress is often rooted in patterns of relational experience, past and present, which have the power to demean and deaden the self.

  3. The relational therapist tries to understand the client's unique self-experience in its social/relational context and to respond with empathy and genuine presence.

  4. Together, client and therapist create a new in-depth relationship which is supportive, strengthening, and enlivening for the client.

  5. Within this secure relationship, the client can safely re-experience, and then find freedom from, the powerful effects of destructive relationships, past and present.

Relational therapy balances the study of structures or patterns of self experience with the study of persons in interpersonal process. Through the interpersonal process of therapeutic interaction, relational therapy strengthens and transforms a client's sense of self, which in turn enhances his or her confidence and well-being in the world . Empowerment and growth through interpersonal connection are both the process and the goal of relational therapy.

With this perspective on therapy and relationship, a relational therapist takes seriously the interpersonal impact of power differentials and social issues such as race, class, culture, gender, and sexual difference, and works with these issues as they are present in the client's life and in the therapy relationship.

The principles of relational therapy taught by the Toronto Institute for Relational Psychotherapy are drawn from self psychology, intersubjectivity theory, relational psychoanalysis, psychodynamic developmental theory, trauma theory, and feminist theories of therapy.

Also link to: Guidelines for helping Trauma Survivors; Effective Treatment Approaches; Overcoming Powerlessness;  Sharing Power in the Family; Fat, Thin and Power;  Trauma Survivors Treatment; Self Empowerment for Women Improving Body ImageThe Diet/Binge/Purge Cycles,  Techniques for Treating Eating Problems

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254 Lincoln Road, Henderson, Auckland, New Zealand.       E-mail:       Phone +64 (0)27 657 2106