Going underneath: beyond talk therapy

a view of seaweed and fish from below looking up to a blue sea surface | beyond talk therapy | Tempo Therapy and Consulting

5 Oct 2022

Nonspeaking approaches in counselling or supporting others can move us beyond the thinking, talking, logical world of the cortex, and into the subcortical realm of implicit experience, feelings, movement and the senses: into the unconscious experience that informs 80% of our existence. How can we find ways to connect with these parts of ourselves? What are the benefits of doing so? This blog explores these questions and why approaches beyond words are an essential part of any health or education professional's toolkit.

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Come out into the dark where I can see you.

A. Neil Meili

One of my favourite places to be, is in, on, or by the ocean.

It's my happy place.

The ocean is also a wonderful metaphor for the differences between our conscious and unconscious awareness:

  • the world of thinking, talking and logic; of things known;
  • and the deeper, less tangible worlds of feelings, body sensations, memories, and connection to spiritual experiences, or something bigger than us.

Above the water, many things are known:

  • I can see far
  • I can take in the expanse of water around me: the blue, green, grey and all the colours in between
  • I feel the wind in my hair
  • I hear the sound of the waves
  • I smell and feel the salty spray as it whisks across my cheeks

Like our cortex that manages thinking and explicit experience, the top of the water feels familiar: I can see, hear and feel when the water is choppy or calm; I see clouds and birds that circle and swoop above.

Below in the murky depths, it is a different story.

There are many unknowns:

  • it is less familiar
  • there is no air to breathe
  • it teems with fish, mammals and strange creatures
  • there is so much beauty, but it is unfamiliar and potentially dangerous: I do not know what lurks beneath

It is a world rich in colour, movement, life and wisdom, but it is hard to know and requires support to access.

Isaac Mija

In the watery underworld, the ocean is deep and mysterious, a little like the subcortical realms that:

  • manage our survival and stress responses,
  • process feelings, and
  • organise memories, body sensations, and movement in a way that help us to make sense of our experiences.

These parts of us are hard to access: memories and sensations swirl, and are sometimes locked away, out of reach.

With our intangible experiences hard to grasp, it is little wonder then that we find them hard to feel and know, let alone articulate.

Nonverbal approaches in counselling, therapy or supporting someone who is struggling, offer alternatives to talking, explaining or 'fixing' a problem, issue or situation. They can help to find a different way to explore, express, experience, connect and be with our needs.

What are approaches in counselling beyond words?

In this Western culture, we are ruled by the left brain and its narrow, thought-driven, rational, logical and sensible focus.

In reality, so much more of us is availble if we open to our senses and embodied experience.

Within counselling, nonspeaking approaches can encompass anything that involves the absence of words, such as:

  • gesture
  • movement
  • listening to or making sounds
  • sensory exploration
  • any form of engagement with artistic experience
  • playing games
  • listening to or making music
  • engaging with internal experiences (imagery, sensations, somatic experiences)
  • exploring body shapes or postures
  • play
  • any form of self expression that doesn't use words
  • touch / tactile experiences

Why do we get lost for words?

We've all had experiences of being stuck for words: experiencing brain fog when we are overwhelmed, or being rendered speechless when we have had a shock.

When we are stressed or in danger, our whole mind-body system switches to efficiency and survival:

  • our focus narrows
  • our thinking switches off
  • our bodies get ready to fight or run

We do what we can to survive, and that means rational thinking, logic, planning and reasoning go out the window.

Whilst this is true for states of stress, threat or danger, even when we are faring well and thinking clearly, 80% of the incoming data to our brain comes through the body.

Let's think about that for a moment.

Our body has so much information to share.

Yet many of us are disconnected from it.

Tapping into sensory experiences, involving sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, proprioception, interoception and the vestibular sense (for an overview of these senses, see here), are a way of accessing pathways of contact and connection with the world beneath words and thought; with our inner experience and self.

Intangible stories

A small boy comes into the therapy room.

He looks scared.

When I talk, he looks away and hides behind his mum.

For many months he won't talk to me.

Over time, he peers out and watches his mum and I talk; he watches us play Jenga and Uno; he begins to join in but only if she is there.

He keeps himself small, compact, hidden.

One day, I offer him a small box of raw rice. He opens it cautiously, placing his hands in amongst the rice, exploring the grains. One or two grains spill over the edge. For the first time he looks into my eyes. He makes more grains spill out. Slowly, and deliberately, he allows more and more grains to overflow. They fall onto the table, and then onto the floor, before he flicks the rice around the room. He laughs and is engaged for the first time.

This is the first step towards opening.


George, a 60-something year old man sits in an in-patient group in a psychiatric ward. He says he is fine. Another group member chooses some music and as it plays George begins to cry. “There is sadness and anger in there” he says, “I didn’t know until now”.

Sarah, a woman in her late 20s, is lost for words as she freezes in memories of abuse. She is unable to talk or make sense of the story fragment that froze her. I invite her to bring her awareness to the chair underneath her, and to orient her eyes to her left.

Sarah's eyes move and I suggest she sees if her neck and head are able to follow.

As she is able to do both of these things, I invite her to allow her neck to move freely.

Sarah is moving now but not ready to talk.

I see her look at the colourful oil pastels and suggest she select the colour that stands out to her. She picks up a dark grey pastel as I offer her a piece of paper and suggest she starts drawing in the middle of the page and be guided by her hand.

She starts slowly and draws only a small dot in the middle of the page.

Over time the dot grows into shapes expressing grief, power and strength.

Talking about these images, Sarah is able to understand her experience in a new way.


How do nonspeaking approaches help?

Nonspeaking approaches offer a bridge between what is known and what is not known, and an alternative to words, logic and direct communication.

They allow us to follow and support someone at their own pace, as we can help them to feel safe and seen in their experience without being pushed into talking about it before they are ready.

These approaches can be:

  • descriptive
  • expressive
  • experiential
  • exploratory
  • internal / external
  • silent / loud

At times we may not know what to think or say, but we can stop notice:

  • what images come to mind
  • the gestures, postures, actions or movements that parts of our body want to make
  • the sounds we are aware of in the present, in a memory, in a story
  • what is happening in our feelings, senses or imagination
  • if something (a shape, a colour, a movement, a sound, an image) symbolises our experience

We can access these parts of ourselves through:

  • Music
  • Art
  • Movement
  • Touch
  • Spatial
  • Guided imagery
  • Sand
  • Play
  • Our senses

Accessing and expressing these parts of ourselves through nonspeaking approaches can help clients to understand issues from different perspectives, connect with deeper meaning and express that which is often not possible through words alone.

We are very good in this western capitalist society at tuning out of our bodies and felt experiences, and living in our heads.

However, if we are to truly understand what we are experiencing, we need to go underneath our thoughts and words and into feelings and the body. This can be challenging at the best of times, but especially so for those of us whose survival required us to disconnect from our experience. 

With guidance, this is possible.

If you would like to know more about working with approaches beyond words, feel free to reach out for a 15 minute virtual cuppa here.

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.

Ludwig Wittgendstein

Related Resources

Header image: Marek Okon