The eel and the axe-man: a therapy session

A man in his mid-life came for counselling to help with anger that wells up inside him playing certain sports. He had a sense that it’s deep and old anger. After the first session he no longer experienced it in the same venue so it wasn’t so much a “make this anger go away” agenda as a “what is going on inside” query.

My sense was that this was someone who could hold his experience and not get violent. He also did not have violence in his history, so I offered a somatic approach based in Focusing and Internal Family Systems. Here is what happened in one appointment. I offer it to demonstrate how we can work in an embodied way using imagery that comes from the client, to do direct work that leads to palpable shifts in state that would not be possible by only talking about an issue, in this case the man’s anger. 

I invite my client to notice what happens in his body as he remembers some things that get him mad. He notices a tightly coiled sensation in his belly. He makes a connection between that and stomach troubles that sometimes keep him up at night. We return to the sensation.

The image that comes is of a terrifying eel, twisting and turning in his belly. His sense is it wants to devour him. He is surprised by the intensity of this and confused. He wants to know how to get rid of it. With his consent we go back to the body.

I ask what else happens in his body or experience as the eel is there? There’s a wish to destroy it. We hang out with that part that wants it gone. We get to know it a bit. The image that comes is of a younger version of himself: a feisty, scared part that wants to control the eelit since it’s not normal and shouldn’t be there. The young man is wielding an axe with which he wants to dismember the eel. I offer some empathy towards that part and it slowly calms down. It gets to express some of it’s concerns.

After a while I ask what that axe-wielding might do if he didn’t have to guard against the eel so vigilantly. He said he would go travel, and my client looked quite pleased. The young man was also concerned still about the eel and it wasn’t safe to go (we hadn’t done much work with the eel itself yet). So I asked the wiser, bigger part of my client what he sees as needed.

Something shifted quickly in my client and he looked at me bewildered: “he just put the axe down and walked away, and then… the eel swam away too.  They were co-dependent”. He is incredulous. 

He explains that what needed to happen was that this part hasn’t grown up but needed to. As soon as he thought that it did grow up started showing a bit of grey hair. The main piece for him though was that he realised it was that the young man was turned towards the light, or the good in life, and that’s what was helping, not actually holding the axe. So then it was automatic for the  part to put down the axe. My client said he then felt a shift and the Hebraic words for “Heal the world” came to him. He became very quiet inside.  

My client took himself through this last part in an organic flow it seemed. To conclude I suggested offering the young man part some thanks for his time protecting him, and for showing up and relating with him in this session.  By the end the eel had shifted form and become part of his intestines in a gentle way. The tension in his stomach was gone. 

This was clearly a very experiential session where something shifted. I don’t think either of our conscious brains knew what exactly these forces were, but we stayed present and what needed to happen happened, or at least that’s the way I see it.

In another session we could explore the eel energy a little more if indeed it’s there. Or perhaps look more at the experience of turning towards the light and how that has served him in his life and how it might continue to do so. What was significant to me about this session was that a fight between parts that was getting him stuck in anger had been released. 

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