Showing that our earliest moments in life matter―and that we can access those memories to heal ourselves as adults―has made Barbara Findeisen a pioneer in the field of perinatal and prenatal psychology.
As the founder of the Star Foundation, Findeisen has “helped transform the lives of thousands of people,” says colleague Marti Glenn. The center’s 10-day therapeutic retreats, guided by Findeisen and her staff, have a 30-year history of helping patients accelerate healing. “You turn a corner when you’re able to do that,” Glenn says.
Now in her 80s, Findeisen was presented last year with the Thomas R. Verny Award by the Association for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health. The award recognizes her more than four decades of studying how our minds and emotions are shaped by experiences at and before birth.
Paul Sutherland learned about the Star Foundation from an S&H colleague while urgently seeking referrals for a suicidal friend. “It was a profound experience for him and changed his life forever,” Sutherland says, “which affirmed to me how our paths intersect with people in random and mysterious ways―and that sometimes the briefest of moments can change, or even save, a life.” Sutherland interviews Findeisen about her remarkable life and work.
How did you become interested in perinatal psychology?
I became a psychologist and then went to work in a clinic in Palo Alto, California. At that time in my own therapy, I had several strange, inexplicable out-of-body experiences. A profound panic came up over and over again in my sessions where I was totally terrified and shaking; I didn’t know why my body was doing this strange thing. I didn’t know why my body was trembling. I didn’t know why I was so scared. There was no container for it in my consciousness; I had no intellectual explanation.
And then it got even more confusing: I started saying things out of the depths of my unconscious, like “Don’t puncture me!” and “Let me live!” I didn’t know why this was happening. And as it unfolded, it was clear that I was having an experience from the womb―which at the time I didn’t understand, nor did my therapist. From that point on, I went on a quest to see if there was any truth to this, because in those days there was little consciousness of prenatal psychology.
What did you find?
Prenatal development is the most neglected source of some of the problems that show up later. Babies are being born already in a fear response. We start protecting ourselves before we’re born if the environment is toxic, if the mother is injecting too many drugs, if the baby is unwanted, if the mother gets beaten by the father and the baby gets to know the father’s voice. If there’s a trauma at that level, it gets very hidden and covered because the baby is helpless. We must find coping mechanisms to survive. Some of them are pretty disastrous, and some of them work.
The work we do at the Star Foundation uncovers that. I see therapy as an archaeological dig to the soul. Some place within our consciousness is the memory of wholeness or divine essence.
What is the process of getting there?
I work with adults, but emotionally I think sometimes we’re children. I have them take a look at what were the early experiences. For instance, suppose their mother died when they were four and they were not allowed to go to the funeral, they were not allowed to grieve, nobody gave them the support to just feel. So many of us were taught not to feel when we were young. So we allow people to go back to traumatic events or even mildly traumatic events and look at the way it was: What couldn’t you say? What couldn’t you feel? Let’s redo that: Say it now. Feel it now. And then we look at how is this still showing up in your life and relationships? Perhaps you don’t want to get close to anyone because you believe they’ll die or abandon you. We take a look at how it’s manifesting in your life in a very practical way, because we all have threads that go back to the womb and childhood.
By examining these issues, can people really change?
Yes, I’ve seen it time and time again. And when we change, we hope everybody else changes, but they don’t necessarily. So how are you going to deal with going back to a partner, for instance, and you have reworked a pattern of being subservient, and all of a sudden it’s like you’re now working on being more authentic and standing up for yourself. You cannot guarantee that the other person is going to be happy with that. When people come to groups, what comes up is, How are you going to go back and be different in a world where everything is set up for you to be the old way?
It’s not easy to go back into a life that has been habituated. For example, the way you survived as a child was being a little mouse, and all of a sudden you don’t want to be a mouse anymore. But that’s the way you learned to survive with a drunken father and a mother who is mentally ill. You just became a little mouse.
Are we overdiagnosing or labeling?
I think diagnoses are sometimes more for the therapist than for the client. I don’t want to put people in yet another therapeutic box, as I might actually be limiting their experience. We do resonate with people. We do pick up nonverbal communications. So I think the therapist has to really keep their mind as open and clear as possible so that they can go into the depths.
You have a gift for making people feel safe and mirroring people, listening deeply, and this is one of the hallmarks of the staff and work at Star. How do you do this?
The first thing a therapist has to do is establish some sense of trust. One way is to explain and model that “I don’t have your answers. You do. I’m here to help you uncover the things that you’ve had to do, for good reason, that are now limiting you, and I’m here to help you discover what’s hidden within you.” I don’t know if Jung or whoever else said this, but it’s not my job to bring the light to you, but to help you lift the shade, because the light is always―you might say God or whatever―the light of consciousness, it’s always there, but we live with so many shades pulled down in protection and distrust and emphasis on what’s wrong with us.
What keeps you going?
Being able to witness over and over and over again the power that is within us―that we are not powerless―is so inspiring. But we listen to this voice in our head which denies us and says, “I want to be right all the time, I want to dominate you, I want to have more money than you do,” and that sort of stuff. But it’s all almost a coping mechanism for something underneath it. With some people, I work a lot with self-compassion. That’s not narcissism, but it’s a gentleness with yourself. So maybe you’ll never be a gourmet cook. Stop scrutinizing yourself. Stop the constant barrage of self-judgment.
I have people sometimes that have had profound spiritual experiences or real traumas and they have never talked to anybody about it, because when they did talk about it, they got ridiculed or humiliated or laughed at. And so it’s like there’s something that’s very vulnerable and very naive about some spiritual experiences we have. And so we get protective of them, because when we talk about them, we get judged. So what I like to do is give people a big space for their experience.
What is the crisis point that brings people to a place like Star?
Sometimes it’s a marriage that’s falling apart, and they want some place that’s a sanctuary, where they can drop into the issues instead of having a 50-minute hour. Sometimes they’re in recovery for some kind of addiction, but their problems or some of their old feelings are coming up.
And sometimes I wonder why people are coming in, because they look like they got it made. They had good childhoods and often they’re successful, but they have a sense of emptiness―an internal sense of loss. And very frequently what they’ve lost is a piece of themselves. Maybe it’s the innocence of their childhood, maybe it’s their memory of wholeness, maybe it’s a real genuine inability to be intimate with somebody else, and it shows up in their relationships. Whatever it is, there’s something out of alignment within them. They feel dis-ease―not necessarily physical ailments, but there’s dis-ease about something going on with them.
How do people react to the element of spirituality as part of our personal growth?
Some people think it’s just California woo-woo in the beginning. We are always trying to support people having their own personal experience of “soul” or put it in a frame that fits their belief system and vocabulary―not what I think it should be, but whatever it is for them. And sometimes they have that “essential self” experience, the wholeness we talked about earlier. I call it “essence” or try to use energetic words. I try to present spirituality in a way that is almost secular―maybe that is an oxymoron, but it’s secular spirituality.
Do you think our psychological development is intertwined with the spiritual?
I do. I don’t believe we end at death; I don’t believe we began at birth or at conception. There is something, whether it’s collective unconscious or soul or whatever it is. That, and the first brain that develops is the right brain, and that is the brain of the senses. And what I have just noticed often is when people get in touch with their right brain―their senses, their intuition, their smell, their touch, their seeing, their hearing, their tasting―there seems to be a balancing of the two brains that opens the person to a genuine experience of the spirit. Like washing a window and the light comes through: it’s like lifting the shade and the light is just there. We don’t have do anything to get it; it’s just addressing what has been blocked in us.
Are we always working on childhood stuff?
Neuroscience is now corroborating what I have been feeling and thinking. What happens to us in the womb and in early childhood lays out a template that influences the way we think, the way we feel about ourselves and the world―and our place in it. I don’t want to say everything has a childhood root, or a birth root, because it comes from a lot of different places. But at the right-brain level, from zero to age two, things get imprinted at a physical level, at a sensual level, in the body. I have had people come in and they have done 40 years’ worth of therapy, but they never got to the very original loss or trauma because it was not at the verbal level. That’s why the body is so important: it stores information and emotions and trauma and tells our story.
Sometimes we get people at Star who are radically one direction or the other politically, or devoutly religious to the exclusion of other religions. A lot of fundamentalism is just an extreme method of surviving or coping. They feel they are much safer in the world if they are absolutely sure they are right, and then they don’t have to deal with their own personal issues.
But when they become aware of the experiences they had at a preverbal or a very, very young level, they are the same as the person on the other end of the political spectrum or the other end of the religious spectrum. When we were traumatized by an abusive father or a mother who was distant and unavailable, it doesn’t matter who you are, a Tea Party member or a liberal Democrat. Sometimes I think if I could get everybody at that level, we would have a little bit more harmony.―S&H
Therapy’s Archaeological Dig for Treasure
By Barbara Findeisen
1. You have no awareness of what lies hidden.
2. Coping skills are working.
3. The terrain gets a little rough and rocky.
4. There is a crisis, a divorce, a death and loss; you fear you cannot handle this steep landscape.
5. You turn to old methods, repress, control, numb out with drugs, booze, work, and food . . . whatever!
6. You can’t go on like this: the fear of staying the same is less than the fear of taking the risk of moving ahead.
7. You seek help like an archaeologist; looking for answers and clues, you begin to dig.
8. This kind of digging involves an uncovering, a sharing of your story, a lot of work, and hardest of all, expressing old feelings.
9. You dig deeper and come upon skeletons, bones from old ancestors, and ancient times.
10. You find some small treasure, like the memory of a grandma who really loved you. Your tears wash away some of the mud that had caked around your heart.
11. You begin to notice tiny gold flecks of compassion for yourself and others.
12. You become aware that you are not alone. There are friendly companions who are also searching and digging.
13. You carefully brush and blow away the loose earth. A treasure is revealed. It is awesome!
14. A wave of peace washes over you. You remember to play and take rest. What you thought was lost has been found.
15. You take the dirt you have shoveled aside and make a garden. You tend it well. In time you share your veggies and flowers with friends and passersby. You are OK being you as you are.