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What your body knows

Have you ever heard yourself say "I know I should love myself, but deep down I really don't." Or, "I know the past wasn't my fault, but I still feel guilty and wrong." As a therapist, I hear these sentiments a lot. What is this disconnect between our intellectual knowing and actual lived experience?

Most of us have a grand narrative, a verbal story, that we tell ourselves about who we are and what has happened in our lives. And most of us overlook the rich and complex story of ourselves that is told by our bodies. When we learn how to understand the language of the body, we gain insight into the unconscious physical habits and patterns that create difficulties for us by perpetuating old stories and we discover possibilities for a new, integrated story that reflects the here and now. The body’s “narrative” is told in patterns of movement, tension, posture, gesture, facial expression, breath, prosody, physiological arousal, and visceral sensations. Our somatic narrative is especially helpful in understanding the legacy of trauma and forgotten early attachment relationship dynamics.

All day, every day, our bodies are responding to our environment outside of our awareness. For example, most of us don’t need to think about how to walk, talk, tie our shoes, or drive a car. When we engage in a sequence of movements, a gesture, posture, or tension over and over again, it becomes habitual. Without thinking about it, we “remember” how to engage in a behavior such as walking automatically. This is helpful and useful. This is called procedural memory. Procedural learning assumes that the future will be the same as the past. The history of our relationships, particularly early attachment relationships, is also apparent in our bodies. The downside to procedural learning is that physical patterns that were learned in an environment of attachment inadequacy can interfere with our ability to respond flexibly to the here and now. For example, a collapse in the spine and hunch in the shoulders might tell the story of a need for compliance in the past. As an automatic habit in the present, this posture promotes feelings such as shame, incompetence or helplessness. Tension in the shoulders and a holding of one’s breath might tell the story of a need to brace oneself for attack in the past. As an automatic habit in the present, this tension and holding evoke a belief that others can’t be trusted. Your conscious mind might know that it’s safe to speak up and share your opinion at work, but your body may remember that it wasn’t safe to speak up as a child. You may unconsciously hunch your shoulders in an effort to stay small to please others. Even though you may want to be assertive, these automatic behaviors get in the way of the receptivity and trust needed to actually be assertive. Every body has it’s unique, nuanced and patterned ways of responding to life! As you learn to listen to the language of your body, automatic physical habits that are no longer helpful can be unlearned and new responses that fit current reality can be practiced. You are inviting greater integration of your mind, emotions and body -- inviting a more sophisticated, embodied narrative -- that allows for deep transformation and change.

Action: Try to identify repetitive patterns of movement, posture and tension in your own body. Do you tend to clench your fists? wring your hands? shake your legs? stand tall? stand with your chest forward or sunken? Avert your gaze? Make warm eye contact? Hold your breath? Take deep breaths? Tighten your shoulders? Clench your teeth? Smile? What do you notice in the picture below? As you get skilled at bringing these patterns into your awareness meaning will be revealed and, if appropriate, new somatic options will become available to you.

picture from WIX

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