Few of us give much though to how our early family experiences can influence our physical posture and body. If you grow up in a family that does not expect you to be strong, assertive, or powerful and are encouraged to be quiet and withdrawn, your body will show it. A child growing up in that environment is likely to have a body that appears pulled in some way. In contrast if you grew up in a family that expected you to be assertive and independent your body will also tend to be more upright and even blown up a bit. Our bodies are shaped by our family of origin just as our minds are.
That impact is even more pronounced when children have been emotionally abused. Their postures and gestures often have a frozen quality as if they cannot run away or fight back.
If you are someone who has a habit of freezing in a physical way in the face of conflict because of past history you still have the natural instinct to fight or to defend yourself. What is helpful can be to try and feel that dormant pushing response in your own body. For example, if you think of a situation in your childhood when you wanted to push back but could not, you might pay close attention to preparatory movements. Your fingers might lift up a little or your shoulders might tense up. If you notice this you can notice how your body is preparing to fight back in some way, however subtle it is. What you might do then is to feel your body’s natural wisdom and feel how it would be to execute that action.
Just as your body may freeze so too will your mind. So you will have belief systems that go along with what is happening in your body. You might have grown up thinking that “I do not have the right to be in charge of my own boundaries” or “I have to do what other people want me to do” or “It is not OK to say ‘no’ to my husband”. These are the kinds of beliefs that need to be challenged by learning a physical movement that is unfamiliar, based on those old beliefs. Connecting your mind and body is crucial.
If children grow up in families that are encouraged to set boundaries, to say no, and not do anything they do not like they are more likely to use those coping skills if someone threatens them. But if you grow up in a family where it is not okay to protect or defend yourself or to say no, your body has already started to develop movements that take you into a compliant stance.
It is important that we expand our physical movements, responses, and thoughts so that when a certain action is needed, it is there.
For example, if you have been constricted in your responses – for example if you find that you collapse very easily in response to your husbands demands, it may be important that you learn to reach out for connection and support. This of course can bring up a lot of pain and distress. Sometimes when you have to stand up for yourself you feel desperately vulnerable and needy. So you get stuck.
There is a lot to be gained from learning how your body responds to situations rather than just your feelings. You do not need to know why you act in certain ways or what exactly affects you from your past. Your body shapes itself around past experiences that are often beyond recall and are preverbal. We don’t have concrete memories that shape our everyday movements and postures. But our past continues to live in our bodies in lots of unseen ways. “The fish will be the last to discover water” Einstein said as if letting us know that the things that affect us the most are often the leats visible to us.
Become curious about how your movement, shape, gestures, and posture reflect and sustain some ongoing problem in your life. Notice that if you say that “I do not feel heard and I feel that anything I say will be demolished”. Notice how your body in some very real ways reflect that. Does your body turn away easily, do you carry yourself weakly, and limply, is your head down? Do you walk about your house as if defeated already? Your body not only reflects the issue you struggle with but it also keeps you a bit stuck.
Our thinking and emotions and body all work together. Whether you feel sad or think that things won’t improve, your body will reflect that in some way – in how you hold yourself. A creative way to look at your problems is to think of them as being physical. To imagine them as being held in your body rather than your head and instead of trying to understand the problem mentally try to be aware of how your body carries it. Try different movements to loosen up to what remains at the level of just a twitch. Before you stand up for yourself verbally, stand up for yourself physically. Walk before you talk.
Dr. Colm O'Connor is a Cork Psychologist. You can find more articles by Dr. O'Connor in the Evening Echo every Wednesday.