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grow up in a family that does not expect you to be strong, assertive, or powerful and are encouraged to be quiet and withdrawn, your body will show it.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.
A lot is written about male anger. While men perpetrate by far the preponderance of serious domestic abuse and violence, women and mothers can be abusive in the home. In recent weeks I have found myself working with a number of mother’s that struggle with controlling their anger. In some cases this is very distressing for the children. In most of the cases I am dealing with, it is also distressing for the mothers themselves who cover up their sense of inadequacy or helplessness with anger or rage. It got me thinking on the different kinds of anger experienced by mothers who have a problem with their own frustration and rage. Most mothers find ways of coping and managing. All mothers get angry. But some anger is a symptom of a deep inadequacy, of a sense of really being overwhelmed by the tasks of mothering. For some mothers, the maternal instinct is not natural and they are unable to identify with, and even resent, the easy earth-mothering they see in their friends.
Angry mothers often feel inadequate as parents. This creates an on-going tension and irritability at feeling unable to cope with the demands of small children who, as we know, can be a handful. Associated with this inadequacy is helplessness – an inner sense of feeling out of control and unable to soothe or resolve the daily distresses of their children. These kinds of women are often very needy, if not demanding themselves, and react more like siblings than parents to their children. The anger explodes from a resentment that they have to put their child’s needs before their own. For women who may, for example, be used to just doing their own thing or getting their own way, it can be a culture shock to suddenly be surrounded by the needy cries and demands of children.
The following kinds of maternal anger or rage may reveal some of the subtleties of maternal frustration:
All mothers feel overwhelmed at times. All mothers get angry. Some mothers know, however, that their anger borders on a resentment toward their children that bubbles up from feeling overwhelmed or inadequate. If you feel like this, do talk to someone. Seek some counselling or parenting support. You are not alone with these feelings. For many, the task of parenting is overwhelming – particularly if you have little or no support.
Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not. - Ralph Waldo Emerson
If you have ever had the hair on the back of the neck prickle while observing athletic excellence, or been moved beyond words while viewing a scene of spectacular beauty, you possess a unique sensitivity to both beauty and excellence. This sensitivity exists in most people to greater or lesser degrees but it is important to consider it as a personal virtue.
This strength is defined as the ability to find, recognize, and take pleasure in the existence of goodness in the physical and social worlds. The psychology of personal strengths suggests that we benefit from appreciating three main types of “goodness”:
1. Natural or man-made beauty (e.g., the stars at night, music)
2. Skill or talent (e.g., hurling)
3. Virtue or moral goodness (e.g., an anonymous good deed)
Awe is the emotion that most frequently accompanies this strength. Its manifestations include wide eyes, goose bumps, tears, or even a lump in the throat. When we exercise this strength, we feel uplifted. Viewing an artistic masterpiece or reading about a heroic, selfless act in the newspaper does not make us feel small in comparison. Rather, it instils within us a sense of awe and connection to something larger than ourselves. Appreciation of beauty and excellence is a virtue of transcendence.
People can savour a simple meal prepared at home as well as an elegantly presented meal at an expensive restaurant. Whether one is evaluating a dining experience, a painting or a companion, there is abundant truth in the old adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. While many will make superficial judgments that inaccurately assess value, the “beholder” whose strength is an appreciation of beauty and excellence will find deeper qualities that others miss.
Self-styled arbiters of what is beautiful and good often err in their appraisals. Noting this tendency, Leo Tolstoy observed, “It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.” Apparently some things have not changed since Tolstoy’s era. Ours is a culture of media hype that extols pretty faces and toned bodies and subjects us to ongoing appraisals that may be far from accurate. We need not accept another’s assessment of what is beautiful or excellent.
Also, it is not necessary to learn associated jargon in order to make our own judgments when savouring wine or appreciating art. Indeed, someone who is deeply affected by an instance of beauty or excellence is unlikely to find adequate words to describe it.
Awe has received little attention in psychology but it has a long tradition in religion and philosophy. Philosophers suggest that awe is the normal response to an encounter with the divine. If we feel a Divine presence within ourselves, or if we believe that we see it reflected in nature or in the selfless act of another person, awe is the natural response.
Certainly some people are able to appreciate beauty and excellence and experience awe and wonder apart from any religious perspective, but openness to spiritual encounters may foster that experience. One function of the music and ritual of religious observance may be to facilitate the experience of awe.
People have varying capacities to have peak experiences: Within any culture there are individuals who have personal, transcendent, experiences easily and often, and who accept them and make use of them; and on the other hand, those who never had them or who repress them and who, therefore, cannot make use of them for personal fulfilment. There is little doubt that most of us would prefer inclusion in the former category rather than the latter.
Efforts to cultivate this strength in children often fail because the focus is on the object of beauty rather than the experience of appreciation. Anyone who can recall a time when a stressful school assignment sapped the joy out of a great novel or work of art can appreciate this point. Parents and teachers need to encourage the development of this strength in children by exposing them to as many different examples of excellence or beauty as possible and then standing back and letting beauty take its own course.
If you are interested in developing your own ability to appreciate beauty and excellence in the world (and more frequently experience awe), consider doing things that fosters this disposition. Consider this: Wherever you are right now as you read this, stop for a moment and look around you. The chances are that things that remind you of your thing-to-do in life surround you. Equally, however, you are surrounded by beauty. This may lie in the littlest of things. A plant by the table. The clouds reflected in the window. A piece of artwork by your child. Your own hands. Your child’s coat draped over the chair, the light catching its colour.
Savouring simple beauty and evoking momentary feelings of awe is an active disposition and not just a passive experience. Don’t wait for the beauty of your life to keep announcing itself. Seek it out, like a child on a beach looking for sea-shells.
“The world breaks everyone and afterwards some are strong in the broken places” wrote Hemingway. He is referring poetically to the fact that adversity and trauma do not break everyone. Many people grow and develop not despite adversity but because of it. “What does not kill me makes me stronger” I show the German philosopher Nietzsche put it. Or you may be familiar with Leonard Cohen’s line from “There is a crack in everything…that is how the light gets in.” Each of these people is describing the woundedness of life and how our brokenness is the essence of our humanity. The challenge of life is not to avoid adversity at all costs, but to be equal to it when it places its hand on your shoulder.
Psychological research is now supporting the intuition of these poets - that adversity makes us stronger, more robust, and fulfilled people. The erasure of adversity from life makes people weaker.
We need adversity, setbacks, and perhaps some forms of trauma to reach our highest potential. If you are honest with yourself you will realise that the experiences in life that have made you a stronger and more compassionate person are experiences you would not have wished upon yourself. If you have come through a bereavement and have re-discovered your old self, doubtless your humanity has been softened, your empathy for other people has changed, and your appreciation for life in deeper. Life may not be easier, but you will find yourself to be a better parent, a better lover, a better person because of what you have been through.
So our concept and understanding of how to live a meaningful life must integrate the inevitability and necessity of adversity as a pre-requisite to growth. Wisdom in life grows from the soil of suffering and it is achieved by overcoming it.
Naïve happiness is built on the avoidance and denial of the woundedness and brokenness of one’s life and one’s self. Perpetually seeking good feelings, and wanting to be happy all the time, is bound to fail because it actually is avoidant of life in the round. Is it not a relief sometimes to meet someone who when you ask them how they are they do not just say “Fine” but are occasionally able to admit with an element of cheerful acceptance that they are finding things a tad difficult!
If you live a somewhat stressful, worrisome, and at times hard life then this is it.
The challenge is to be able to experience that as not a reflection of your inadequacy but as a reflection of the texture of all of life. If you feel inadequate then you punish yourself for not being able to cope. If you are open to the texture of life than you don’t punish yourself for being inadequate. No, you roll with the waves. What a Grateful Acceptance of all of Life.
Now we must not be naïve about this either. We cannot romanticise adversity or suffering or trivialise it by saying, like mother used to say, “It’s good for you!” No one wants suffering, pain, loss, illness, death, etc. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the effects of genuine trauma that involves a shocking confrontation with death or some overwhelming experience such as rape or battering, is awful and damaging. However, even the most awful of experiences (see Brain Keenan’s an Evil Cradling) do not destroy the person. There is an inner resilience that has great potential to overcome, though often battered, bruised, and wounded.
My point is that adversity does not imply despair. And much adversity causes growth! Great Character is really about what you do with your pain.
We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the unique point of view from which we come to see and experience the world.
The research on adversity shows that there are times in life when adversity will be essentail to the formation of character. Major adversity is unlikely to have benefits for children although the effects of once off traumas on children are less damaging than people would tend to think. Research would suggest that adversity is best handled earlier in adult life.
No one chooses adversity and no one feels that having it would make him or her any better. Yet, paradoxically, in terms of the developing fabric of human resilience and well-being it is essential to our ability to live a meaningful life. People who go through life with a silver spoon grow shallow and weak.
There will be a moment in your own life when you have the opportunity to sing your Aria. In Puccini’s La Boheme Rodolpho sings to Mimi about his life – so full of passion, loneliness, love, adversity, and sweetness it is that it cannot fail to move the heart. Wonderful opera is like this, finding exquisite beauty in the midst of heartbreak and tragedy and at these moments the lead gets to sing the Aria. At this moment, the tender beauty of life is revealed to the audience. And this is life. You need to be middle-aged or over to truly appreciate opera because by this stage you have suffered and also known the sweetness of life. You know what is beautiful because of what has been tragic.
Dr. Colm O'Connor is a Cork Psychologist. You can find more articles by Dr. O'Connor in the Evening Echo every Wednesday.