Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Our Body; Our Self

Sometimes in therapeutic sessions, depending on the situation and need, I give my clients the homework exercise of just noticing their body. I ask them to slow down several times a day and notice, for example, what they are sitting on. How does the chair feel, hard or soft? And how does that feel against their legs. I ask them to notice their feet and the texture of the floor or ground. What does the rug feel like under their stocking feet? If they rub their feet against the floor, what does that feel like? What do they notice about the air as it touches their face? Very simple noticings that, for the most part, many of us ignore throughout the day.

I am inevitably asked why this is important. How does noticing how soft or hard the chair is affect my emotional well-being?

Our emotional well-being is contingent on knowing our selves. As written in Trauma and the Body: A Sensorimotor Approach to Psychotherapy (Ogden, Minton and Pain, 2006), “[t]he sense of self is first and foremost a bodily sense, experienced not through language but through the sensations and movements of the body.” When we connect with our body in such an elementary way, we reconnect with our self at its most basic level.

The problem is that many of us leave our body in varying degrees throughout the day. A boring meeting or a crowded bus finds us drifting away to a better place. Then there are the somewhat more scary experiences of driving a car and realizing, when we get to our final destination, that we have no memory of the journey. Sights, sensations, and noises have slipped by us. We have, on some level, left our body and operated on cruise control.

Others have had trauma as young children and find the best way to cope, then and now, is to “disappear” or numb out. Some find it best to disregard feelings in order to avoid pain, they think it better to be “strong”, not vulnerable, and, therefore, inviolate. And then there are those who because their body was the focus of past hurts have moved away from it in distaste or, alternatively, compartmentalized it with fetishistic fervor.

When we lose sense of what our body feels, we lose our sense of who we are and what is important to us: values and beliefs become more difficult to discern. We start looking towards other for answers to questions that our body could tell us if we only listened. On the other hand, beliefs can become more rigid if the body is not allowed to express or experience its inevitable changes. And, if we do not know what we feel when we are in a safe and neutral environment, how can we know what we feel when things change or are not so safe?

Last weekend I went to visit an aging relative. The trip was long and quite enjoyable but, as I sat on the train, I began to notice that my thigh muscles were tense. It was strange. I seemingly felt calm and relaxed but here were my legs telling me something different. So, I just noticed them and, in doing so, felt them slowly release while I experienced a deep breath, almost a sigh. Hmmm, guess I was tense. I had unconsciously gone into an old, but habitual mode of protection. One that had served me well in the past, when visiting family, but had no use in my current journey. The trip in itself had triggered me and my body instinctively reacted without my conscious knowledge.

By checking in with my body I came into a deeper sense of what I was actually feeling. With this knowledge I was able to reassure myself that things were different, I had no need to be tense; that I was safe. Calmer, more relaxed — my emotional well-being taken care of — I continued on my journey in comfort.


  1. This is just beautiful! And just what I needed too! I have been finding that just noticing what it is my body feels is very nuturing, but I didn't know why. Now I'll have to get that book!

  2. Thanks Bonnie, I highly recommend the book ... to a certain extent its ARC Work explained in an academic format.