Everyone’s heard the phrase, “You are what you eat.” How about, “You are what you experience.” We believe that how we arrive at our adult shape – who we are, what we look and feel like, what we believe – has to do with the conditions all along our life, and those conditions are reflected in the body’s structure. Body structure and movement is a function of how a unique life has been experienced and is then organized in the body. A tree has to grow around whatever obstacle is in its way, in the same way, everybody has a way they’ve formed/grown. The body reflects the successes and the challenges of each individual and the insults and injuries suffered – what one has been affected by, and what information one has received. It’s about how the body has dealt with/processed/formed around what has happened to it – insult, injury, or a difficult or emotional event – like a pearl within an oyster.
“From a somatic perspective, the term “insults” refers to all the events, internal and external, that invoke the startle reflex. For a newborn baby, loud sounds, bright lights, and unfamiliar events may be insults. To an infant darkness, strange animals, and the temporary absence of a parent might all be insults. Later fights and disagreements with friends and sibling rivalry are potential insults. Insults may arise from our own internal states, feelings of anger, dependency, sexuality, hunger for contact, fears of being left, or imagining a horrible event. Certainly events may result from family life, how we are treated, the quality of care and affection, the nature of discipline, and the encouragement or discouragement of emotional expression. But an insult could also be prolonged economic hardship in the family, the absence of one of the parents, the effects of war, poverty, divorce, death, or verbal and physical abuse targeted at the child.” Emotional Anatomy.
An example of how structure and experience are related can be illustrated by familiar high school stereotypes. Think of the shy person, their shoulders are probably rounded and forward and their head is likely “heading” downward. The bully may have their shoulders pulled back, inflating or exaggerating the chest, trying to be “head and shoulders” above everyone else. These two extremes show that the shy posture doesn’t allow the muscles in the front of the body to support that person and in the bully posture, the muscles in the back are shortened in service of putting on a “front.” The bully’s posture is up and strained, chest out, like a bow. The victim is collapsed chest, head forward. Neither is moving through their middle, which is actually what would give them more stability and confidence.
Actors are practiced at creating and embodying different forms to represent the characters they are playing. We too are in the body that represents the character we have been “playing.” Sometimes our shape is more a response to childhood conditions and less about who we actually are. We learn defensive physical postures early in our development as a way of protecting ourselves against trauma. People that have been repeatedly overwhelmed or traumatized can be “stuck” in shapes that would represent reaction instead of response or resignation instead of engagement. We all have preferred defenses that have become integral to our individual styles of coping. The result of a complex interaction among at least four factors: one’s constitutional temperament, the nature of the stresses that one suffered in early childhood, the defenses modeled and sometimes deliberately taught, by parents and other significant figures, and the experienced consequences of using particular defenses.
We also tend to separate or segregate parts of our body in an effort to protect ourselves from something that might be painful, offensive to us in some way, or doesn’t fit with our idea of who we are or what we want. Segregating parts can be a way of managing emotional or physical overwhelm. Focusing on just a problem with one’s hip or knee may ignore the reality that the whole body is being affected by an insult of some kind – the hip or knee might just be the most vocal part. The body with all of its systems has been at the effect of one life, and it is much more effective and stable to reintegrate all of its parts – even the painful and offensive ones.
The body is the subconscious mind, information just below the surface, including the skin, is an autobiography of the individual and where life experiences went well and where or how they did not. The body holds the history and the potential when combined with cognitive cooperation and power of accurate language.