The Body tells your story: Body Armoring (Part II)
by Sarah on October 16, 2016
In my last post we explored long held tension patterns in our bodies called body armoring. Body armoring develops in a complex way involving multiple body systems over a prolonged period of time. To help you understand the concepts surrounding this process I will paint a picture of a child and her caregivers in a stressful emotional situation. You can imagine inserting your own lived experience into this generalized scenario and draw from it any insight it has to offer you.
The child is named Susan and she is 5 years old. She is the youngest of a family of 6 and was born into a chaotic and overwhelming environment. Her mother is depleted, depressed, and is coping through checking out emotionally. Her father is stressed from the financial burden of 4 young children and absent from home as he travels for work. As is true for all children, Susan needs and thrives on contact with her caregivers; affection, being noticed, a kind look, being delighted in. But, her mother is so shut down and in survival mode that she can’t respond to Susan’s basic needs for love and belonging. Susan’s father is either absent from the home or withdrawn and isolated when he returns, rarely accessible to Susan.
As Susan approaches her mother to express a need, she looks at Susan with vacant eyes, expresses an exasperated sigh and mutters, “I can’t deal with this right now.” Susan responds automatically and outside of awareness by diminishing her breathing, backing away, mirroring her mother’s flat affect on her face, collapsing her shoulders forward and lowering her head; bracing herself for the rejection she’s experiencing.
Susan is able to temporarily return her physical stance to normal as she runs and plays outside with the dog. But, as the situation at home does not change, and her mother continues to be overwhelmed, depleted and depressed, Susan begins to anticipate the response her mother will give her when she approaches her for connection.
Even before she approaches her mother she experiences fear of rejection, like she’s a burden, and that it would be safer for her if she would just disappear. At the same time that Susan is feeling an intense need to protect herself from her mother she is experiencing an equally intense desire to connect, creating a confusing “come close, go away” response in her nervous system. Susan’s irresistible need to approach her mother, along with her overwhelming fear that repels her, creates anxiety resulting in muscular tension that builds within her.
Susan quells the anxiety through numbing and unconsciously begins to carry herself in this defensive response of becoming small, withdrawn and insecure. In order to survive, Susan shifts the source of the rejection (her mother) to a psychological sense that she is not worthy of love and belonging. When she starts school that fall, the children respond to Susan’s withdrawn, empty look, lowered head and collapsed body by ignoring her or not even noticing that she exists. From this experience, it solidifies in Susan’s sense of herself that she is invisible, a burden and unworthy of connection; a deep sense of shame pervades her.
Susan grows up experiencing numbness in her emotions, an inability to express herself, a fear of rejection and a belief that there’s not enough to go around. When asked by someone who genuinely cares for her what she needs, she freezes and has no idea how to respond. She also experiences social anxiety resulting in pain in her chest and shallow breathing, a fixed and frozen look on her face that lacks expression, and an inability to look people in the eye when conversing with them. She sees chiropractors and massage therapists regularly because of the chronic pain she experiences between her shoulder blades. Both practitioners explain to her that the pain originates from her shoulders rolling forward and her collapsed chest, encouraging her to stand up straight and hold her head high.
There’s probably some, if not much, of Susan’s story that you can relate to. And at this point in reading her narrative you’ve likely become more aware of your own story, how you are holding your body, and begun noticing what your chronic tension patterns may be. This is a good place to start, because awareness is the first step in creating new patterns. When we notice and acknowledge our lived experience, we are empowered to create a new and different one.
We as humans are intrinsically resilient and our neurobiology is wired for wholeness and healing. We have everything we need to resolve the impact of the stressful events of our past, create new empowering beliefs about who we are based on new experiences, and write a fresh story of the life we want to live as we move forward. What’s the story you’ve been telling yourself about who you are in relation to the world and others? Was that story reflected to you through the eyes of another in your past? How do you embody that reflection even now? Who are you truly in your authentic self and what does that look like expressed in and through your body? What would it be like to embark on a new telling of your story?
I offer you some fieldwork to complete in response to this post. Take your new place of awareness and move it one step further toward wholeness and healing by completing this exercise and answering this question, “If your body tells your story, what story do you want it to tell?”
Notice the ways you carry yourself, where your tension patterns are and the body quirks you’ve always chalked up as “just the way you are.” Pay attention to the thoughts (meaning) and feelings (affect) that are connected to them.
Write about your life experience, tell your story. As you do, notice any body responses and sensations that emerge. You don’t have to do anything with them, just take note.
As you write, name the characters of your story (trust me, there are more than one). Give them creative names, not just your own name. For instance, Susan could be called “Sullen Girl.” As you name each one, describe their physical, emotional and mental characteristics.
When that is complete, imagine and write a new story at the same time that you imagine a new bodily experience, what it might be like to embody a new story. I’m not talking “your ideal body type”, but what your body might be or do in response to breaking old patterns in your life. Give your players new names and new characteristics.
Example: If you have historically been someone who collapses from fear of failure (“The Invisible Spartan”), imagine “I am someone who stands courageously in the face of fear with my feet firmly planted on the ground. I feel energized, confident and solid in the core of my being; and I hold my head high. From this place of confidence and strength people experience me as being capable, alive and open to taking risks. I am called “The Courageous Champion.”
Share your story with someone you feel securely connected to. If you don’t have someone in your life right now you feel that way with, send me your story. I want to hold the vision of the new story you are embodying and the hope of a fulfilling unfolding.