(Or ‘Why we work with both the mind and the body in body psychotherapy’)
As a remedial massage therapist specialising in body-mind massage, I would help my clients release the tension and stuck emotions in their body. They would report that they felt immediate relief and felt wonderful. However this relief wouldn’t last. The next time they came to see me the same patterns of tension would be back. Why? Because your mind is stronger than my hands. And these patterns of tension are like armour that protects you from painful feelings that you couldn’t deal with at the time (anger, sadness, stress). Having a massage gave immediate relief to the symptoms, but left the cause – the wound – untouched.
You store your issues not just in your mind, but also in your muscles. This is why it is so important to work with both the mind and body when dealing with psychological or emotional issues. So this is exactly what we do in body psychotherapy.
So where does this armour come from? Think of what you do when you stub your toe… a typical reaction is to hold your breath whilst hobbling about on one foot. Holding your breath is in an instinctive reaction to stop feeling the physical pain in our body. This muscular armour works in the same way for emotions. By tensing the diaphragm we restrict our breathing and in doing so stop ourselves from feeling the tender feelings in our bellies. By gritting our jaw we hold ourselves back from speaking out, something that could potentially get us into trouble. So why is this a problem? Because it’s causing you physical pain. Or holding you back psychologically.
These patterns of armouring start to form when we are children. As a child we are totally dependent on the love and protection of our parents or primary care givers. We play roles in order to gain love and attention from our parents. A defence against rejection. Think about the terrified child who pacifies their alcoholic father, bringing them food and coffee in order to avoid a violent outburst. I myself played the role of the academic achiever in order to gain my father’s attention. If I didn’t achieve I believed I would be unloveable. I feared I would be rejected. I don’t mind admitting that I carried on this belief until I was 40. It was only through therapy that I started to see where this faulty logic came from, and slowly I started taking different decisions.
Think about the roles you still play as an adult. Your work persona versus your private persona. How you act around your family versus how you act around your friends? Which is the real you? Any of them? Like actors we play a role, we wear a mask in order to gain acceptance and love from the people around us. The happy person. The caring friend. The leader. We do it to be socially acceptable. And sometimes we believe that our true self will not be accepted, or worse will be un-loveable or rejected.
Over time, these masks or roles become structured in our bodies. Our body becomes shaped to the self-image we create. Initially we consciously hold our muscles in patterns to effect the mask that we need to show, or to stop ourselves from feeling the emotional pain of rejection or abandonment. Over time the holding pattern becomes unconscious and the muscle tension becomes chronic. We are no longer aware that we are doing it and these holding patterns become the norm. The self-deprecating people pleaser has an open, smiling face, despite the tears that lie within. The sad, lonely person rounds their shoulders to protect the heart, their entire energy drooping towards the floor in defeat. The fearful child holds terror in his eyes and anger in his jaw and shoulders from where he’s not been able to express his own rage for fear of rejection.
But we’re no longer children. We no longer need to rely on the love and protection of our parents. We can stop playing these roles, but it takes time and we need to proceed gently, because these patterns are ingrained in your subconscious; these childhood wounds are deep. This armour should be treated with kindness and melted away gently, after all it helped you survive as a child.
In body psychotherapy our goal is to return aliveness to the body. To gently melt the armour. To discharge the stuck emotions. To release the trauma. We do this by working with the breath and physical movements. As we release the tight muscles a client will often remember events, memories or emotions associated with that tension. The client may sob as they feel and release the childhood grief, or express the anger that they were unable to express as a child for fear of rejection by mum or dad. We may revisit the same stories time and time again as we release the tensions, like peeling the layers off an onion. But one thing is sure… as you release those tensions and withheld emotions, you will feel more alive. You will have more energy for life. And you will have more capacity for joy.
It takes an awful lot of physical energy to maintain these muscle-holding patterns, and mental energy to maintain the façade of the mask you portray. Imagine if you could let go of the mask and truly be yourself? Think of the additional energy that would be freed up.
With the help of a brilliant therapist I started to listen to my inner voice and started following my non-academic interests. I started following my own heart. But it’s still there… the inner voice that tells me that perhaps I’m not good enough and therefore don’t deserve love. It’s something I work on every day. But that voice is growing quieter and quieter each day. And now it’s my turn to help you.
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