I am sitting in the Smiddy, our local farm shop, eating a breakfast bap with flat sausage, fried egg and brown sauce. It is called the Stack. It is not unusual for me to eat here five times a week. My body tells the story; it is not chiselled.
I enjoy eating. There is nothing like a Nando’s before the cinema then Phish Food ice cream and a cup of tea during the main feature. In addition to providing me with gustatory pleasure, my body is quite smart. Not only does it remind me, later in bed, that I should not have had the ice cream, it can sense a change in the weather and feels “squirly” at the top of my stomach when someone I’m with is emotionally blocked.
My consultant, James loves that his legs speedily convey him up a mountain after work; his lungs sucking in huge bucketfuls of damp, oxygenated air. My friend, Ruth becomes electrified at the skirl of the bagpipes, springing through traditional Scottish dances as music pumps through her limbs. Our carpenter, Graham, enjoys the feeling of walnut under his fingers and has developed unique dexterity for bending and carving it to his will.
Our bodies feel their way through life: energising behaviour that leads to satisfaction; freezing if we are about to repeat a painful mistake. They gush, drip, whoosh and thump us from one experience to another. Fights, sex, competitions, successes, hugs, naps, going to the toilet, the gym, a ceilidh; life is experienced in our bones, muscles and organs.
You don’t have a body; you are a body.
But are our experiences threatened by this disembodied internet age? Are we thinking our way through our lives? Not much muscle is engaged in thumb-typing and lifting a cortado up to our mouth. For many, the body has been demoted to a transportation device for the head; that tiny space behind the eyes; that cramped little room in which most of our lives take place.
Is disembodiment contributory to this epidemic in mental ill-health? Are we trying to think our way out of situations we experienced our way into? Perhaps we need to walk, paddle, climb, jump, drink, eat and dance our way through life’s challenge, as well as talk about them?
Because our bodies are the vessels and means of our experience, they tell our stories. James, the mountain climber and Ruth, the dancer have differently shaped bodies to me. Graham, the carpenter, has more angular and muscular hands than mine. Like the rings of a tree, habits, traumas and joys are dented into our physical forms; exposed in the relative proportion of our muscles. Reichian psychotherapists would go as far to say that these “muscular armouries” reveal our shadows: the hidden aspects of our characters.
Most experiences are tagged with emotions, giving them meaning. At the basic level, they tell us if we liked or disliked an event. With more emotional intelligence, we can understand if an encounter was comforting, safe, lonely, toxic or triumphant. Feelings can be lovely occurrences, making for moments of joy and love. They can also signal painful or dangerous events: fear, sadness and disgust.
When we have an experience, there is a build-up (or charge) of a particular emotion. As adults, we take steps to discharge it through appropriate action: seeking comfort if we are sad, hugging someone if we are pleased to see them. If we have interpreted the signal correctly and have found a suitable expression for it, our bodies return to a neutral, resting state.
As children, in the early stages of development, we lack the requisite behaviour to discharge the build up of emotion. We need our parents to soothe us back to a neutral state. When parental care is absent or misapplied and the feelings cannot be discharged, we protect ourselves from being overwhelmed by blocking the emotion. This involves muscular constriction and psychological dissociation from the experience. If blocking is repeated too often or the circumstances are too traumatic, we develop habits of physical tensing and patterns of psychological reaction. Over time, this produces a recognisable muscular armoury with attendant repeating behaviour: a personality symbolised by our body.
This opens up a world of possibility. As leaders, we could anticipate someone’s default defences just by looking at them. With a little adaptation to our language, we could form productive agreements quicker and develop a wider range of people more sustainably and with less drama. We might also notice our own shadows, identifying those stowaway vulnerabilities that steer us of course. With practiced personal awareness, our relationships suffer less self-sabotage.
Over the years, thousands of leaders have been trained in body-based character analysis and attested to its help in leading them through political and relational challenges. Some of the most successful executives have talked about it “saving” their careers. Using these insights, leaders see the underlying psychological issues that affect performance and avoid being “hooked” by the more obvious surface behaviours.
Of course, with such a powerful tool, tone is vital. We must avoid ascribing more status to ourselves by this knowledge, observing the human race like a detached Theophilus, ransacking people’s souls for personal advantage. It is only a story, a few more distinctions for describing the human condition. With a light touch, a sense of humour and empathy we can use it to explain, in new words, other people’s experience of life. If this creates a conversational bridge, insight, catharsis and more behavioural choices, we have led well. If someone feels exposed, judged and boxed, we’ve missed the mark.
If these insights are of interest, you can learn more about them here.