I have a friend who wants to run for a local elected office. She feels that she’s got the character and ideas to make a positive difference for her city. However, she told me, going into politics just doesn’t feel right for her. “All that conflict and debating isn’t for me,” she said. “It just makes me uncomfortable.”
“What happens to you when you get uncomfortable about it?” I asked.
She gave me a puzzled look, as if the question didn’t make sense, but eventually she humored me and answered. “I don’t know, I just tighten up all over and I feel like a turtle pulling into its shell.”
“What do you look like when you do that?”
It took a little coaxing, but finally—for a few seconds—she tensed up all over her body and drew her arms tightly across her chest. Then she burst out laughing. “Actually, that feels pretty silly.”
I figured this exercise would have a positive effect, because it’s worked so well on me. Whenever I feel like I “can’t” do something because it would “make me too uncomfortable,” I ask myself what my body would look like in that state of discomfort. Then, I do my best to imitate that image—usually hunching over, tensing my muscles and squeezing my eyes shut. Typically, my experience is just like my friend’s—the discomfort feels less threatening, and I feel more free to take the action I was afraid of.
Often, our bodies’ reactions to certain situations seem like they’re beyond our control. This includes both the sensations we experience on the inside—for instance, the heat we feel in our faces when we’re embarrassed—and the movements we find our bodies making—like the widening of our eyes when we’re afraid.
This can be frustrating and scary, as we want to be in control of our bodies—not have them yanked around by unconscious anxieties and compulsions. Because we don’t want to experience that frustration and fear, we tend to avoid situations that provoke strong involuntary reactions in our bodies—just as my friend avoided conflict because it made her body contract and “withdraw into its shell.”
However, when we start getting familiar with our reactions, and consciously reproducing them, they start feeling less alien and separate from us. We start feeling like we have more control over how we respond to events. This is why my friend felt so relieved, and even amused, when she imitated her body’s reaction to conflict situations—suddenly she had a sense that she didn’t “have” to withdraw into her shell, and that she had more control over her body’s responses in those moments than she’d thought.
Christine Caldwell, a somatic psychologist, brilliantly illustrates this process of regaining conscious choice over—or “owning”—our bodies’ reactions to stressful situations in her book Getting Our Bodies Back:
The Owning phase is about finding our reactive habits and working with them consciously. Reacting often involves a movement tag, a subtle gesture that is like a marker of unfinished wounding. The task of the Owning phase is to commit to shifting a reactive habit into a conscious action. In this way we access our ability to respond to an event, dance with it, complete it.
We tend to live our lives as if it’s impossible to change or control the way our bodies react to events. We assume certain situations will always cause our bodies to respond in unwanted ways—that some things just “make us uncomfortable,” and that’s simply how we’re designed. In fact, our unwanted reactions are often habits we’ve acquired over time—perhaps in response to painful events, or because that’s just the way people around us tended to behave. These habits aren’t part of “who we are”—they’re learned behaviors that can be changed, or unlearned.
Each person has a distinct list of situations they feel they “can’t deal with”—for some, it’s having arguments with others; for others, it’s marketing their services and “putting themselves out there”; and so forth. In the career context, we tend—like my friend—to limit our options to only those fields that pose no risk of causing physical discomfort. Or, we say we “just don’t know what we want to do”—when in fact we do know what we want, but are too afraid of the reactions doing it might produce in our bodies.
If you have a career transition you’d like to make, but you feel like the prospect of doing what you want just “makes you too uncomfortable,” I invite you to try this exercise. Think about the uncomfortable situations you believe you’d get into if you entered the field you’re interested in. When you feel unease welling up in you, don’t push the feeling away or try to distract yourself from it. Instead, let it assume complete control of your body. Allow your body to react, to move, in the way it seems to want. Perhaps, for instance, you want to grind your teeth, clench your fists, or laugh nervously. Whatever it is, allow it to happen without shaming or judging yourself.
Repeat this exercise until you start feeling more familiar with your body’s reaction to the problematic situation. As you consciously experience your reaction more and more, it will start to feel less alien and threatening. You’ll also begin feeling more in control of your body’s responses. You’ll come to realize that you don’t have to feel pain or discomfort when you contemplate going for what you want. With this realization comes a feeling of freedom to pursue your true calling.
(This article appeared in the Carnival of Inspiration and Motivation, located at http://positivensuccess.blogspot.com/2008/04/carnival-of-inspiration-and-motivation.html.)