Have you ever wanted to be composed and confident in a certain situation, but felt like your body just wouldn’t cooperate? I had experiences like this for a long time. I wanted to feel comfortable interacting with people in any setting. However, I’d sometimes become aware that parts of my body were shaking, fidgeting or shifting in ways that made me—and, seemingly, whoever I was around—uncomfortable.
I would notice this happening even in seemingly low-pressure situations, like when I was walking down the street. When someone would walk by close to me, I would feel the muscles in my lower back subtly shifting away from that person. It was as if my body was trying to make sure I stayed out of that person’s way and didn’t anger them. In fact, it was almost like my body was apologizing for the mere fact that I existed and took up space.
For me, the most unnerving part of noticing these “apologetic” movements was recognizing that my body was probably doing them all the time without my knowledge. Most of the time, my attention wasn’t on the way my body was moving, and in those moments it probably wasn’t behaving the way I wanted.
For a long time, I figured that these unwanted movements were just part of who I was. Maybe they were in my genes, or perhaps when I was younger I’d been conditioned so thoroughly to apologize for myself that I’d need years of therapy to break that behavior pattern. Because I wasn’t even aware that most of them were happening, I had little hope of changing them, unless I paid someone to follow me around all day and point out my various apologetic twitches.
One day, however, I had an important realization. It happened, like many of the other critical realizations I’ve had in my life, when I became completely fed up with my own behavior. I was walking down the street, and I felt my body involuntarily jerk away from a man coming toward me. I’d had this kind of experience so many times, and had become so frustrated, that I growled out loud “no!” (As you can imagine, the man then found himself trying to avoid me.)
When I snarled my refusal to let my body apologize for itself, I felt an empowering warmth flooding my chest and stomach. It was as if I had stoked an inner fire. And for the rest of that day, I never felt my body apologetically twitching again. Instead, my movements felt strong, purposeful, and graceful. From then on, whenever I felt part of my body straining to get out of someone’s way or take up less space, I growled—or made a similarly animalistic noise—to reconnect with that unapologetic state.
I spent a while pondering why voicing my frustration with my body’s apologetic movements tended to stop those movements from happening. Eventually, the answer came to me one day as I watched a dog playing in a park. I noticed how free and uninhibited the dog’s movements and expression seemed. The dog joyfully ran and leaped about with no shame or embarrassment.
It occurred to me that, when my snarl stopped my body from apologizing, it was because I was getting in touch with the animal part of my nature—the part that, like the dog, moved around unburdened by shame and fear. I was connecting with the part of me that was content to simply be, with no anxiety about how it was perceived or how much space it took up. I was experiencing the “direct and immediate sense of both the joy and wonder of creation” that psychologist Mary Lou Randour observes in animals and notes that they can teach us.
If you find your body becoming uncomfortable, or involuntarily tensing or shrinking away, in certain situations, I invite you to try this exercise. When you feel your body’s apologetic movements occurring, make a sound or motion to connect with your uninhibited inner animal. I enjoy doing this by growling like a wolf or bear, but if you want to do something a little less conspicuous you can make a subtler movement such as clenching your fists or inhaling sharply. Experiment with different possibilities until you find a method that’s both empowering and comfortable for you.
As I mentioned, some of our bodies’ unwanted movements occur outside of our awareness. If you want to bring your attention to these unconscious movements, you may find it useful to work with a coach or therapist who focuses on the body’s connection to emotional well-being. You can learn a lot about your fears, desires and motivations by noticing—and having others around to point out—the way your body reacts in different situations. (Two great transformational workshops that focus on this issue in the context of man/woman dynamics are the Authentic Man Program and the Authentic Woman Experience, based in San Francisco, California.)
In our society, our focus tends to be on striving to acquire more—whether it be more material things, relationships, degrees, or something else. I see nothing wrong with working to improve our circumstances, but in our rush to get more than we have we tend to lose touch with the part of us that feels whole and complete as it is—what I’ve called the “animal part.” Staying connected with the aspect of our natures that is content simply to be helps reduce our anxiety and discomfort, and creates a sense of peace and fulfillment in our lives.
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