I can tell an entire story about my life by describing my relationship with my body.
As a child, my body was a marvel, regularly losing teeth and increasing shoe sizes. Discovering what it could do was my life purpose, whether swinging from branches, spinning in dance class, coasting down a Slip-n-Slide on a summer day, or holding my breath at the bottom of a pool. It didn’t matter what I did as long as my body was in motion.
Then came adolescence. And hips. And breasts. And the desire to be desired. Movements were sometimes calculated, rarely freewheeling as they once had been. I became concerned with having the ‘right’ body rather than being embodied. My quest for beauty separated me from myself, as my body became something to manage. Losing a tooth would have been disastrous — certainly no longer a clue to the mysteries of the human body (and a visit from the tooth fairy).
This othering of the body seemed commonplace. Every teen I knew was treating their body and fashion like a billboard for their identity. Psychologists talk about depersonalization and dissociation as ways we separate from the sensations in our bodies following trauma, but in milder states they are also tools of beauty and identity construction — how we see ourselves from the perspective of another, how we endure the pain of waxing/plucking/tattooing our bodies into a desired image.
I have wondered if the way I learned to objectify myself was influenced by the objectification I experienced through sexual abuse, subsequent sexual assault attempts, and sexual harassment. Through these experiences, I witnessed how my body became something to gratify someone else’s needs, something to be exploited, and something to be dominated. I know that’s part of it, just like I know social norms and media played a role. It was all in the rubble on my path to womanhood.
Like other women, in response to sexual abuse I started to distrust my body. Sometimes I even hated it. I didn’t want more trouble. And I didn’t want to listen to its cries for help, how it would freeze when I became scared, how my heart would beat so fast it was hard to speak, or how my shoulders would slump when I felt despair. I just wanted my body to be silent. I abused substances to numb its needs, treating it almost as badly as others had treated it.
I went to therapy and talked about what had happened that led me to turn against my body, but never mentioned my body. If someone had asked, I would have told them I wanted to control my body, silence it, and keep it out of the way. By then, I excelled at dissociation. I could walk barefoot on hot asphalt and barely feel a thing.
Then I did EMDR. Sensations I remembered from childhood started to return. Until then, I had ignored entire regions of my body. Parts of me that I didn’t even know were numb, started to feel again. Parts that had held pain started to let go.
My attitude towards my body was tentative at first, but over time trust developed and we came back together, my body and me. Now I cultivate a relationship with my body, trusting its wisdom, at times more than my cognitions and emotions. And like a good friend does, I approach my body with compassion rather than objectification, or at least I try to. Still, though, I hope to be beautiful. (Some things never change.) But feeling beautiful is much more rewarding.
I feel I’ve come full circle, back to the child who once wondered about the mystery of being alive. I wish I had regained this relationship earlier. I think this is what many of us want when we decide to focus on recovery from sexual trauma: we want our innocence back — that mindset of a hopeful child unscathed by cruelty, and the cynicism and distrust left in its wake. I believe the only way we can reclaim that childlike innocence is through the relationship we foster with our bodies.
Peter Levine wrote, “Trauma is something that happens initially to our bodies and our instincts. Only then does its effects spread to our minds, emotions, and spirits.” Unless we have a physical injury, how many of us think about repairing our bodies after sexual trauma, or our relationship with embodiment? If you’re like me, you want to silence the signs of trauma, numb your own natural physiological processes, and focus instead on the image of you: looking fine even if you’re devastated inside.
And yet, until we befriend the body again, give it the unconditional love we would shower on a newborn, I don’t know how we can come home to ourselves, and let all the tragedies fall away. How can we protect ourselves, including from our own harsh judgments, if we don’t find the will to love our bodies, which through it all have been there?
There are good reasons to avoid the body after trauma, even reject it. It holds painful memories and thus doesn’t feel safe. It holds shame too. Maybe you take care of your body, or try to, anyway. However, even as many of us try to self-soothe and care for our bodies, our efforts aren’t usually about having a relationship with our bodies as much as hiding shame we associate with it. We might try to make ourselves beautiful, seek the fountain of youth, but not our youthful connection with ourselves. We may even focus on good health — getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating right. All this is good, but it won’t necessarily connect with the deep wonder of being alive and really loving our bodies.
It’s difficult for most women to love their bodies unconditionally and to trust their bodies implicitly. Yet this is the challenge trauma offers us. If we can cultivate trust and unconditional love for our bodies, we can begin to let go of a lot of unnecessary thoughts, fantasies, and emotions. We can return to the heart of the matter: the actual body that nourishes the heart and soul.
Sometimes we have to look beneath the thoughts, images, and emotions that keep us away from our bodies, and fearing and judging them. We have to watch how they affect the body. With practice, you’ll start to witness your usual ways of resisting what your body experiences, and then you can start letting life move though you. As Levine wrote, “When you are able to note and track sensations as they change, instead of being stuck in habitual traumatic patterning, the thoughts and images that used to cause strong reactions will begin to lose their hold on you.”
Just as learning the language of emotions facilitates connecting with ourselves and others, learning the language of the body can foster feeling closer to your body. Here are just a few of the thousands of words (in English) available to describe the body :
Dense Thick Flowing Twitch Dull Congested Numb Wooden Cold Bubbly Hot Sensitive Achy Tremulous Knotted Flowing Blocked Hollow Full Tight Tickle Loose Wobbly Aligned Energized Pulsing Pressure Electric Relaxed Sharp
According to Levine, “The trick in dealing with and finding a sensation is to realize that it has a location in the body. It can have a size. It frequently has a shape. And it has a specific physical quality, such as tightness, spaciousness, constriction, heat, cold, vibration, or tingling.” Our bodies at any moment have more going on than an amusement park. Most of it’s good, even if sometimes it’s like the House of Horrors and scarier than hell.
As kids, we didn’t have the vocabulary we do as adults to describe our bodies. Yet as adults, we often lack a child’s curiosity and acceptance of the body. As adults, we worry about our bodies and judge them in ways we never would have as children. But if we can join the two — our wise mind with our childlike sense of wonder — we can rekindle a joy of being embodied that has been forgotten, or perhaps never known.
Much like a game, we can quiz ourselves: When I think ________, what do I feel in my body? When I have an image of _______, what do I feel in my body? Then follow the sensation lovingly. Do more thoughts, images, emotions come up? Then ask again: When I feel/think/imagine _________, what do I feel in my body? Just follow and describe what is happening in your body, lovingly and patiently, like you would with a child.
The body is also filled with resources we can play with to find new sensations and different ways of feeling embodied. Following trauma, we can feel like prisoners in our bodies, especially if chronic pain or obesity are reactions to sexual trauma. The temptation is to see the body as forever out of control, or painful, or obese. Please don’t fall into this trap. Trust that change is always possible, and begin to look for ways to see your body as a resource rather than a burden.
Sometimes something as simple as listing all that you can do with your body, and regularly giving your body gratitude, can encourage a better relationships with your body and feelings of possibility. For some, it may be necessary to find parts of the body that feel safe, or without pain, as entry points into a relationship. (The ear lobes are typically pain free and have less sensation, so are good places to start when you have chronic pain.) Wherever and however the process begins isn’t as important as the desire to relate to the body gently, even lovingly.
For example, you can play with:
Core versus Periphery — holding your strength in the middle of your body and then shift to spreading your arms out wide and confident
Alignment versus Movement — shifting from standing still and upright to moving about
Resisting — pushing against a wall then releasing, feeling your strength (can be done with arms, the back, even the feet and legs)
Support and stability — noticing the feeling of the ground beneath your feet, the sturdiness of your legs, the energy through your back, and then slowly let your body go like a rag doll (can be done standing or sitting)
Breath — noticing the quality, whether deep, shallow, relaxed, or fast; try breathing into the belly and then breathing into the chest; feel the air in your nostrils as you breathe
Gestures — noticing differences between grand gestures and small gestures, complicated gestures and simple gestures
Some of my body habits are so much a part of me they may never change. Still I play, since this is one of the ways I attend to my body and stay in relationship with myself. My body was once a lost love, and now that we’re back together, I want to make sure that love is nurtured, and we never part again.
Questions to ponder: When do you feel most aware of your body? In certain activities (exercising, showering, going to sleep, etc.)? Around certain people? Do you feel most comfortable being aware of movement, posture, breath, sensations, etc? Do you have beliefs about your body that keep you from feeling comfortable with identifying the sensations in your body? Are there certain parts of your body you are most comfortable being aware of ? Are their parts you don’t want to experience or be aware of?
- Levine, Peter A. (2005). Healing trauma: A pioneering program for restoring the wisdom of your body. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, p. 31.
Ibid., p. 55.
Words from Levine (2005) and Ogden, Pat. (2007). Training for the treatment of trauma. Boulder, CO: Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute.
Levine, p. 51.
© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).