I used to hear echoes of my mother’s commands, “Don’t mope around the house looking like a drowned cat. Put a smile on your face. Stand up straight, shoulders back!”
As a child, I wasn’t allowed to feel what I was feeling, but instead I was told to put on a brave face and cheerfully go about my day. I was forced to wear a carefree mask. My mother’s well-intentioned messages created a conflict between my conscious mind and unconscious feelings. In order to please my mom, I had to deny my true feelings and put them out of my awareness as much as possible. This left me feeling empty inside as I stuffed my feelings into oblivion.
I developed the habit of denying all my ‘negative’ emotions.
I covered the benefits and costs of denial in the article Denial: Your Best Compensation And Worst Enemy. Now I’m going to get into how we accomplish denial by trapping emotions in our bodies.
The way we internalize this body-centered denial is the reason many personal development modalities fail. In this article you’ll discover how you can use this information to achieve lasting change.
Unconscious Body Language
It’s common knowledge that our body language expresses our feelings. When we feel sad we slump. When we feel happy we open our chests and shoulders. When we feel scared we lift our shoulders and contract our muscles. When we feel surprised we raise our eyebrows and show the palms of our hands with fingers splayed open. Sometimes we’re aware of our own body-language expressions and often we’re not.
The unconscious communication of emotions through facial expressions has been thoroughly documented by Dr. Paul Ekman, Professor of Psychology at UCSF. Dr. Ekman documented over 10,000 micro facial expressions that communicate various emotions. His work was popularized in the TV series “Lie to Me” where Dr. Cal Lightman portrayed the role of a human lie detector who could read microexpressions with remarkable ease.
Essential to TV drama and real life application of microexpressions is the fact that our own microexpressions are completely outside our conscious control and usually outside our conscious awareness.
Our facial expressions are constantly communicating to others, but we don’t know that we’re doing it.
Dr. Ekman focused only on facial expressions but in fact our entire bodies are constantly expressing our emotions. For example, it’s commonly recognized that crossed arms demonstrate defensiveness and a slouched posture shows sadness.
No one has mapped out a full-body expression catalogue with the same scientific rigor as Dr. Ekman did for facial expressions, but there is a complete map of body expressions waiting to be documented. We have been working on this map for some years, and call it “The Body-Psyche Guide To Inner Wisdom.”
The key point is that we adopt this emotional body language unconsciously and we are mostly unaware that we are doing it.
So far so good. When we feel a certain emotion, we adopt a correlating facial expression and body posture. Usually when we first feel the emotion we’re consciously aware of the emotion, but we may or may not be aware of the corresponding body posture.
Take this chimp for example: he’s probably aware that he’s feeling down today. He’s not in denial. If you walked over and gave him a hug, he wouldn’t say, “I’m not sad. I don’t need a hug!” No. He’d be happy to have the comfort from a fellow primate and then he’d go on with his day.
But humans? We can go into denial quite easily. Try to hug a sad kid who’s in denial and he’ll say, “I’m not sad. Leave me alone!” as he hunches up and pulls even further into his isolation.
Emotions Get Trapped In The Body
So what does this have to do with emotions getting trapped in the body?
There are two parts to this answer.
The first part is if we maintain any body posture long enough, or repeat it often enough, it becomes a habitual pattern that we always do. Moreover, it becomes so practiced that we do it outside of our conscious awareness. I describe the neuroscience of how this happens in the article Unconscious Memories: The Things You Don’t Know About Yourself. So now we have body-centered memories – expressions of our emotions – that are out of our conscious awareness and control. They happen automatically just like riding a bike for most of us or playing a piano for my professional pianist friend Alexa.
Check out this fitness instructor. She developed a series of photos to illustrate good posture while performing various exercises. In the photos she’s using her conscious mind to adopt the body posture that she believes is ‘good’ for each activity. However there’s another aspect of her posture that is ‘bad,’ but outside of her awareness. In every photo she is leaning to her left, slightly collapsing around her lower left ribs and compressing her spleen, which lies just below the left ribs. You can see this most noticeably in the rightmost picture, but she has the same asymmetry in every photo on her blog.
Her particular body language has important meaning in The Body-Psyche Guide To Inner Wisdom. I’ll share what it means a little later in this article. But for now ask yourself this: Does she look genuinely happy?
The second part of the answer goes back to my mother telling me not to mope around the house but to feel happy instead.
My mother put me in an impossible situation. I was feeling something, but she was telling me that I must not feel it.
In a no-win situation like this the most common solution is denial. I talked about the motivations and costs of denial in depth in Denial: Your Best Compensation Or Worst Enemy? In this article I’m going to focus on exactly how we accomplish this denial.
The mechanism of denial is surprisingly simple.
When we tighten our muscles or compress a body location we become less aware of the feelings in that location. As a well-known example, people talk about ‘heart opening’ and ‘feeling more love’ as being synonymous. When we open our hearts – and I mean that in the physical sense – we do fee more love. When we close our hearts – by contracting the heart muscle itself or by compressing our rib cage around our heart – we feel less love.
Similarly, if we’ve recently experienced heartbreak, if we expand our hearts we will feel more heartache. In contrast if we contract our hearts we will feel less heartache.
In general, contraction or compression of a body site reduces how much emotion we feel in that area. This is the unconscious mechanism of denial.
So if you want to deny your feelings, here’s the simple way to do it: identify where in your body you experience the feeling you don’t want, and then contract your muscles and twist your body around the site to compress it. You will immediately feel less of the negative emotion.
By bending to the left and compressing her spleen, the fitness lady pictured above closes off any feelings lodged in her spleen.
Just like other unconscious memories, the original feelings, trapped within the protective cocoon of contraction and compression, affect everything we do, but we cannot feel them and do not realize how much they affect our lives.
Throw The Baby Out With The Bath Water
In Denial: Your Best Compensation And Worst Enemy I talked about how the costs of denial rack up over time, taking an ever-greater toll on wellbeing. Now that you understand the body-centered component of denial, you’ll begin to realize that there are additional costs.
Every body site has the ability to experience some negative or unwanted emotion, but also has the ability to experience some positive and highly valued emotion.
Every time we close off a body site to deny a negative emotion, we also lose the ability to feel something positive. The more we do this, the more we deaden ourselves.
If you contract your heart to feel less heartache, the same posture also inhibits your experience of love.
Fake It Till You Make It Won’t Cut It
Reconnecting with old wounds and healing them is the fastest and most effective path to healing, but it takes courage and tenacity. When we reconnect with something we have closed off, the first thing we always feel is more pain. The healing – the joy, freedom, lightness, self-expression and greater satisfaction – all come after the wave of pain. You may be tempted to try to skip the painful re-connection and instead use your mind to adopt the body posture and self-expression that you want. It’s a nice idea. In fact for only $39.99 you can buy a body posture strap that will do it for you – money back guaranteed!
I tried this approach for decades (without the body strap). My unconscious body language was slouched forward, collapsing my heart, lungs and diaphragm, yet my conscious mind followed my mother’s instructions as I forced myself to stand up straight. The conscious instructions of my frontal lobe and primary motor cortex were in conflict with the unconscious movement patterns programmed into my limbic system and cerebellum.
The casual observer would see my large body movements, controlled by my conscious mind, and believe my pretense that I was happy. But to the more perceptive and empathic eye, the more subtle postures controlled by my limbic system and cerebellum belied the truth. I was miserable and clinically depressed.
All I was doing was perpetuating internal conflict between my conscious mind and my unconscious brain and body. During that period I suffered from stress-related illnesses, especially chronic diarrhea.
All of my clients and every human on the planet have tried this approach too. It’s the natural human thing to do. It hasn’t worked for any of us.
Fortunately there is a way to resolve these conflicts and achieve real healing.
The Cost Of Denial; The Gift Of Acceptance
Every body site that can feel a ‘negative’ emotion can also feel an equally powerful ‘positive’ emotion. When we reconnect with the body sites we have closed off – reconnect with the body-centered emotions that we have denied – and heal them, we open up to equally powerful positive experiences in our lives.
The wound is the place where the light enters you.
If you’ve experienced heartbreak and denied it, then you’ll have a chronic pattern of closing and compressing your heart. That cannot be good for heart health. You’d be much healthier and happier if you learned how to open your heart again.
If you’ve experienced loss but refused to let yourself cry, then you have developed a habit of constricting your lungs. Over time that constriction tends to lead to allergies and asthma. If you’ve developed allergies, releasing those old wounds could help you permanently cure your allergies.
If you’ve experienced disappointment and unfairness but denied those feelings, then you will develop a pattern of collapsing around your spleen, much like the fitness instructor in the earlier photo. You and she would be much happier if you reconnected with that body site and transformed your disappointments into love and appreciation.
The list goes on and on. For every body site that you’ve closed off, you’ve paid a price in physical and emotional wellbeing. Every time you reconnect with emotions that have been hidden in your body you take a huge step in improving your physical and emotional wellbeing.
More generally, anything you do to reestablish your mind-body connection, so that you can re-connect with your hidden wounds and support your healing process will lead to greater health – both physically and emotionally.
If you’d like to see this healing process in action, you can watch a short video of me connecting with old patterns of depression and releasing them in Depression Visits, Like A Hummingbird. For another example, you can read about how my contacting and releasing a seemly insignificant constriction in my throat led to profound growth in The Smallest Changes Can Make The Biggest Difference.
Take The First Step
I’ve highlighted a few guided mediations you can use end to denial and achieve powerful self-healing. You can find additional guided meditations here and full-length online courses for your healing journey here.
It takes courage to begin, but there’s no time like the present to give yourself the gift of life.