The Body Remembers: Zut!
The body remembers.
Zut! (which means Darn! in French).
What if, no matter what systems, constructions, and story lines we put in place to ensure that we do not remember the whole story of what we have experienced as embodied beings from the beginning (yes, even in utero), our bodies nevertheless do.
If you are human, and I assume you are since you are reading this post, you are born equipped with survival mechanisms. These will kick in the moment you feel exposed in your helplessness, powerlessness, and/or terror of being. Children fit this description perfectly. These survival mechanisms, also known as defense mechanisms, are free—no purchase necessary— and come in a full array of choice options at birth. Lucky you! If you have ever been a child, and I assume that you have been since you are reading this post, you are not alone with this luck. Indeed, we are all in luck Everyone relies on these to survive childhood.
What happens is that when a scary experience occurs, we unconsciously choose one or several of these defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from not only intolerable feelings, but also from what these feelings might imply. Denial is a popular choice, but there are also many other options available to us. Freud discovered--to name a few: 1. rationalization (avoiding a feeling by reorganizing thoughts), 2. repression (excluding a feeling from consciousness), 3. projection (placing a feeling or state onto an other, as if they are that), and 4. displacement (placing a feeling onto something other than the source of that feeling, eg road rage.) When experiencing terror, dissociation is the #1 rated best choice option. It works every time.
But what if our bodies still remember, despite all these helpful psychic tools we have used to survive the scary and terrifying truths of our histories?
Well, they do. As Bessel van der Kolk (2014) phrases it, “The body keeps the score.” The body is encoded with its history through its physiology, chemistry, biology, and neurology (Schore (1999, 2003a, 2003b), Ogden, P. (2006, 2015), Levine (1997), Siegel (2007)). In no uncertain terms, the body remembers everything that has happened to it, regardless of what defense mechanisms we have chosen to ensure that we will never know.
Our bodies act, and they act out. (Why did I do that... again??) They actually reenact our histories in ways that are both mysterious and painfully obvious, and the kicker is, we really have no idea why. Our bodies know, but we don't, thanks to those defenses. (And we think there is such a thing as being a pure master of our own destiny. Ha. Not so. Or at least ‘not so’ until we start the journey with another—a trained professional therapist— to make what the body knows, conscious.)
Wait, we can't run away from ourselves? Eek. Ack. Buddha was right: "wherever you go, you are"?? We act out our histories unbeknownst to us, whether we think we are or not? Zut. But wait, there's more. Indeed, there is more and more research being done about the reality of trans-generational trauma transmission (Grand, S. & Salberg, J. (2017)). That is, we live out our unconscious generational history too. (And we think there is such a thing as being a pure mistress (!) of our own destiny. Ha. Not so. Or at least... okay, you know the rest.)
Zut. Actually, %^*) FREAK OUT! Or....
I think that this is actually good news. Our bodies don't allow any monkey business when it comes to determining what has happened to us. Our bodies speak our truth. In fact, our bodies will not rest until our truth is seen, heard and acknowledged. Not denied. Like those monkeys above are so good at. The bonus prize is that things finally make sense. (Ohhh, that’s why I _________ fill in the blank). Your symptoms have meaning. And so often, it is not the meaning you have assigned, because that assignment is reflective more of the defense mechanism of your choice, rather than the truth. (And yes, the defense mechanisms you choose may or may not collude with the familial/communal/national choice as well.)
Ordinarily what happens is that these defense mechanisms stop working. Which is when you might come to see someone like me. Indeed, it would seem that these mechanisms have a shelf life of up to about 20 or 30 years, depending on a variety of factors unique to each person. (I wish our psyches were more formulaic, because then we could plan for it. "I will be starting therapy in my mid-to-late 30's, in about 6 years; until then..." we might say. But they are not.) Indeed, it’s as if our bodies start turning up the volume and speaking... often relentlessly, until we have to stop and finally pay attention. Like a child interrupting the adults in their lives to have their needs met, so symptoms interrupt us and want to be seen, heard and acknowledged.
That's when we usually begin therapy. Just kidding. That's when we begin to seriously self-medicate. Go shopping, drink, redecorate the house... again, drugs, over-eat, go on Facebook for hours, over-exercise, binge TV, etc...: you name it, it's done. And advertisers love us for every single one of these choices we make. Why stop with advertisers? AMERICA LOVES US.
And yet, through it all, the body still remembers. And God bless it, it keeps pulling at our sleeve.
So eventually, we begin therapy. You dare listen to this ornery "child" who can't possibly have something important to say; but okay, I'll try. Whatever. Surprise! What we find out as we commit to the journey, is that we actually begin to live more freely into the goodness of our true selves. And we love better. And we play better. And we be more responsible better :) This time, by conscious choice. All in all we feel lighter, and freer.
Let me give you a real time example of this. One patient of mine (whose story I share with full permission), while joyfully singing carols around the Christmas tree with her relatively healthy family-- as she had done for years--, distinctly heard “I want you dead.” What!? Where the hell did that come from??? Voices... Is she psychotic? Is she suicidal? Does she need meds? Not so fast. In therapy, we listened to the possible sources of this phrase. At some point, a dream helped out-- as they usually do. In the dream, her dad was in hot pursuit of her and wanted her dead. What?? He’s a basically good guy, devoted father, dutiful, protective, kind... nothing quite so murderous, So why?
Again, we explored. And over time, by linking up the set-aside feelings—you know, those which had been necessarily repressed, rationalized and even dissociated from to survive her family of origin’s system, she realized that her father actually envied her. And envy is a murderous affect (Ulanov, B. & Ulanov, A. (2007)). Bringing this to consciousness unlocked a whole host of “envy attacks” which had heretofore unconsciously stopped her from pursuing her dreams. She was terrified of being “murdered” if she did anything well—so she played it safe. She made sure to never do better than her father. Over time, as we processed these experiences (and lots of tissues later), something in her became unblocked. She gained more and more confidence to find her own life, irrespective of what her father might psychically do to her.
She is free. Her body spoke. She listened. And she is freer than she has ever been.
But deeper still, we are good. And our bodies yearn for us to know that In our very bones.
Having been in my own therapy and having accompanied many people on their journeys towards wholeness, I can honestly say that our bodies are our best friends. They hold our truth. And it is good. What happened to us is not necessarily good. What we've done to others is not necessarily good, either. But deeper still, we are good. And our bodies yearn for us to know that in our very bones. With the help of another, what is seen, heard and spoken is revealed into consciousness. And as it has been said, our bodies' truth will set us free. (rough paraphrase)
Grand, S. & Salberg, J. (2017). Trans-generational trauma and the other: Dialogues across history and difference. New York, NY: Routledge
Levine, P. (1997). Waking the tiger: Healing trauma. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books
Ogden, P., Minton, K., Pain, C. (2006). Trauma and the body: A sensorimotor approach. New York, NY: Norton.
Ogden, P. (2015). Sensorimotor psychotherapy: Interventions for trauma and attachment. New York, NY: Norton
Schore, A. (1999). Affect regulation and the origin of the self: The neurobiology of emotional development. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Schore, A. (2003a). Affect dysregulation and disorders of the self. New York, NY: Norton.
Schore, A. (2003b). Affect regulation and the repair of the self. New York, NY: Norton.
Siegel, D. (2007). The mindful brain: Reflection and attunement in the cultivation of well-being. New York, NY: Norton
Ulanov, B. & Ulanov, A. (2007). Cinderella and her sisters: The envied and the envying. Einsielden, Switzerland: Daimon Verlag
Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York, NY: Penguin Books