July 9, 2021

How to Stop using our Brain to Escape our Body.


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I wanted, desperately, to say “f*ck this.” 

But I was 10.

My sister and I, once again, were sent to weed the acre-large potato patch for (what felt like) hours.

When ordered to do so, I was overcome with bodily sensations: irritation in my chest, tightness in my skull, and clenching in my jaw. The sensations of anger and resentment pre-empting a thought: “I don’t want to do this.”

Powerless to my parents’ demands, I first attempted protest behaviors: creating a huge pile of weeds and sitting on it or working as slowly as possible.

When these proved fruitless, I turned to fantasy. I planned out the puffy and smelly Lisa Frank stickers I could mail-order. I learned to pull weeds with my body and build sticker collections with my head.

I used my brain to escape my body.

And I didn’t recover and reintegrate the two for decades.

Many of us learned, in childhood, to disconnect our heads from our bodies and ignore the present-moment experiences of our physical sensations. We lost access to a powerful source of information and severed the data that most often informs our feelings.

If our parents didn’t particularly care about the sensations in our bodies and we tried to speak to them, we were probably met with, “quit sassing us” or “you need to cooperate.”

If our parents encouraged us to “think” rather than to feel, our bodily feelings were relegated to nothing more than an inconvenience or a potentially dangerous disruption. Many caregivers are simply not skilled at managing emotions or feelings.

Without anyone to help us process the sensations in our bodies, we will render them irrelevant—chop emotions off at the neck.

As we grew, society reinforced this, rewarding us for our brains over our bodies. Test scores, report cards reinforced that our best (and only) data source was above our neck: information rendered from brains mattered—that of our bodies did not.

Even in adulthood, mind-body classes often steer us toward controlling our thoughts, reframing our ideas, and using our brain to “be present.”

But we can’t be present when our bodies are elsewhere; we don’t exist from the neck down.

By my late 30s, I struggled to navigate emotional situations. My capacity to remain physically aware and emotionally present and offer my full attention to difficult emotions was almost nonexistent. I was acutely aware of my bodily sensations. Still, I could not link them to emotions, nor did I have the communication skills to speak about my present moment emotional experience to others.

I still escaped to my brain, the tool I was taught as a child, and could dedicate hours to analyzing the psychology of another person and their intent, especially those who hurt me.

When we live from the neck up and encounter an emotionally challenging situation, it is difficult to either find acceptance or to connect to our gut feelings and trust them. We tend to lack awareness of our triggers or to show up for ourselves with integrated honesty. We often feel unsafe.

Our bodies are often screaming, but we can’t interpret the information. We don’t know how.

We are forced to focus on problem-solving by way of stories about what happened to us.

We process our experiences by calling a friend to share the upsetting incidents of our day—most often: rationalizing, minimizing, repressing, denying, projecting, justifying, idealizing, dissociating, criticizing, avoiding, compartmentalizing, intellectualizing, complaining, ignoring, or judging someone else’s role in our pain.

We frequently rely on “I feel like ____” statements, believing that we are sharing a feeling when we are actually presenting our unconscious beliefs, perceptions, or interpretations. 

(The “like” following the “feel” is a tip that we are speaking from our head—not from our body.)

We are rarely aware that we seldom invite the presence of our bodies.

We usually don’t share statements such as: “I have a pit in my stomach.” “I’m noticing a scratching in my chest on the left side.” 

Yet, that’s the very data we need to focus on.

We can learn what’s more of a thought and what’s more of a feeling.

We can learn to respond with our heart and body, integrating our whole selves instead of merely speaking and feeling from our heads. This connection to ourselves can help us safely express vulnerability, address and handle pain, trust ourselves, respond to our own needs, work on our triggers, and learn to recognize the signs of fight-or-flight (or freeze).

We can build a vocabulary that helps us understand if our emotions are being created in our head and spreading to our body or if they are being created in our body and spreading to our head.

When we can learn to feel our body in the present moment, we will notice shifts in how we speak, be attentive to our body language, and tone of voice. Then we have a secondary source of data that we can use to fact-check if our stories are true.

(A 30-minute daily practice in the art of the body, such as yin yoga, is helpful.)

If this skill set has been turned off for a lifetime, this concept is a practice rather than an idea:

>> Can we feel our bones? How do we describe these using words?

>> Can we feel our muscles? Can we narrate the sensations verbally?

>> Can we discern the difference between a rotation, a stretch, and a compression in the body? Can we detail the difference linguistically?

>> Can we lay in the present moment for five minutes without moving, shifting, or escaping?

And when difficult situations arise, we can rely on our sensations:

>> What sensations do we have inside our bodies right now? Where are they, and how do we describe them out loud?

>> Is there any information in our chest? Neck? Throat? Belly? Back?

>> What emotion do we associate with this physicality?

>> If our sensations could speak, what would they say? What would they need?

>> What is it like to experience our bodily sensations?

>> When was the first time we experienced this combination of feelings in our bodies?

>> Are we responding from our heads or from the sensations in our bodies?

An example of practice might be:

Can we notice what arises in the body? What words can we use to describe the sensations in the chest? Are they different on one side versus the other? Can we put words to the presence of our belly? What information is arising?

What is happening at our neck? Where is there tension? Do we notice any sensations that we can link to an emotion? What emotion? What is the body attempting to communicate? Is this a familiar sensation? When have we felt this in our past?

When we integrate the narratives of our body that were suppressed, compressed, and ignored as children, we have access to a deep well of information.

We can understand the difference between a thought and a feeling and actively choose to speak from our head or heart.

We can say, “F*ck this.” And really mean it.



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