Over the past several weeks, I have had numerous opportunities in my coaching conversations to work with clients as they sought to establish new habits and patterns through the use of their bodies. When I first introduce this idea, most people get a little uncomfortable, wondering what they’ve gotten themselves in to. But it doesn’t take long for them to begin to see the power of our bodies to shift the way we see things and the way we are seen. Let’s do a quick exercise with this… Stand up and let your arms hang loose next to your body. Let your head drop forward, with your chin close to your neck. Now say this, “What a great day this is! Everything is going so well!” Were you able to do it? Maybe, but if someone were to see you, would they trust that what you said was how you felt? Try saying it again but this time, ground your feet firmly and stand tall. Square your shoulders and bring your head in line with your spine. What did you notice? Chances are you were able to ‘see’ your surroundings more expansively and if someone were to have observed you, they likely would believe that what you said is how you were actually feeling. And while most of us are familiar with the concept of ‘body language’, we often think of it in a one-dimensional way. We are aware that if one’s words aren’t consistent with their body disposition, it is likely that those with whom they are speaking will not believe what they say to be true. This is the ‘how am I being perceived’ perspective. However, we often miss the other element of this which is, “What am I able to see or not see when I hold my body this way?”
Consider how you typically comport yourself. What is your normal stance, how do you hold your eyes and mouth, what is your breathing pattern like? Over time, we become the shape of our experiences. Moments of nurturing, wounding, joy, loss, etc. shape our bodies. I bet you can look back and point to times when you learned it was safer to hold back your tears, or your words. Or when you realized you were still accepted and loved when you disclosed your true feelings. These experiences and the stories we have attached to them are the primary factors related to why we hold ourselves the way we do. There are many gifts that I receive in my role as a coach and this is one of them – to work with people who have come to acknowledge that their current shape has outlived its usefulness and it is time to let it go.
It is a mistake to think that if we change our minds, different behaviors will follow. Anyone who has tried to quit smoking, lose weight or exercise more regularly know this. Embodying something new often starts with a thought or desire, but shifting engrained habits takes more than just declaring it to happen. One of my heroes in the coaching world, Richard Strozzi-Heckler, says it best, “Without grounded, sincere practices, our intentions for change will only be good ideas.” He offers some straight forward suggestions that I try to use and hope they might be helpful to you too:
- have a declared purpose and vision that you are moving toward (“I want to be taken seriously when I share my ideas at work”)
- create practices that you can use when the need arises (taking on a body disposition of stability or openness)
- practice your new actions and behaviors over and over and over again (anything new feels awkward at first – doing it repeatedly helps you ’embody’ it)
- be patient with yourself (remember you are disassembling an ‘old shape’ and building a new one)
I invite you this week to pay closer attention to the shape you take on in different situations. Context is always at play in our lives (all you have to do is watch what happens when siblings get together as adults. We often become that youngest/oldest/most athletic/whatever child again…) And then ask yourself, “What story is at play here and is it still relevant?” And if the shape you are holding on to is no longer working for you, maybe it’s time to try on something new and see what happens!