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Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood

What Your Body Reveals About Your Past

For well-founded reasons, we can end up imagining that the main clues to understanding who we are lie in our brains. It is words and memories that have the best chance of explaining — to ourselves and others — who we really are and what has happened to us.

But this is to ignore the extent of the evidence to be found in our bodies as to what sort of people we are and how our lives have unfolded. As the well-known phrase puts it, our bodies keep the score. But what is the score, and how can we discover it?

To generalise, our bodies are repositories of pain. The more difficult our trajectory to life has been, the more we are likely to feel negatively towards our bodies and the more troubles they are likely to give us. 

Two problems in particular stand out. Firstly, low bodily self-esteem. If early care-givers did not take a delight in our physical form, we are unlikely ever to be able to take pleasure in our own appearance. We will be tempted to interpret the gaze of others as hostile, we’ll look at ourselves in the mirror and flinch; we’ll feel sorry for a partner who has the misfortune to have to deal with us close-up. And equally, if a caregiver directed contempt towards our characters, a little of their disdain tends to wash over into our physical self-perception. Bad people must — we imagine — also be bad-looking people; we’re likely to identify with beetles, earthworms or crows.

A second area where our bodies function like recording machines is around the topic of fear: how on edge or primed for danger do they feel? Our bodies can be permanently vigilant, as though waiting for a blow or attack. We may have trouble sleeping (especially next to another person) and our digestive systems may be unable to unclench — indicators of a past filled with cruel or unpredictable dynamics. 

Another way in which fear and trauma have physical consequences is that we may find it excruciatingly hard to let our limbs move in an energetic or uninhibited manner. Without being lazy in our lives in general, we might find it very difficult to take exercise — simply because this requires us to lose rational command. Dancing might be similarly difficult. Our way of walking and of holding our shoulders may indicate an ongoing lack of bend and sway.

Despite such hints, we typically overlook what our bodies are trying to tell us. We assume that they are blank objects without a story to share and we interpret their state as base-line ‘normal.’ It is hard to notice that anything might be amiss if we have always felt tense, if we have always been rigid or always hated our appearance. We tend to notice only difference. Our bodies both record the score and assiduously ‘forget’ it. 

We should reverse this amnesiac attitude and come to ‘interview’ our bodies with a view to recovering explicit clues about the past:

Questions that pick up on exposure to criticism and contempt

— How much do I like my body?

— How much can I expect that someone I like might approve of me physically?

— How comfortable do I feel going outside of the house? How does my body feel in public?

— What sort of animal might I compare myself to?

Questions indicating exposure to danger

— How well do I ordinarily sleep?

— What is my digestion like?

— How easy or hard is it for me to relax physically?

— Are my limbs rigid or loose?

Just asking the questions can produce intriguing physical effects. The body can feel heard. It may spasm or vibrate a little as we consider it in a newly compassionate way. 

We might want to close our eyes and tell our bodies that any danger is past, that it is time unclench themselves from fear and that we are finally free to share our difficulties.

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