Surprising Ways that Overextending Yourself In the Past Stays in Your Body
Sometimes, we want something to work so badly we end up overextending ourselves almost to the point of breaking. Some people call it bending over backward for someone. You’ve been there, right? At the time, the situation seems to demand that you keep giving just to maintain a semblance of peace.
This is especially true of young people who live in dysfunctional households, which is an all-too-common experience now. They don’t have the emotional maturity to handle it any other way. They’re doing the best they can in a bad situation. They haven’t learned how to set boundaries and make others responsible for themselves or it is just too dangerous to do so. Instead, they take the whole load upon their own shoulders. As Brené Brown says,
“When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or a choice.”
If people in this situation don’t meet someone who can help them understand and cope with these emotional wounds they will carry them into their future. This was the case for one of my clients, Cora (name changed to protect her privacy). I’ll share her experience in a moment. So that you can start making the connection between emotions and body memory, let’s examine some somatic clues our bodies give us when we’re overextending ourselves…
What does it look like when you’re literally overextending your body?
Imagine sitting or standing, extending your arms out in front of you to the point of falling forward onto yourself, folding your pelvis. Notice what happens to your dantian (your energy center located in the lower belly.) It collapses and so does your diaphragm and chest. Your back gets strained as well.
We often adopt a variation of this posture when we’re sad, angry, stressed, depressed, disappointed, hurt, or scared. It’s so familiar to many of us, and it becomes a part of our body memory. We carry it with us. It’s our default posture for negative experiences.
When body memory is created from emotional trauma…
Now back to the story about a session with my client, Cora. To help her make the connection between her emotions and her body memory, I asked her to simulate this collapsed posture. Tears started falling from her face! She reported a familiar sadness washing over her and she said: “Oh, yes, I know this. My body knows this. This is so familiar.” She continued: “I learned to take care of my family when I was really young. I took care of my siblings because my mom used to be “checked out” most of the time. As early as 5 years old I remember comforting mom or reminding mom to take her meds, to make lunch or…I was such the little helper.”
Her emotional trauma was etched into a body memory that repeated itself each time she experienced emotional loss, personal disappointment, or negative feedback — she literally collapsed into this sad body position. Each negative memory piled up upon the next until it became etched into how she related to the world.
She had developed this behavior out of a need to adapt to her early environment. We all do that to one extent or another. When we are older, we can carry these maladaptive ways of relating to people and situations, but they’re no longer sustainable and they can prevent growth.
On the other side of the coin, we who are looking in at this behavior can quickly label people like Cora as being codependent, a rescuer, or an enabler. This is not helpful because we’re not taking into account that these behaviors were born out of necessity, to adapt to a dysfunctional situation. They used to have a positive function in her earlier system.
Now imagine again sitting or standing, extending your arms out in front of you only to the point that you can maintain your spine aligned, your lower belly, diaphragm, heart, and head in alignment as well. When I asked Cora to do this she chuckled and said: “I have a story that this is not enough. I can feel the discomfort in my body and the judgment — it is as if I’m holding back.” Cora was both fascinated and troubled by this discovery. To know that her own body, at a deep level, had adapted and continued to send messages about what was okay and not okay to do in relationship to others was a profound revelation.
We are so complex. It takes time and mindful effort to see how emotional reactions and behaviors are remembered and stored in the body. Somatic therapy helps the client connect to her own body memory of the behavior, “download” the information from the past, understand it, accept it, and then mindfully change it. My free Intro to Stepping Forward gives you a taste of some of the tools we’ll use. I appreciate how Jessica Moore states our ultimate goal, “Our boundaries define our personal space – and we need to be sovereign there in order to be able to step into our full power and potential.” That’s what somatic awareness can do for you!
Thank you for the photo Karsten Winegeart.