It is interesting the things I take for granted. One of them is a rich inner life. My interior landscape abounds with colours, shapes, sounds and feelings: ancestral voices and heart-felt emotions; vivid hues and textured imagery. With my imagination I am never lonely and, while at times I may doubt the veracity of my sensations, I generally know how to describe them. It is so much a part of me that sometimes I forget that not everyone has this connection or ability.
Take my father. While a fine and capable man he is also one of his generation and culture. A taciturn Swede of aged years he is a man more used to physical deeds than explanatory words. The expression of inner feelings, emotional and visceral, do not come easy if they come at all.
Over the years, with my near chronic need to discuss such things, he has become more adept. It is not uncommon (although prompting is still in order) for him to acknowledge that yes, indeed, he can feel sad or angry, happy or lonely. It is still difficult, however, for him to find words for somatic sensations. Here’s an example: For a couple of years now my father takes a rest midway through our walks. He states fatigue. No problem. But then I got curious. Why can he do water exercises for an hour but find it hard to walk for half that time. I began to ask questions. Turns out he was not so much tired as in pain. He just didn’t know how to express it. It took several more conversations and just as many days to get a better feel of what was happening for him. It was by no means easy for either of us but we got there.
This inability to describe one’s body sensations is called alexisomia. For most people, as with my father, it is due to never learning (or practicing) the skill but for others it may be reflective of past trauma. There may be a history of shame or fear; distrust in the body or a tendency to dissociate. In any case, whether it is a lack of skill or a history of abuse, I have learned one must go slow when introducing this new form of expression.
It took my father time and energy to talk about his pain in a way I could understand. I don’t know the all the reasons for this but I do know that if I pushed too hard he shut down. I had to pace my questions, be gentle in my approach and validating of his responses. In other words, I had to create safety for him to learn this new way of conversing with his body. Then again, isn’t that the way in learning any new language? You only have to try talking rapid fire English to someone who doesn’t speak our tongue to see the distress on their face. Not knowing a language, or anything for that matter, can feel unsafe and stressful. We learn best, work most effective and have the deepest curiousity when there is safety.
As a BodyMind therapist my session work relies on safety. It is a prerequisite for healing but also a necessity for learning the language of the body. And, to become adept at this language, one needs a sense of trust in who they are and what they feel. Trust needs safety and safety breeds trust. This trust not only helps us when we seek help to alleviate pain (as with my father) but it also helps validates our emotions, gut feelings and heart openings. In self trust we are stronger and healthier if only because our body and mind are in cooperation rather than struggling the never ending (and useless) conflict between logic and emotion.
With my clients who have difficulty in expressing their physical sensations I start slow. If touch is safe for them, I may place my hand on their foot and ask how it feels to have my hand there. Is there pressure or heat; coolness or something else? I may ask what happens to that feeling when I take my hand off or compare it with the other foot. And so on. If touch is not safe, I may ask the client to notice their foot as it touches the floor or how their hand feels as it rests on their thigh and go from there. Eventually, as safety increases, we focus more inward.
Learning the language of the body reminds me of French class way back when in grade eight. Our first dialogue was Bonjour Guy, ça va? Ca va bien, merci. Et toi? Those first few words became the foundation (if not the fodder of silly jokes) for learning French—words I have never forgotten and ones I always end up reverting back to when I try to converse some four decades later. It doesn’t mean I became fluent (I certainly did not) but it does give me a measure of safety. I know how to begin a conversation in French and that gives me some reassurance. The same goes for our body. We need a beginning, a few tools to build a foundation, a way to say hi and find out how we are doing to begin the process.
Trusting one’s body increases one’s sense of safety. The more one feels safe the more they trust. This trust extends outside the body. We cannot trust life until we trust ourselves, and that begins with knowing how we feel inside.