The Five Body Myths: Blind Alleys That Throw Us Off Course
Having a good relationship with one’s body is clearly important. Yet I know that somehow I lost touch with mine, and I know that I am not alone in this dilemma.
After several millennia, the Western world has left many of us partially or completely divorced from our body sensations and wisdom. Whatever the reason—whether we blame Descartes or trace this back to the fall of the ancient goddess traditions and the rise of patriarchy—the results are the same.
Many of our religions and spiritual traditions speak of being wary of the body, controlling the body, rising above the body, and most of all, putting the body in a subservient role to the mind. In numerous ways, we are taught the body is “less than” our thoughts and mental faculties.
In the thousands of interviews I have conducted and healing sessions I have facilitated over the last three decades, I have seen that this loss of good relationship with the body is pretty universal, and it can cause major mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual problems.
First and foremost, not feeling connected to our body leaves us very vulnerable. We get anxious even when there is actually nothing to fear. We unknowingly put ourselves in harm’s way. We lose out on the opportunities for joy in each moment.
If we are not connected to our body’s wisdom, we miss inner signals that are vital for surviving and thriving in today’s world.
All of us operate from a variety of body myths and either unconsciously or consciously believe them to be true. Body myths are often handed down to us through our family lineage. Below, I’ve identified five body myths based on my experiences, conversations with peers, and the stories shared in my trainings and private sessions across the last three decades. These may not all seem true for you at the same time; some may seem partially true; or some might have felt true at a particular time.
However, these are myths that you probably do not want to continue living from if you have a choice. The first step in this process is awareness. With awareness, we are given the possibility of choosing anew.
Body Myth 1: The Body Is Too Painful
Numerous students have said to me: “When I turn my attention inward, all I feel is pain, and I feel overwhelmed. I don’t know how to deal with my pain, so I don’t want to—I can’t handle anything more. How can feeling this pain more than I already do possibly be helpful?”
If any of this sounds familiar, ask yourself these questions:
- Do I view my inner pain as an insurmountable problem?
- Do I feel only anxiety when I drop inside?
- Do I feel like my pain is bigger than me?
Many people who have survived traumatic, overwhelming events may have this initial response when they drop their awareness to sensations within their own inner landscape. The pain is real. That part is definitely not a myth, though we may have been told it was. The myth comes in believing that the pain is all that inhabits our insides.
Body Myth 2: The Body Is Mysterious and Dangerous
I grew up with Body Myth 2. I was raised in a good Southern Baptist family with lots of wonderful singing, praising of God, and the community life of church potlucks. What was missing was any education about the primal instincts of the lower half of the body—of what could happen if I dropped into the “danger zone” of the scary unknown. I sensed that base emotions of anger and rage lived in these depths, and I didn’t want to venture too far down for fear of them.
Body Myth 2 is fed by fear of the unknown and what it will bring if we venture outside of the comfort zone of our known world. This myth is also fed constantly because of the way our brains are wired. The neural circuits for survival—which look for anything possibly dangerous—fire much faster than the measured, thoughtful circuits that lead us into creative endeavors in new arenas.
To dispel this myth, the key is to slow down and expand our awareness—widen our perceptual lens on the world. Then we won’t automatically decide that what might be a magic wand or a walking cane is always a dangerous snake! This becomes more nuanced as we take a closer look at all the ways the world can harm us and all the ways it can delight us.
Body Myth 3: The Body Is Seductive and Leads You Astray
This body myth says that the primal sensual and sexual urges of the body will get us into trouble and lead us astray if we listen to and act on them.
Most major religions—whether Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Muslim, and so on—impose sanctions against fully feeling the body so that this feared primal energy is kept in check. This is expressed in instructions like these:
- “Guard against your body’s urges.”
- “Control your body’s impulses and sublimate them.”
- “Stay in charge of your body and hold its compulsions at bay.”
Meanwhile, popular culture, advertising, and the media flood us with sexual images because marketers recognize that this primal energy can help sell almost anything. Advertisements turn around and twist what is acceptable and attractive, leaving most of us chasing a phantom image that promises to make us feel whole and lovable if only we buy into it.
In the meantime, the message is, “Whatever you do, do not fully feel your sensuality and sexuality—it is dangerous. If you are a woman, you might be preyed upon or called a woman of loose morals. If you are a man, you could be seen as a dangerous predator.”
This primal life force is powerful. My friend Emilie Conrad, who developed Continuum Movement®, taught that the energy of eros, the Greek word for “intimate love,” is what makes our cells ignite. It allows us to feel our juiciness. In fact, it is the creative force of life itself. It feeds our joy and raison d’être, our reason for being.
Yet, Body Myth 3 tries to convince us that our core sensuality and sexuality are evil, seductive forces. How did this body myth come into power?
The problem arises when we judge this part of ourselves as bad, corrupt, or wicked and try to compartmentalize and seal off this powerful energy from the rest of our system. This acts like an aerosol can in the sun or a restless volcano building internal pressure. Like the closing love scene in Like Water for Chocolate, where the long-repressed lovers finally consummate their relationship and go up in flames in the process, this myth tells us that our sensuality, allowed free rein, will set fire to our world, burning out of control.
In fact, when we allow pleasurable sensation to flow through our entire system with the wisdom of each part of us informing and integrating it, the powerful energy we feel is not a force for evil. It is the energy of life itself.
If I am feeling sexually attracted to someone, it does not mean that I need to act on it. However, if I hold my sensual nature tightly wrapped, it can become a seductive shadow side of who I am. When we allow our sensations to fill all of us, the direct experience of this connection has a deep and abiding integrity, not a seductive one.
Body Myth 4: The Body Is Out of Control and Must Be Dominated
Do you see your body as something you have to constantly control—masterfully riding it until it gives you what you want? This myth about the body centers around the idea that if you are not controlling it in every moment, your body will become something despicable, or it will collapse emotionally and fall apart. So you work to control it, altering it in whatever ways you think will get you love and acceptance, as well as safety and protection from harm. It is a fact that to feel loved and accepted is a primary human need, so fear of losing this feeds Body Myth 4.
For instance, you may discipline yourself to diet and exercise, not as an act of loving self-care, but rather in an attempt to create the body you think will make you more lovable, safe, or protected.
This form of self-judgment about your body may be based on cultural norms, the media, or friends and family. To have an acceptable body, you may feel you have to live your life on a diet or constantly work out. Controlling what you eat in this way and pushing your body physically beyond healthy limits are both natural outcomes of believing Body Myth 4.
At a deeper level, this body myth may be fueled by unresolved trauma. If you have a history of feeling overwhelmed by traumatic events, then the alarm bells of the nervous system may continue to sound in your head and body long after an event has ended. In general, the external world may feel overwhelming and out of control. This could, in turn, cause you to exert extreme control over the areas of your life that you can control.
Witnessing the effects of pain and trauma in others can also be traumatizing. Consider the high number of people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after witnessing a terrorist act.
If, when you were a child, someone you loved wailed and cried uncontrollably whenever they felt emotionally overwhelmed, as an adult you might find that similar sounds put you into an alarm state. You might become hypervigilant even though you are not personally in danger. You could find your insides going numb, the way you did as a child, to control your own fearful feelings.
All of the above can be a huge impetus to clamp down and control the body and its reactions to a life that seems threatening.
Body Myth 5: The Body Knows Far Less Than the Brain
I am continually mystified by the brilliant minds I know who second-guess their instinctual gut knowing, or their heart’s inspiration, or their bones’ deep clarity, and as a result drive themselves crazy. Most of us in the Western world are trained to trust our logical left brain and rational thoughts over our body.
In the last decade neuroscience has shown that the gut (or the enteric nervous system, which is called our “second brain”) makes more neurotransmitters than the brain that resides in our head. I recently read astounding research showing that the body registers incoming events before the mind or visual system can see them coming. Many of us remember circumstances when our body took a wise action that saved us before our mind had time to react.
And yet, Body Myth 5 remains epidemic in our culture…The late Emilie Conrad, my wonderful colleague and friend, used to say, “Admit it, Suzanne. We in the bodywork and movement fields are still out in the barn. The rest of academia is up in the mansion discussing the future of humanity, and if we are honest, we are still out in the barn with the animals because of our focus on the wisdom of the body.”
It is time to move out of the barn! Again and again, I see evidence of the split between the wisdom of the body and the logical brain. This lack of understanding of our body wisdom wreaks havoc on our health and well-being and robs us of our potential for happiness and the juiciness and joy inherent in life.
Our bodies are naturally well-calibrated navigational systems once we learn how to listen to them and respect their assessments in any given moment.
If we disrespect our bodies and second-guess their messages, they will go mute over time. The loss of our body wisdom leaves us vulnerable, as we are forced to navigate our life with only the signals from the brain and past experiences.
It is our present-moment sensory experience that provides the foundational data to the prefrontal area of our brain for the wisest decision-making possible. Without a conscious sensory connection to the present, we are forced to orient to the past.
People with unresolved trauma histories are at an even greater disadvantage due to numb, frozen, and painful places in their bodies, keeping them from accessing this wisdom.
Where Do We Go from Here?
These five body myths, or some combination, are alive and well in many people today. Take a moment now and consider which of these are hindering your life.
Awareness is the first step in letting go of them and making a new choice. Until we are aware that they are playing in the background or foreground of our lives, often driving our actions and decisions, we will be unable to choose anything different.
Of course, the second part of this equation is recognizing them as myths. These attitudes are not a part of our true nature. They are adaptations, compensations, and defenses against what has occurred in our lives and those of our ancestors.
When we can recognize these myths for what they truly are—myths—new horizons open up. New choices can be made. We are free to be who we are at a deeper, more authentic level. Then life is experienced at a richer level with more joy, more ease, more realness, and all that entails. Life does not become a rose garden, but it has more resonance with who we truly are at a soul level.
Excerpted from the book Reclaiming Your Body: Healing from Trauma and Awakening to Your Body’s Wisdom. Copyright ©2017 by Suzanne Scurlock-Durana. Printed with permission from New World Library (www.newworldlibrary.com).