Khulisa Deep Dive Series: Embodiment

In the fifth instalment of our blog series on Dramatherapy, Khulisa Programme Manager Caroline Brindle explores how emotional responses can often take place in our bodies as well as our minds.

“What’s your gut instinct?”

“I’m doing ok in my new job, but still finding my feet really.”

“Something feels funny but I can’t quite put my finger on it.”

“Get off my back, will you!”

These are just a few of the hundreds of emotional metaphors we use which involve body parts – indeed, these phrases are so much an ingrained part of our language that we don’t often even register saying them. It’s a powerful signal that our bodies are much wiser and more important when it comes to holding our emotions than we might realise.

When we begin to explore this, we can arrive at some very interesting revelations and discoveries about ourselves. Let’s look more closely at “I’m doing ok in my new job, but still finding my feet really.” What emotions might be signalled by this sentence? If we were to approach this on a verbal level, or in a talking therapy style, we might ask, “what does doing ok mean to you? What feelings do you have when you say you’re finding your feet?” The answers might range from nervous, to apprehension, to fear of being found incompetent, or even a feeling of social isolation – depending on how emotionally literate the person answering might be, how self-aware, and importantly, how practised they are in describing their emotions and feelings. But what if the person you ask isn’t practised in this, and wouldn’t have any idea how to even examine what ‘ok’ actually means to them? This is a very frequent occurrence with our younger prison participants – “It means ok, miss! I’m ok! Just, you know, ok!”

A dramatherapist might hear someone say “I’m doing ok in my new job, but still finding my feet really” and wonder what that might look like. They might suggest that together with the client they explore the image and action of “finding my feet.” I tried this with my 17 year old niece, who, like a lot of 17 year olds, isn’t practised or even interested in talking in-depth about her emotions. I asked her what finding your feet look like, and she began to step quickly up and down, flinging her feet about, then saying “when you can’t find your feet you’re not secure and on the ground, you get really tired all the time from having to keep your balance and you’d get really annoyed too because it’s really frustrating having to keep doing this.” That’s a lot of emotional description and understanding from a young woman who, when asked how she feels, will 99% of the time answer, “yeah, ok”.

"Using the body – a process known as embodiment – can unlock feelings and emotions that we hold but can’t necessarily process in the cognitive part of our brains."

A recent participant in ‘My Path’, Khulisa’s community-based programme, took part in an embodiment exercise looking at where we hold our tension in our bodies. She came back to the post-programme session with a story about a pair of shoes. One night, she had been out to a function wearing a pair of shoes, and by the end of the night said that they were really hurting her, and she’d have to throw them away. Forgetting this, a couple of nights later, she wore the shoes again to a different event, and didn’t realise until the next day that they hadn’t hurt her at all. She reflected on this, and on the embodiment exercise she’d done in the programme, and had a realisation. She told us that it wasn’t the shoes at all that were causing her pain. She realised that at the first event she felt so emotionally uncomfortable and anxious because of the associated memories of the place where she had been, that she was clenching her feet and toes all night. She remembered that she’d discovered last week in the exercise that she clenched her feet when she felt anxious or stressed – without even consciously realising that she felt anxious – it was a habitual bodily response that she hadn’t previously tuned into. After the programme, and with the help of a pair of shoes, she realised that by paying attention to her feet and listening to her body, she could determine better understand how she was feeling and respond to those emotions.

Khulisa will be speaking at the 2019 Conference of the British Association of Dramatherapists, taking
place at the University of Chester from 6 – 8 September.

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