Confused about which of your inner voices to trust?

by Pamela Slim

A core part of Martha’s approach to life coaching is the concept of the Body Compass. Housed deep inside you, your compass is always pointed True North, towards the life that will make you happy, healthy, wealthy and wise.

The body compass speaks through your physical body. So as you think of incredibly positive experiences in your life, you pay attention to how your body feels when you are having this experience. Then, you do the same for incredibly negative experiences. (See complete Body Compass instructions at the end of this post)

Everyone is different, but many people find the following physical reactions when they are pointed in a positive direction:

  • Open, full breathing
  • Relaxed muscles, especially in the shoulder and neck area
  • A feeling of lightness and openness in the head

When pointed in a negative direction, they find the following physical reactions:

  • muscle constriction in general, in the shoulder and neck area in particular
  • tightness or “pit” in stomach
  • headaches, inability to concentrate

With this information, when you are faced with tough decisions, you can use your physical feelings to guide you towards a good answer.

But here is the catch: What do you do when your body compass talks trash? Here is an example:

My client was frustrated on our call. He is a talented musician who has wrestled with the idea of performing full-time professionally vs doing it for kicks on the side of a day job. He was unsure of the right answer, since in the past when he had done lots of live performances, he was plagued by insomnia the night before shows.

After doing the body compass exercise and lots of research and reflection, he came to the conclusion that he did, indeed, want to do music professionally. He scheduled a show, and shared the following experience with me:

“I don’t know about this body compass stuff. I did all this work to get clear on what I wanted to do, and it all pointed to music. I scheduled a gig that I was excited about and all seemed well. Then the night before my performance, the insomnia hit again. When I would start to drift off to sleep, it felt like a chemical would shoot through my body and my eyes would fly open.

If music is something that I am supposed to do, why am I getting such a strong negative signal from my body when I pursue it? Does this mean the body compass is bunk, I am moving in the wrong direction, or my compass is broken?”

I had an inkling that what my client was feeling was a strong case of lizard fears. To check my assumptions, I called Martha. After explaining my client’s situation, she said:

“Now that you mention it, in my books, I have never directly addressed the issue of how anxiety frequently comes up when you are on your path to your North Star. In my own life, I felt intense anxiety, sometimes paralyzing, when making positive life changes like writing a book or becoming a life coach. I am so used to it that I never thought to write about it. But it is very common, and can make it really hard to read your body compass.”

She suggested I look at the physical symptoms of anxiety disorders. This is what I discovered, via the National Institute of Mental Health:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

GAD is diagnosed when a person worries excessively about a variety of everyday problems for at least 6 months. People with GAD can’t seem to get rid of their concerns, even though they usually realize that their anxiety is more intense than the situation warrants. They can’t relax, startle easily, and have difficulty concentrating. Often they have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Physical symptoms that often accompany the anxiety include:

  • fatigue
  • headaches
  • muscle tension
  • muscle aches
  • difficulty swallowing
  • trembling
  • twitching
  • irritability
  • sweating
  • nausea
  • lightheadedness
  • having to go to the bathroom frequently
  • feeling out of breath
  • hot flashes

Do you notice the link with these physical symptoms and the negative body compass symptoms? Not everyone will have full-blown General Anxiety Disorder of course, but many of us experience mild versions, like my client’s insomnia.

Why do we get so anxious when we are headed in the right direction?

Steven Pressfield, in his brilliant book The War of Art describes it this way:

“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign.

Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.

Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.

Have you ever watched Inside the Actors Studio? The host, James Lipton, invariably asks his guests, ‘What factors make you decide to take on a particular role?’ The actor always answers: ‘Because I’m afraid of it.’

Anxiety can hit anyone, regardless of his or her level of talent (Sir Laurence Olivier and Barbara Streisand both developed social anxiety disorder at the height of their careers). It makes sense that enormous talent would feel like an enormous responsibility, which can lead to anxiety.

So how can you distinguish between “anxiety because you are on the right path” and a “negative body compass reading,” which means you are heading away from your North Star? Here are a couple of ways:

1. In The Joy Diet, Martha outlines four questions to ask when considering a course of action that scares you:

  • Is this risk really necessary to achieve my heart’s desires? Do I feel a genuine longing for whatever it is I’m seeking?
  • Does the thought of taking this step create an inner sense of clarity, despite my apprehensions? (When a risk is good for you, you may feel apprehension, but little or no confusion)
  • Do I feel only fear, or is there also a sense of toxicity akin to disgust? (Pay attention: a good risk feels like taking a high dive into a sparkling clean pool; a bad risk feels like taking the same leap, but into polluted swamp water)
  • At the end of my life, which will I regret more: taking this risk and failing, or refusing to take it, and never knowing whether I would have succeeded or failed?

2. Do the arm test

This physical exercise is your built-in lie detector. It requires 2 people.

  1. Person A asks Person B to stick out his arm in front of him
  2. Person A asks Person B to repeat one phrase at a time while trying as hard as he can to keep his arm up
  3. As Person B sticks out his arm and repeats each phrase, Person A pushes down on Person B’s arm
  4. If Person B’s arm remains very strong as he repeats a phrase, most likely this is a true statement for him
  5. If Person B’s arm is weak as he repeats a phrase, most likely this is a false statement for him
  6. It is good to start with items that fall pretty clearly in each direction. Martha’s favorite “false” statement is “I love to vomit.” A good true one (for most people, not all!) is “I love my child.”
  7. Once you get warmed up with some reactions, throw in the tough questions, like in my client’s case, “I want to play my music full time.”

I conned my son Jeffery into demonstrating this for you since the instructions can be confusing if you can’t see it live. Here is our home-grown instructional video:

Martha says she does the arm test with her drug-addicted clients with tremendous results. While their body is screaming “I want heroin!,” their arms are weak uttering the same phrase.

If you think you have any issues with general anxiety, get some professional help. There are great therapies available these days to quell your symptoms without resorting to medication.

If your physical symptoms are more like the butterflies that you get while falling in love, press on! The world is waiting for your gifts.

Do any of you have any “anxiety hitting just when achieving my wildest dreams” stories? Any effective ways you have learned to distinguish between “good” and “bad” body readings? Please share!

Addendum: Body Compass Exercise Instructions

  1. Close your eyes, take a deep breath and think about an exceptionally unhappy event in your life or a very unhappy period in your life.
  2. Now focus on your physical body and notice how this memory is making you feel, not emotionally, but physically. Where in your body do you feel sensation? What kind of sensation is it?
  3. Some people notice a pit in their stomach, or tightness in their chest or constriction in their shoulders. It is really important to identify the particular place or places in your body where you feel the sensation.
  4. Now think of a name for the sensation. It can be something like “the crushed feeling” or “acid stomach.” Use a term that will help you recall the specific physical feeling.
  5. Next, assign a score from 1-10 to this negative feeling, with the worst possible manifestation ranking a 10.
  6. Complete the entire process using the memory of a very positive event or period of your life.
  7. The physical memories, named with a catch phrase and scored, will be indicators of your “bad” and “good” compass readings.
30 replies
  1. michael gibbons
    michael gibbons says:

    Pam, your post really hit home — I mean right now today — I have been experiencing the abject fear of failure (I suppose) — scoping out possible underpasses in the Charlotte NC area (they aren’t on MLS) should things go completely south with Buttons of Hope– OK not that bad really, yet — but your’s and Martha’s points about fear are enlightening and helpful — things is it’s still scary as hell! and lastly funny that video was so cute and seeing you in person (first time) not what I expected nor what I didn’t expect — it just makes you very real — its a good thing!


    I am so glad this post hit the spot!

    I know your road has not been an easy one, but you have put such heart and soul into it. Whichever way this particular endeavor turns out, it will benefit you, I am sure!

    Glad you enjoyed the home made video. It was not exactly true to life — I was actually showered and without crazed hair and circles under my eyes, which is my normal morning writing state. 🙂 But, yes, that is really me.


  2. lilalia
    lilalia says:

    I very much appreciate your post because you describe so well the connection between thought and body. Yet, I do wonder whether it is ever possible to find what the right answer is for you through such practices. When I look back on past decisions, I can choose to remember my expectations and anxieties behind making the decisions in many ways. Equally, when looking into the future, depending upon the day, I see many possibilities as relevant. Doesn’t the form of reflection you’ve mentioned lead you to see what you think today, what your body knows in the very present moment, and not actually what will serve you in the future?

    Hi Iilalia!

    The theory behind your “North Star compass” is that there is, in each of us, a “fixed point” that will guide us to our right life, even when we feel in deep despair. The more we are in tune with our body compass, the better we will be able to decipher the signals and know the direction to take.

    But knowing we are moving in the right direction does not preclude a messy journey, or pain, or hard lessons or left turns. It just means that the more we tune into the part of ourselves that knows where and how we feel joy, the better decisions we will make.

    Does this make sense?


  3. Polly
    Polly says:

    Pam, this is such a great information – and the addition of demonstration of the arm test is perfect. I’ve used the arm test to help clients decide whether to accept an offer to co-open a business… whether to move… if it was the right time for a new (adorable) pet.

    Once, when using the arm test on someone who wasn’t sure about taking a second job versus sticking with just one job, we stumbled upon the fact that they wanted to write a book! It was a completely surprising, unsurfaced dream.

    Each time, events proved that the results of the arm test was exactly right.

    My most brilliant kinesiologist, Philip Maffetone, always used the arm test to check for medical issues, and it was spot-on. So, it’s useful for SO many situations. (I read somewhere that it’s really important to always make the statements you test in the positive. For example, never say, “I have a virus.” Say something like “I am virus-free.” Since the brain pays attention to the last portion, it’s important it hears an affirming statement.) (Dr. Maffetone is now focusing most brilliantly on songwriting and music therapy: – his music helps the brain.)

    I also tell my clients (and myself!!) that whenever we feel anxiety about doing something, it’s a good thing because that means we’re creating a new connection between our brain cells. Every thought, feeling, behavior happens because of the connections between brain cells … new experiences require new connections. and, as Martha Beck describes from personal experience, one can see on Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging scans that, when a new connection is being made, one experiences frustration, anxiety, distress (FAD). And so, if we’re experiencing FAD, that’s a good thing because it just means we’re creating new connections – we’re starting down a new path. The arm test is so useful with this in order to confirm if we REALLY want to start down that new path.

    Thanks for this info – as always presented so clearly.

  4. Nathalie Lussier
    Nathalie Lussier says:

    Great post Pam! I needed it right now. I am having anxiety about just sitting down and writing my book. I have it all outlined, and I’ve had a couple of false starts. I know it’s what I want to do, but I will try the arm exercises tonight with a partner. I love the video of you & your son by the way!

    Thanks again!

  5. Anna
    Anna says:

    Hi Pam,

    Thank you for the clarification. It’s very helpful. However I am a bit confused by one of Martha’s article on Oprah in March saying, “should you go back to school? only if it makes you salivate with desire.” I have a friend who has been pondering if he should take a MBA course. He went through the questions from the Joy Diet and decided to take the plunge but it certainly did not make him salivate with desire. Sometimes those necessary challenges on the way to the North Star won’t make us salivate with desire but we still have to face them. Am I interpreting this correct?

    Thank you for the answer.

    Hi Anna!

    Thanks so much for commenting!

    Here is how I interpret your question:

    When I did an interview with Martha once, she explained how the essential and social selves worked together (now joined by the “Stargazer self,” explained in Steering by Starlight). She said something to the effect that “Your essential self may hunger to serve the sick and become a doctor. Your social self will take the MCAT, fill out the applications to medical school and survive eight years of intense training.”

    That is to say, I imagine that your friend has a picture of an end state that makes him salivate (wealth? great job? freedom?) that has “getting an MBA” as a prerequisite. That way, even though he may not be thrilled to complete that actual task, he knows exactly why he is doing it, and sees it fitting into his deeper passions and desires.

    Tell me where I am wrong – I’d love to hear more!


  6. Sage
    Sage says:

    I am so glad someone addressed this issue. I have wondered about how I feel before doing what I love most — did the occasional stabs of abject terror mean that I had found the wrong North Star? Thankfully not. This article shows how to read the body compass in the midst of fear, and how to tell the difference between fears that block our progress from fears that say to run the other way. Got it! Great article! Fun to read and very handy! I will use this alot.

  7. Susie
    Susie says:

    I loved the article and am going to pass it along to some friends who are dealing with addiction as it is so insightful.

    Many people I know get a sick pit in their stomach feeling – as did I – upon finding out a bid on a house I really wanted to buy was accepted. That “What have I done!” feeling.

    When I created a website that I knew thousands of people would end up depending on, it made me nauseous when it was time to go public with it. Literally. But we went forward and as it was a success, I could feel my heart swell with elation.

    On the other hand when I got a job offer from a company which I thought would be deadening for me I felt that “heavy” feeling in my heart – my negative compass – and didn’t accept it.

    Of the 4 questions Martha suggests we ask, instead of “At the end of my life, which will I regret more” I like to think even shorter term. Tomorrow will I regret not having done this today. What will it be like if I’m telling my friends, who encouraged me to pursue the path I wanted, that I didn’t do it?

    Just recently I took a big dare to do something in public that I thought could fail or embarrass me. It was a huge, thrilling success. I’m so proud and happy as are my friends.

    Thanks for the great article! Martha Beck’s words in Oprah lifted me out of a bad state this month and I thank you all.

  8. Deepak Surti
    Deepak Surti says:

    Hi Pam,
    As usual, another very good thought provoking post from you.

    This is what I have experienced of late, since I am slowly switching to a career of my choice. I started off with huge dinosaur like butterfiles in my stomach. However I think this is another test that can be applied :

    If you do not know whether doing that thing takes you north or south, do it , but on a smaller scale. Check how you feel at the end of it. If you feel a deep sense of satisfaction and inner happiness, that is it. You are moving north. Else just think through that thing once again a little more and probably give it another try before rejecting it altogether.

    I feel the best when I am doing these small things that will give me the kind of life that I desire so deep down.

    Thanks again for your enlightening posts and encouragement.

  9. Rosemary
    Rosemary says:

    I am not sure if anyone can help me, and never written on a blog before, but i need help I read the book finding your North Star and loved it, this was going to change myl life, and I really thought that finally I would make a decision and move forward but the moment I make that choice, I do it then go back on my decision a few weeks later……..I cant read my internal compass I am absolutely stuck…….I wish I had someone telling me what to do as I just cant do it…..I have tried over and over again………. and I wish I could brek down and lie in bed all day, which I cant as I have to be strong for my daughter and I havea responsible job! why on earth am I so stupid!! what is it exactly that stopping from just sticking to a decision and moving on I keep going back!!!!!

    Thanks for sharing your situation Rosemary!

    I am so sorry you are feeling stuck. Often, this is a great time to use a coach, since knowing what to do and actually doing it are two different things! Many of us feel overwhelmed dealing with it alone.

    Check out our coaches page to see if anyone strikes you as interesting, and in the interim, keep reading the blog for tips!

    Find a coach:

    Good luck.

    All the best,

    -Pam Slim
    Editor, Martha Beck blog

  10. Maurica
    Maurica says:

    I was taught by a wise woman to use my whole body as a huge muscle test. Instead of wrangling someone else for the arm test, I set my legs, close my eyes, ask a question and feel which way I sway on my feet. It works wonders! We all move naturally and our bodies are lightening rods of truth (as I think of us!). I calibrated my swaying by first thinking of someone I love (my kids), and feel my body respond by swaying forward; then thinking of someone/thing terrible (Hitler). Ever notice how you sway forward toward someoneypu like/love, and step back from someone you don’t trust or who ends up lying to you? I’ve also taken jars out of my medicine cabinet to test. Recently, I had a dull headache and wanted a quick fix (instead of breathing, glass of water, whatev), so I held a bottle of Tylenol to my solar flexus, closed my eyes and asked “is this good for me now?” not only did I forcefully sway back, but my stomach felt tight and “swampy”. Just my method, I hope it helps someone!

  11. deb
    deb says:

    i have literally never thought of fear in this way. as i’ve started my business over the past few months, i found myself being held back by a lot of fear. while i’ve been moving forward in spite of it, i kept wondering why i was experiencing so much fear surrounding what seemed to be finally working towards living the life of my dreams.

    this post gave me a serious ‘aha! moment’ and provided almost immediate relief.

    to consider different types of fear and that sometimes fear comes because something IS right for us and because we are doing something THAT important to us, gives me a whole different perspective.

    all the best!

  12. Amy Lawrence
    Amy Lawrence says:

    This post definitely gave me relief. I do think I’m on the right track but fear does get in the way. Fear of failure is a biggie for me. But when I think about doing something else, I can’t even imagine it. I’m doing what I love and that is what keeps me going. I’m looking for signs that tell me I’m headed in the right direction and yesterday I saw a license plate holder on the car in front of me that said, “Failure is not an option.” Boy, that was definitely meant for me to see.

    My problem is these days that I feel numb a good part of the time. I can’t always tell about my compass. I’ve been so stressed out that I feel like I can’t enjoy the simple things in life. I’m trying to tune out the negativity so much that I’ve tuned out everything else too. I’m trying to pay attention to what does make me feel good. Working on Saturday gave me such a thrill. I enjoyed talking with customers and it felt like the old me again. But the feeling doesn’t always last and I end up being stressed out about finances until I have a few days off to read positive books and then I’m recharged and ready to go again. So I’m not sure where my compass is leading me. Should it be so much effort to stay positive if you are following your compass?

  13. PaulaCassin
    PaulaCassin says:

    Thank you so much, just what I’ve been wondering about!! And I’m in a similar place to Amy L I think. Fear of failure, fear of financial ruin, fear I’m just not capable of doing this.

    Last year we moved countries and started a business into which we poured our savings. I’m trying to figure out whether my massive fears of failing at this are because I’m heading in the wrong direction, or whether my fears and resistance are in the way. Because you’re not saying ‘only do something if it feels good’, right???

    Right now I’m numb half the day, spending my time in front of the computer, never sure if what I’m spending my time on is the right thing. But when I think about what I’d be doing if I had a million dollars in the bank right now, I’d still be in this venture and giving it a good go. So I think it’s some massive false beliefs I need to deal with.

    Please post more about the diff between ‘shackles on’ and good fear/stress.

    I’m going to focus on the four questions big time for the next four days. If I sit around and wait until I feel good, it’ll

  14. Sandy Walden
    Sandy Walden says:

    I love the arm test!

    I believe it’s incredibly valuable, I think of it as our personal truth detector for personal use. It helps us to understand what our gut and heart are truly telling us.

    Most of us have lived with people who have told us what we should or should not be doing all of our lives, certainly that was the case when we were children. As adults we generally took over much of this task for ourselves, we keep telling ourselves we ‘should’ be doing this, or ‘should not’ be doing that. Usually we have very valid arguments to back up these ‘shoulds’. The problem is that none of this takes into account what our destiny really is, what our hearts truly crave and desire.

    My thought is that the arm test is a very valuable tool to help clear some of these things up, for myself and for my clients.

    Clearly I don’t and will never depend on only this one tool, but I feel it’s a very valuable tool, I appreciate it more each time that I have occasion to use it.


  15. Annette
    Annette says:

    I think of Adventure Fear or Danger Fear. Many types of fear, but when there’s some excitement involved, it’s usually a good fear!

  16. Lina
    Lina says:

    Hi, Pam.

    I have a doubt. When you don`t have a good body-mind coordination (like me, I am a bit clumsy, and more of a mental person), what test can I trust? Many times, I don`t feel reactions physically when I remember old bad events, so what could be a good thing to difference the good but fearful path and the real risky bad decision?


  17. Christy Miller
    Christy Miller says:

    Thank you for this post! I plan to do "the arm thing" with a client today, and wanted to brush up on the theory and technique. This was both helpful and perfect for my needs. I deeply appreciate your generosity in sharing the tools for your adoring public 🙂


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