The Body Compass: How Your Essential Self Communicates

We Martha Beck coaches are obsessed with helping clients communicate consciously with what we call their “essential selves.” As opposed to the “social self,” the essential self is always focused on our best lives and will actively resist anything that is not in our genuine best interest. Unfortunately, the essential self is not verbal, while the social self thinks almost exclusively in language. To access our essential selves, we pay close attention to the physical body, which responds with tangible tension and resistance when we try to take the wrong path, and leaps forward joyfully when we take the right ones.

Lately, several coaches and clients have asked me what to do when the body gives contradictory instructions – for example, when we feel powerfully attracted to a romantic partner who has damaging character flaws, or we want to quit a terrible work environment but have heart palpitations at the thought of losing the income.

The way to address these situations is to realize that they have many components. Test your body’s reaction to each component of a situation, and you will find that you may have strongly negative reactions to one element while being drawn toward another. For example, your attraction to a dysfunctional person might be urging you to spend just enough time to recognize your own dysfunctional patterns; it is the learning, not a long term relationship, that is calling you. In the case of the terrible job, you may find that your fears are based entirely on your own negative thoughts – thoughts like “I have to keep this salary,” or “Jobs are scarce. I’ll never get another one.”

A key to recognizing when it’s time to tease out different components of a complex situation is staying alert for a sense of “revulsion,” rather than simple fear. Following our hearts is often scary, but the fear feels clean, and does not spoil the desire or yearning to experience our heart’s desire. Revulsion feels like eating something poisonous. It sickens and disgusts. When you feel fear, simply examine your frightening thoughts until you can see where they may be exaggerated or unfounded. Revulsion is telling you to give certain components of your experience a very wide berth.

Distinguishing between a generalized “negative body compass reading” and a cluster of little yellow flags is key to negotiating our complicated world and resolving our psychological blind spots. Rather than running from everything that gives you a twinge of discomfort, take the time to read your compass thoroughly. It will be well worth the investment as you become more discerning and less likely to make unconscious decisions.

21 replies
  1. Brittany Faulkner
    Brittany Faulkner says:

    Martha, I love the notion of the essential self. I have found it quite trustworthy as well and find that turning my body as well as imagery really helps to keep my open to communication. Thanks for this. ~ Brittany

  2. Amy Lawrence
    Amy Lawrence says:

    Hi Martha,

    I’m a huge fan of yours. I love all of your books and even saw you at an O event. You have inspired me in so many ways. After reading your post today, I decided to take a chance and write you as my body compass is telling me to. Even though it doesn’t directly involve you, I thought you might be able to help me.

    I recently met a wonderful women named Judy Hoff and am inspired by all she does. She gives hope to women who have been abused, are homeless, broken and have lost their zest for life. Twice a year she holds an event for 100 women and gives them a special day, a new day in which they are shown their worth. She calls it: Queen It’s a New Day.

    Queen, It’s a New Day opens hearts to hundreds of women twice each year. The women receive: brand new work clothes, shoes, haircuts and styles, chair massages, manicures, pedicures, makeup application, professional photo shots of themselves, five course professionally catered dinner, key note speaker and professional entertainment. In addition, the Queens stay overnight at the hotel, have breakfast and receive life skills training classes throughout the second day of the event. It’s amazing to watch the transformations.

    After watching Shania Twain on Oprah and reading her book, Shania would be the perfect person to inspire these women. If you know how I can contact her, please let me know.

    To learn more about Queen It’s a New Day you can visit their website:

    Judy has a video and explains her event and purpose. The video also shows some of the women she has helped over the years and how her 2 day makeover changed their lives.

    Although she is a new friend, I really want to do all I can for her. Thank you so much for helping me get this e-mail to the right person.


    Amy Lawrence

    P.S. I can’t wait for your new book!

  3. Becky
    Becky says:

    Hi Martha…I love this explanation, reminding us there are multiple pieces to a situation and our body’s cues may require us to look deeper, and may not be as cut and dry as we first expect. Thanks, this is very helpful!

  4. rebecca @ altared spaces
    rebecca @ altared spaces says:

    My husband is a gear nut. And we play outside a good bit. I’ve been very intimidated by the gear. But when I slow down (and breathe) and take time to understand why certain shirts are better for my base layer when I ski and why it’s important to have good boots rather than just applying my favorite sneakers to every situation I do have more fun.

    Reading my own body compass takes the same inuendo. It is about taking the time to learn the gear. It gives signals, but am I taking time to tease apart all the situations and read each of the clues?

    Thanks for this tutorial. Small chunks are always better for me. (and it’s not because I’m small minded!)

  5. Deanna
    Deanna says:

    Glad to see this discussion of how to differentiate among body signals. The distinction between revulsion and fear is useful.

    Would you also address the fear signal itself? Even when we discern that it’s “just” fear, doesn’t some part of us (essential self? felt common sense?) also use fear as a genuine steering signal away from genuine danger?

    If we try hard to dismiss our fears as exaggerated or unfounded, don’t we also miss some good-for-us signals in that fear?

    For example, if I want to quit a bad job, but I’m deeply in debt, marriage on the rocks, children to support who have major medical conditions, a car that barely functions, etc., I’m not sure it’s in my best interest to work at dismissing that fear of lost income.

    Not that the decision is either/or, leave the job and perish or stay in misery, but isn’t there more subtlety to the decision, informed partly by the-stove-really-is-hot fears?

    Doesn’t the fear also serve as a signal of a place to strengthen, leading then to a better, less conflicted, feeling about leaving the unhappy job?

    I don’t think it’s just lizard brain speaking as I ask the question. I know people who are in situations similar to what I describe, and it seems you haven’t yet addressed what to do when you examine the fears and see that it’s not a fearful social self dictating all the fears, but also an empty refrigerator and a pediatrician who doesn’t take food stamps?

    Is it really the most enlightened, essential-self-driven path to emphasize fears as being mostly lizard-driven, and just leap toward the essential self signals no matter the fear?

    I’m sure I don’t understand this well enough yet, because it has just a bit of the feeling of have-blind-faith-and-leap-off-that-cliff, and I don’t think that’s what is meant.

    I’m genuinely curious and open about learning more about how the fear part of the feeling signal works, and what to do with seemingly conflicting signals that are part essential-self-GO!, and part genuine-high-risk-STOP!


  6. Kadin
    Kadin says:

    I just started reading “Finding Your Own North Star” and am a little confused about a few of the concepts. I was hoping I could get some explanation, if not from you, then from someone else that is reading this.

    You mention you should never feel anxious and if you do that is a sign you are going away from your north star. Am I wrong to say that there are times in a person’s life where things get hard and you have stress or even fear sometimes but this does not necessarily mean that you are going away from your north star?

    I don’t understand this concept. I feel like even when you are pursing something you love more than anything, if you are working hard and trying to improve in your field then you will at some time feel anxious, stressed, and fearful.

    Could someone please comment on this?

    Sorry, my north star is definitely not writing. =)

  7. Kadin
    Kadin says:

    Just reread this blog post. I don’t know if I EVER experience revulsions to anything. I have fears of failure and sometimes don’t feel like doing things that I have to do (or even things that I normally love doing) but I don’t think I have ever had a sick feeling about doing something….

  8. peggy
    peggy says:

    I know revulsion intimately….. I feel it often when in the presence of my new separated husband of 23 years. I didn’t have a word for it until now, but it is exactly what I am experiencing, understanding that reaction and its effect on my body compass is stunningly relevant and helpful in my grief process. Understanding why I have this grief is a whole other thing….

  9. Anna Goldstein
    Anna Goldstein says:

    Great article. Reminds us to slow down and listen to our inner voice. It’s also important not be afraid of what “body compass” is telling us – following it might be difficult at times but will lead us on the path to our essential self.

  10. Maxine Jaffa
    Maxine Jaffa says:

    Thanks Martha. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Also what you call “the urge to merge”. If I’m crazily drawn to someone, it’s often because of wanting to awaken that part of myself.

  11. eliza
    eliza says:

    I will never forget climbing the stairs to the third floor laboratory, where I worked, and my legs stiffening as I turned the corner on the landing at the second floor. My stomach would start to feel heavy, my shoulders would droop, my feet ached a little and I just had such a heavy heart. I would stand on that landing and give myself a pep talk. “This is one of the most prestigious labs in the world. You are now passing the door of a Nobel Prize winner. He probably didn’t want to come to work some days, too. He probably never paused on the landing though. Climb the stairs and do your job.”

    Man I just dreaded that climb. I decided the solution was to just take a DIFFERENT set of stairs, and then I’d love my job again. Shockingly, this didn’t work as a long term strategy. Eventually I found myself taking the leap and leaving that lab and looking for a nice, quiet, non-prestigious research position studying something non-sexy (in science if it’s hot research that might be featured on the Discovery channel we call it “sexy”!) and anyway, very happily I will never climb those stairs again.

    So while I wouldn’t call it revulsion, I WOULD call it “repulsion” as I felt like I was being physically pushed away from the doors to the lab – as if a force field was emitted that made the last flight feel like Everest. Just recently I had coffee with a former coworker who also left the lab and when I mentioned how hard it had become to go to work in the morning she said, “I always felt depression descend as I walked up those damn stairs so I started taking the elevator.” Hah! So I wasn’t the only one. Come to think of it, maybe those were just some really depressing stairs??

  12. Grant
    Grant says:

    Hi Martha, wonderful post! I’d like to share some insights from our own work that links so beautifuly to what you have written.

    Informed by recent Neuroscience findings about the discovery of functional, adaptive and complex neural networks or ‘brains’ in the heart and gut, we’ve completed 3.5 years of behavioral modeling research on the core competencies of these brains and how they communicate and integrate with the head brain. We’ve written about our findings and the models and techniques in our recently published book ‘mBraining’. See for more info and free articles and mp3’s.

    For example, one of the many things we’ve uncovered in our work is that much of intuition is processed in both the heart and gut brains, and indeed the gut brain goes through a sleeping cycle each night that mimics and integrates with the equivalent of the head brain. When the head brain is dreaming during REM sleep, the gut brain is undergoing RGM (Rapid Gut Movement) sleep. The research indicates that it is during these periods, that intuitions are being communicated from the gut and heart, via the vagus channels, to the head. There are lots of distinctions and techniques that come out of these insights and that are directly applicable to learning to listen to your gut (and heart) instincts and to tap into the messages from the core or essential self.

    I hope you find the backup of this to your article of interest. If you are interesed here’s a short video on this work:

    great wishes, Grant


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] ~ The Body Compass: How Your Essential Self Communicates – Insight from Martha […]

  2. […] off your behavior; it means that you begin operating out of the curiosity and passion of your essential self, rather than the fear and propriety of your social […]

  3. […] to modern neuroscience research on brain development and function. The foundational coaching tool, The Body Compass, transformed the way I make decisions and experience […]

  4. […] to discern fear and revulsion (the latter being a clear warning sign that something is very wrong): […]

  5. Essential Self vs. Social Self | Peas and Carrots Again says:

    […] is Martha Beck. I was listening to her audiobook, Follow Your North Star, which describes the Essential Self vs. the Social Self. The Social Self is the kind of person everybody expects you to be– or at least, the kind of […]

  6. […] teacher Martha Beck talks about the Body Compass  as every person’s infallible guide to his or her right life.  As it happens, it’s what I […]

  7. […] tired of it. I can’t. I’m embarrassed only that it took me so long to recover my “essential self,“ and be okay with dancing and wandering in streets to the tune of my body, as opposed to the […]

  8. […] be mundane chores of the day, or bigger goals you set out to accomplish.  In column 2, using the Body Compass  exercise (reading how your body feels, +10 is the best and -10 the worst feeling), rate how doing […]

  9. […] 2010, I started life coach training with Martha Beck, and one of the first tools we learned was The Body Compass (which I mentioned and explained briefly in my previous blog post about allowing more rest.) I had […]

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