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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.
 

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.

Do you really HAVE to do anything?

by Pamela Slim

If you have ever watched the Discovery Channel, you have seen the fury of a mother bear defending her cubs from the video lens of an over-eager nature lover. With fangs bared and claws ready to attack, she focuses all of her power and girth at taking down the potential threat.

Such intensity almost matches a creative father who adamantly defends his miserable career as a network administrator since he “has to” pay for his children’s education.

Or a young college student who “has to” answer her overbearing mother’s calls, even in the middle of a date.

Or a mother who “has to” feed her children only organic carrots fertilized with vegetable compost blessed by Tibetan monks.

Or an executive who “has to” work weekends and vacations in order to stay competitive.

The fact is, we don’t have to do anything. We choose to do things with specific consequences. Different choices = different consequences.

This slight distinction has huge implications for your sense of personal power.

But releasing these ingrained “have tos,” also called your “personal religion,” is not easy.

To get you started, here are three short exercises:

1. Body Compass:

  • Close your eyes and deeply relax. Vividly recall an exceptionally painful or unhappy experience. Notice how this memory is making you feel, not emotionally, but physically. What bodily sensations or symptoms are connected to the negative event?
  • Name this sensation with a word or phrase.
  • Assign a score to this negative feeling from 1-10, with the worst possible score being a 10.
  • Repeat this process, thinking this time about the very best time of your life. Notice your body symptoms, name the sensation, and assign a score.

Once you have this valuable information about your “body compass,” you can use it to understand how you are really feeling about a situation. When you think a thought or ponder a decision, what do you feel in your body? Is it your “best” or “worst” feeling? What is the score?

2. Think of some things you have had to do lately that made you uncomfortable, sad or angry such as:

  1. I had to lend my brother $250 (again) so he could pay his rent
  2. I had to attend a boring all-day meeting
  3. I had to enter my credit card items in Quickbooks to prepare for my tax filing
  4. I had to attend a dinner party of a neighbor who I don’t particularly like
  5. I had to do my laundry
  6. I had to fire an employee
  7. I had to take my son’s car away after he had an accident
  8. I had to call a client and tell him we were behind on his project
  9. I had to decline a weekend away with the girls since I didn’t have enough money
  10. I had to walk the dog in -20 degree weather

Using your body compass, assign a number from -10 to +10 to each item, based on the way your body reacts to each item.

3. Take the item with the worst score and examine the belief.

Belief: I have to lend money to my brother.

Why?: Because if I don’t, he will get angry and call me selfish.

What will happen if he gets angry? He may stop talking to me.

How will you feel if your brother stops talking to you? Crappy. Unloved.

What do you really want? I want my brother to love me.

Since you can’t control anyone else’s thoughts and emotions, what do you want? I want to feel loved.

What is another way you can feel loved? I can love myself. I can surround myself with people whose love is not contingent on loaning money. And I can love others.

Suddenly, your steadfast belief that you have to lend your brother money loses its power. You learn that you can choose not to lend the money and still feel good. And if you choose to lend the money, you will do so freely and without the expectation of anything in return.

You can apply this framework to any one of the above scenarios and see how it changes your sense of obligation.

Original thought: I have to stay in this job to pay for my kids’ college
Underlying desire: I want my kids to get a good education.
Question: How can I help my kids get a good education?

Original thought: I have to answer all my mother’s calls, no matter my personal situation
Underlying desire
: I want my mother to know I love and respect her.
Question: How can I demonstrate love and respect to my mother while still maintaining my independence and privacy?

Original thought: I have to feed my kids 100% organic food at all times
Underlying desire: I want my kids to be healthy.
Question: How can I help my kids be healthy?

Original thought: I have to do my laundry
Underlying desire: I want to have clean clothes
Question: How can I get my clothes clean?

All this boils down to realizing that you have unlimited choices about how to live your life. When you own your choices, you feel more powerful and are more able to act in your best interest.

Let’s try something: If you catch yourself saying “I have to … ” this week, stop, pinch yourself and say “I choose to …” If you don’t like your choice, make another one! You may be surprised at how free you feel.

Can you share the results of your experiment here in the comments?