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What we've forgotten our body is and knows, with Dr. Hillary McBride
It was a deep exhale, though riddled with uncertainty.
I had just left my job at a tech start-up after becoming a mom, my heart whispering that there was something else out there for me. Then a friend gifted me her copy of Untamed, adorned in blue ink and bright pink post-its - a most prized possession - and Glennon started speaking directly to me. My body, relaxing into utmost surrender or pulsating with eager adrenaline.
"I looked hard at [...] my entire life and asked: How much of this was my idea? […] Who was I before I became who the world told me to be?" she mirrored back to me.
It was the permission slip I needed to unbecome and become anew, throwing gallons of fuel onto a tiny spark that was hiding inside. And now here I am, three years later, still feeding that spark and uncovering everything it can ignite (oh hello writing).
Suffice to say, Glennon Doyle holds a special place in my heart. (Also, we’re birthday twins and I thought Pisces sisters, but turns out she’s an Aries? I know, it’s confusing for all of us.)
So of course I follow her podcast - We Can Do Hard Things - religiously. Well, last week I listened to an episode that had me oohing and aahing like I hadn’t in a while.
It was a conversation with Dr. Hillary McBride - Canadian therapist, author, and mama - on embodiment.
Which, if you’re like most of us, you might wonder what, exactly, that word means? Why is it important? And how does one even become an embodied body?
Look, I live in LA and am a self-proclaimed spiritual seeker. My Insta feed is 30% babies, 70% astrology, energy healing, and self-growth talk. Words like ‘grounded’ and ‘embodied’ surround me daily. Still, I’ve been confused.
In comes Hillary with the most relatable and thorough way of explaining it, and infused with such vulnerability, understanding, and grace for our humanness.
I highly recommend you listen to the episode; there’s no way I can do it justice here. (Plus, Hillary’s voice serenades you to such a state of peace, that listening to her is an act towards embodiment in itself.)
But for now, I’ll share some gems that had me pausing and re-listening.
WHAT IS EMBODIMENT?
Put simply, embodiment refers to self-identifying with our body and living attuned to the sensations it feels.
You know when you catch yourself ‘too in your head’, anxiety-ridden trying to decide between two job offers, overanalyzing each pro & con, playing out future scenarios in your mind, all while driving, while eating, while bathing your kid? Well, that’s the opposite of embodiment. But most of us spend the majority of our days more in our heads than we realize. Our whole body is right there, but our awareness seems to just live up top. And it’s from that cerebral and egoic place that we live out most of our days.
We’ve become dissociated, separating our sense of self from our body. Over time our body has become a possession we haul around. But that’s not our natural state.
Being embodied is.
Hillary shares of the first time she experienced a shift, which occurred as part of her eating disorder recovery:
“It felt like there was a balloon that I’d pinched at my neck, and all of my consciousness was living in my head. And in that moment the fingers that were pinching the bottom of the balloon released and all of a sudden my conscious awareness started to flow into my body and I remembered I had arms, I remembered I had legs [….] I understood that my selfness existed not just in my mind, but through all of me […] I was a body, not just a mind that had a body.”
The official definition she works with for embodiment is:
“the subjective experience of being a self, as a body, engaging with the world”.
As for me, I’ve long come to recognize that I am not my mind, but an infinite soul. I’ve been trying my best to recognize when my ego speaks so that I can cut past it and find my true voice. But in this yearning to connect to myself, I was only looking up, to the stars, to the mystics, to whoever could give me answers.
I wasn’t looking down.
Only recently have I realized that while yes I am a soul, in this human experience my body is as much me. And by tapping into it, I can tap into my truth.
“I am just as much my fingertips as I am the thoughts that I have about them.” says Hillary.
I’d add “and the soul that lives in them.”
WHY DO WE LOSE OUR EMBODIMENT?
Though historically, philosophy and religion instigated the depreciation of the body over the value of the mind and spirit, today the collective seed of disembodiment is planted a little too close to home. Or to be more direct: in it.
Hillary explains that it’s when we’re young and in relationship with our caregivers that we first start doubting the knowledge of our body, setting in motion the cycle towards disembodiment.
We see a couple types of seemingly ‘innocent’ scenarios where this occurs (separate from traumatic events causing dissociation):
1) Our voiced experience is denied
Maybe we hated washing our hair because it hurt our eyes. Was this met with a version of “Oh come on, it’s just water, it doesn’t hurt.”? (Oops, I know I’ve now said this to my son.)
2) Our experience of ‘Caregiver Distress’ is denied
As kids we’re attuned to others and can tell when our moms, dads, or others close to us are upset. When we sensed something was off, how often might we have asked ‘what’s wrong?’ only to hear back that ‘everything was ok’? (Cue Britney. Oops, I did it again.)
In these early experiences of our bodily knowing being denied, we’re faced with the question of trusting ourselves versus staying connected to those we depend on. Our physical intuition threatens our belonging and even our survival. And so we relinquish credibility over what’s happening in our own body and we choose connection.
But as caregivers today, understanding this, we can start to change course for our littles.
Referring to her daughter’s dislike for car-seats, Hillary heartfully shared how she told her:
“Don’t ever stop screaming if you don’t like something […] Tell me as long as you need to that you don’t like it. And I promise you I will deal with my feelings about that.”
Having been in a similar position, manically driving with a wailing infant in the back, my breath was taken by these words. They weren’t what I expected to hear, and they’ve changed me already.
She tells us, “We don’t necessarily stop living our lives, or stop doing things, but we say ‘you don’t have to stop communicating.’”
To all mamas, papas, and caregivers out there, I see you. This is, capital h, Hard. I haven’t been as emotionally dysregulated as I’ve been these last three years. But there’s hope.
These last few days, when my baby has been losing it as I changed her clothes, I have been reciting Hillary’s words. I did it for my daughter, but I didn’t realize the impact it would have on me.
My body instantly felt calmer. Not all of my anxiety disappeared, but its intensity diminished noticeably. It was like by telling my baby that she didn’t have to stop expressing her discomfort, it was no longer my body against hers. My story was no longer ‘I need her to be calm but she isn’t so I’m losing it too’. Instead, there was a sense of agency regained in my body as ‘I had allowed’ her distress, and in that shift, mine dissipated.
WHY SHOULD WE CARE ABOUT BEING EMBODIED?
First, it’s important to stop and acknowledge the value of dissociation. It sweeps in to protect us. Whether it’s very real or perceived danger, our mind wants us to survive and so it builds a wall to separate itself from the feeling body.
In Hillary’s words:
“God bless my dissociation.”
But there comes a time when we get to pause and realize we’re now safe, and we can begin to chisel. And feel.
So, why would we want to put in this work?
1) To Connect with Ourselves
When our awareness is where our body is, we start living a fully present and engaged life. We learn to actively take in the world through our five senses and everything is magnified. As Hillary shared, the shift can be exhilarating:
“To be like where have I been? Oh my gosh I’m here?! I exist?! There’s an almost psychedelic quality to it -[...]Woah, taste, color, space, pleasure, connection, emotion!”
But, I think most important of all, in connecting with our body, we connect with our truth.
We notice our stomach contract and our shoulders shrug. We notice our eyes open and our chest expand. We learn when our gut is warning ‘no!’ and when our heart is calling ‘yes!’.
We discover who our soul is, and we can stop seeking answers outside of ourselves.
Even though allowing ourselves to feel everything can be scary, as we open ourselves up to the physical manifestations of fear, shame, grief, “when we take in the discomfort, we also get the goodness.”
It’s in being vulnerable and opening our hearts that we live fully.
2) To Connect with Each Other
“It’s emotion that allows us to have empathy. Empathy is my body intuitively responding with adaptive action tendency, to your feeling, in a way that brings us into right relationship.”
If we attune to each other and allow ourselves to trust our intuition about it, just imagine how much more freely and effectively we could communicate.
Hillary explains that, by getting into our bodies, we remove ourselves from the cycle of burnout we’re in from overthinking what it is the other person needs, and trying to figure out where we’ll get the energy to support them.
Do I hear inklings of codependency being subdued?
3) To Connect with Oneness
This final point, I didn’t expect her, a therapist, to tie in. And I’m so grateful she did.
Listening to our bodies necessitates slowing down. And in practicing this, we start noticing the world around us: the begonias blooming, the hummingbird hovering, the dog poop intruding our path. It feels good, and we start to live more mindfully.
We look up from our phone more often; we even dare leave it in our pocket.
We just ‘be’.
And we realize we’re part of something greater.
“[...] I think it takes us into a kind of mystical oneness. If we take it to its full extent, embodiment actually brings us into relationship with all of life. Because it’s life that is our bodies. And when we start to encounter that, we start to see it everywhere.”
HOW DO WE BECOME RE-EMBODIED?
Positive embodiment is not about having positive feelings about our body. It’s simply about being in attunement with it, even if what’s coming up is unpleasant.
It starts with slowing down in order to notice our sensations.
“Emotion is energy in motion. It’s a somatic process. Emotion is not just the word that we give to it but it’s actually our body communicating with energy, and temperature, and impulse.”
Once we notice a sensation - like our hands getting hot and our heart beating fast - Hillary suggests we breathe into it and create space for curiosity. We pause and ask ourselves what it is we’re feeling. We ask the sensation what it’s trying to tell us.
I’ve also been playing with picturing where in my body I feel it and what color it is.
The key is that we don’t ignore our feelings, push them away, or label them ‘bad’. We acknowledge them and what they’re trying to tell us. We’re kind to them and to the version of ourselves that feels them. And from that place, we respond.
I used to get mad at myself when I was feeling anger or anxiety over the same things - including something as benign as being late for preschool drop-off. I got frustrated thinking “I thought I had worked through this! Why is it coming up again?!”. It took me a while to learn that the goal wasn’t to stop feeling the feeling, we’re only human. What really mattered was that I learned how to sit with it when it came up.
Positive embodiment can also be nurtured through activities that make us feel alive and connected to our body - dance party while brushing your teeth, anyone? Or by intentionally engaging the senses and noticing what happens inside you - maybe pause and take in the water dripping from your head as you shower.
There’s room for play.
WE HOLD THE POWER
Can we just stop and note how extraordinary it is that we all have the ability to do this for ourselves? To work towards embodiment and get to know our truth, to feel fully alive, to authentically connect with others and even the vastness beyond. And it all starts with just slowing down.
It was incredibly humbling to hear Hillary share:
“I’ll betray my discipline as I say this, but I think that psychology has perpetuated disembodiment. I think that the paradigm of understanding the mind as the problem that needs to be fixed by another person who has more information, this is one of our gateways to mass disembodiment.”
And by no means do I discredit therapy. We should all seek the support we need for our particular circumstances. I’m in therapy and don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.
But this reminded me of the Church, and how it takes away our innate power by telling us we need middle-men to fully speak to God, to tell us what’s right or wrong, to be forgiven. As if God didn’t already live inside of us.
We all get to listen to our bodies and unleash our knowings.
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