The aim of this article is to help you discover from your own experience how being aware of body language can help you understand yourself and others better. This will also help you deal more effectively with your emotions, and improve your communication skills.
This can enhance your effectiveness in relationships in general, and is particularly important for both psychotherapist and client in processes such as Counselling and Psychotherapy. It may also help you understand how some of your current conflicts may have their origin in childhood.
It’s easy to say that research shows that 60% or more of our communication is through Body language, which it does, but how does that help you? At best it will give you an intellectual understanding, but is that enough?
One of the problems with emotional issues is that we often know what we need to do but we don’t manage to do it. Many people who are anxious or depressed, for example, have a good intellectual understanding of their condition. In spite of this, however, they find themselves unable to take the steps that they know will help them.
The same applies to addictions. Have you ever wanted to give up an addiction or change an unwanted behaviour – like smoking or eating the wrong foods, for example – and found that despite your best efforts and intentions you have been unable to do this?
You are not alone – unfortunately this is a very common experience.
So let’s see if we can get an experiential understanding of body language by doing a simple exercise. The aim is not for you to believe me or anyone else that you may consider an authority, but to make discoveries for yourself from your own experience.
Make your own discoveries
The more you can do these exercises with an open mind, the more you are able to temporarily suspend any judgements and opinions you may have, the more likely it is that you will benefit.
I say temporarily because I am not asking you to give up or change any beliefs, only to suspend them for a few minutes whilst you do the following exercise, just to see what happens when you do this.
Now try this exercise. This is best done with a partner, or facing a mirror.
Please note: This exercise is not a substitute for professional help. If you are having serious problems dealing with anger, anxiety, excitement or any other emotional issues please consult a suitably qualified practitioner.
Take a moment to do whatever you need to do to relax, face your partner or the mirror, then say in a calm, relaxed voice : “I am not angry. I am calm and relaxed”.
Notice your bodily expression when you do this. Ask your partner to tell you what he or she observes. Are you sitting or standing? What’s your facial expression? What do you notice about your breathing? What do you do with your arms and hands when you say this?
When you say this in a relaxed way, are you believable? That is, if you’re looking at yourself in the mirror – would you be convinced that you really are calm and relaxed? If you’re doing this with a partner, does your partner believe that you are calm and relaxed?
When your body language contradicts your words
(second part of exercise)
Now think of something or someone that makes you angry. Notice what happens in your body when you do this. Then say again, “I am not angry. I am calm and relaxed” in a loud and angry voice.
Now ask your partner what does he or she believe? Does he or she believe the words you say, ie that you are calm and relaxed, or your bodily expression which seems to indicate that you are angry?
This will give you an experiential understanding of the role of body language in communication, and what happens when your words and your body language don’t match up.
Now reverse roles, so your partner says the words and you listen. Notice how your partner communicates anger, and how similar or dissimilar his or her expression is to yours. It’s very useful to do this exercise with a number of different partners, observing similarities and differences.
You can also repeat this exercise with different emotions, eg “I am calm and relaxed. I am not anxious”; “ I am calm and relaxed. I am not excited”……
Also start to distinguish between what you actually observe, ie tone of voice and bodily signals, and what you infer from these signals, in this case anger. This will make you aware that we do not perceive emotions directly, we perceive physical signals such as words, sounds, shapes and movement. From these signals we infer the emotion.
(end of exercise)
Relevance to childhood experiences
Can you remember times when you experienced a contradiction between what someone said to you and their body language? Do you remember what you thought and how you felt at the time?
When I was at school, I was expected to get high marks and most of the time I did. When I didn’t, however, I could see that my parents were disappointed. I could hear it in their voice and see it in their face. Yet they kept telling me that they weren’t disappointed.
I know now that they did this with the best intentions, however at the time it left me feeling confused. I didn’t know if I was imagining that they were disappointed, or if they were not telling me the truth. I ended up not knowing what to believe.
Body Language in Psychotherapy
It’s no wonder that when I grew up I took a special interest in psychology and especially in somatic psychotherapy, which focuses, amongst other things, on the relationship between emotions and bodily expression.
I believe that understanding body language is essential to the process of good therapy. As a psychotherapist, it enables me to perceive consciously a substantial amount of information which would otherwise be either missed, or perceived unconsciously. It also enables me to be more fully aware of what I am communicating to my clients.
This avoids misunderstandings and makes a successful outcome much more likely.
I leave you with a question
If the language of the body forms such an important part of our communication, why is it not taught in schools? And why does it not form an essential part of all training courses in professions that involve working with people?
Donald Marmara created Core Development , a learning process which acknowledges the unity and inter-relationships of mind, body, emotions and spirit.
It draws on the principles and understanding of somatic psychotherapy, structural dynamics, and Donald’s own personal therapy, professional training and life experience.
Core development adopts a flexible approach, recognising that what works for one person may not work for another.
Donald currently resides and practices in Sydney, and is available for individual sessions, couples sessions, counselling teenagers and parents, and facilitating training programs and workshops. He is also available for Zoom and phone sessions worldwide.
He can be contacted on 0412 178 234.