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Standing Up For Yourself

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

I had a client once who was struggling with assertiveness issues. It was difficult for her to say no to people when they wanted her to do something she didn't want to do. It had been that way for as long as she could remember. We would talk about situations she'd be in with her boyfriend. The guy was sort of self-centered so far as I could tell; not violent, but not sensitive either. I was interested to see her tense up while talking about one of her interactions with this fellow. Though removed from that feared interaction in a fairly safe therapy environment, the threatening interaction was recreated in simulation in the form of her voice going soft, her body posture going submissive and anxious. She wasn't merely recounting what had happened to herself so much as she was re-experiencing it.

I had been reading some of the old Gestalt Therapy experiential literature at the time, and it hit me that an experiential sort of intervention might prove helpful. So I asked my client to explicitly imagine her boyfriend sitting there with her: What did he look like? What was he saying? How was he standing? She became quieter still, reported that she felt small, and took hold of her knees with her arms so as to become smaller in her chair. I interrupted her reverie after a few moments, calling her attention back to our therapeutic interaction and asked her if she liked feeling small. "No", she said. "You know", I said in response, "you can stand up if you like – you can stand up for yourself". And a neat thing happened. She unfolded herself, stood up out of her chair and got into a sort of joking caricature of a boxer's stance. A slight grin came across her face. It maybe had never occurred to her that she could literally stand up to her relationship partner and that things could go differently between them.

No particular magic occurred in that moment – no lasting change was necessarily created, and certainly no magical technique was on display. However, a little flash of insight was created in that moment that would hopefully later prove useful to this woman. The insight for my client was twofold; abstract and quite literal at the same time. The abstract point was that she didn't have to be satisfied with being passive – that it was okay for her to assert and defend herself -- that her own desires and wishes were important and need not be submerged beneath the desires of her boyfriend. The literal point I was making was that she was literally not standing up for herself. Her passive and frightened attitude was quite literally reflected in her posture. Hopefully she had learned (at least for that moment) that she could become aware of her feelings and gain the perspective she needed to change them by paying attention to her posture. By changing her physical posture, she could help herself to change her emotional and behavioral one as well.

 


Today's little essay, then, is about posture. How the way we carry ourselves tends to mirror and express how we feel about ourselves in relation to other people. And also how the way we learn to carry ourselves in relation to people we've known can end up limiting how we relate to new people we meet.

 


Posture has to do with how you hold yourself up. Generally, it refers to your physical body; how you stand or sit. As I'm using the term today, however, it can also double as a reference to how you regard yourself; to the state of your self-image. Sometimes there is actually a correspondence between how you stand and how you feel about yourself. Someone who understood this correspondence was probably responsible for coming up with the popular phrase, "Stand up for yourself".

Posture never occurs in a vacuum. It is always shaped by something else. It is always in relationship with something else. The way we stand physically is shaped and determined by gravity. When we slump into a couch at the end of the day, the curve we find our backs settling into is determined by gravity's pull, by the support offered by the pillows and cushions, and also by the strength of our back muscles. Whether or not we end up with a backache has to do with what sort of shape we're in, and what sort of support we were able to find for ourselves.

Emotional posture is determined by relationships with other people rather than a relationship with gravity. However, the way we stand in relationship to others is similarly determined by interactions. When we find ourselves angry, that is likely to be as a result of someone offending us. When we find ourselves happy it is likely to be the result of someone treating us well. While emotions do occur spontaneously, they occur with much greater frequency in response to how others treat (or don't treat) us.

Every time we assume a particular physical posture, we are practicing it, and as the saying goes, "practice makes perfect". Over time, it becomes very easy for us to assume postures we have practiced a lot, and harder and harder for us to get into postures we have ceased to practice. As an everyday illustration of this principle, take myself and my own posture repertoire. I have an office computer job. Every day I practice sitting on my butt with my hands hovering over a keyboard. As a result of holding this posture all the time I have become a world-class sitter, able to stay in my chair for hours without flinching. I also have ended up with aching shoulders and a tight neck. It would be very difficult for me to touch my toes if I didn't practice that most days. It is difficult for me to sit Indian-style (cross-legged) these days although this was not the case when I was a child. If I don't continue to practice sitting cross-legged from time to time, I'll probably lose the ability to sit that way altogether. If you think about what you used to be able to do as a kid, and what you're able and not able to do today you'll probably have a similar story to tell.

Emotional postures benefit from practice as well. We become better at expressing emotions and sentiments that we get to practice a lot. At the same time, other emotional potentials that are seldom practiced may never develop.

Emotional practice happens as we live out our relationships. The quality of our relationships determines which emotions we get to practice and which we do not. We get to practice loving emotions in loving relationships. Vice versa, we get to practice abusive and hostile emotions in abusive and hostile relationships. Kids who grow up in loving environments tend to learn how to love readily and easily, while kids who were abused tend to have a more difficult time trusting others. Relationships aren't the only things that influence us to be easily loving or hostile - there are also individual temperamental (instinctual personality) differences – but relationships are highly influential causes just the same.

Who you are today, physically and emotionally, is in large part a result of the relationships you've had up to this point in your life (with gravity, and with the other people you've known). Certain postures have become easier for you to hold than others, and certain other postures have atrophied for lack of practice. It may be easier for you to sit in a chair these days rather than sit cross-legged. It may be easier for you to feel frightened of a selfish boyfriend than to stand up for yourself. That one posture is easier or less painful than the other doesn't mean it is healthier, however, and this is the critical point against which any posture we take up must be judged.

In the case of the woman client I described above, it was normal for her to act passively in relation to her boyfriend (and to other people she wanted to please), but not helpful or healthy for her. She continued to behave passively not because it was good for her, or felt good, but because that was a posture she had a lot of practice with and would just collapse into without effort just like slouching into a couch at the end of the day. It was not a good posture for her, however, and she developed the emotional equivalent of a back ache in response. She had come to therapy for help in learning how to better manage her anxieties. Part of helping in this case was helping her to recognize that indeed she wasn't happy capitulating, and that feared alternatives such as standing up for herself weren't going to be as difficult to do as she had thought. My intervention was designed to communicate these observations in a compact and personal way that made visceral sense – sense that felt correct. And that is probably why when I pointed out that she was literally making herself small and might alternatively stand up for herself (that there was a more satisfying way to handle the boyfriend situation available to her if she was willing to practice it) that she smiled in recognition.

 


What about you? What postures define your interpersonal life? What relationships shaped those postures? How have those postures shaped your relationships for better or worse? What has it taken for you to be able to change your unhealthy postures?