On body awareness, body image, and the use for shame

Reading Oliver Sack’s “A Leg To Stand On” was a bit surreal for me.

"The Disembodied Lady"

“The Disembodied Lady”

In it, he describes the strange and unexpected event in his life of losing his leg. Not losing it physically, but mentally. Through injury, and nerve damage his leg “went dead” to him. He experienced thinking of his leg as not his own, but as a foreign object tethered to him through an uncontrollable circumstance (an accident on a mountain with a bull).

His description of the experience, the hospitalization, becoming a patient, and the slow steps of rehab was, in his words, a “common experience uncommonly described.” And in that, I agree with him 100%.

He took a very common event in the lives of humans; being injured and needing recovery, progress and change, and described the process of what happens to us all in some form, but is understood or reflected on by few.

Within the many gems of thought I found while reading it, the central theme was reiterated over and over:

The body is not separate from the mind.

In times of pain, injury, sickness, or a downgrade in health, a mental break or alienation from our body is common (on a spectrum from minor to severe), but not often noticed.

When sickness, a state of poorer health or injury, chronic frustration with something like fat loss, etc occurs, we often find ourselves further away from our sense of self. And with good reason. We feel less than whole about our health. Our body and the mind start to become distinct and separate to us. We talk about ourselves as if we are not ourselves.

What the body does is reflected on as if it was not ours. Our fat is not ours, our bad knees are not ours, our painful joint is not ours, our shame and guilt about binge-eating is not us. We turn despair, frustration, anger and hopelessness inwards towards body parts and body functions. We demand function, because we do not like the effects of the dysfunction that are so obvious and contradictory to either the image we want, or the results we expect from our work. We can find ourselves, often unconsciously, moving to rationalize and accept dysfunction because we cannot find solutions or cannot see them.

Nowhere can this be showcased more clearly in the fitness and strength worlds then when someone is trying to change their body, or performance. Fat loss, muscle gain, strength gain, improving mechanics, reducing injury potential, overcoming injury or getting the most out of our training and performance in athletics, is all the same in this context.

Never is it more evident that this separation is taking place, than in how people talk about their body or others bodies. We can see the importance of this principle (that mind and body are the same) in the rebound towards body-positive imagery and words in the media, as well as the shifting perception of how we view our bodies and their use. This intent, is one I fully support. The idea of “body love” is a progressive and necessary undertone to the shift we need to make right now. But there are parts of these movements of acceptance that don’t sit right, or don’t address important factors related to change and action. Factors rooted in neuroscience.

There is something to be said for disliking your body. Disliking your body spurs the desire to change, it tells you you want something else. Something more. Injury showcases the need for change or for healing. Sickness reveals the need to work on health, and or allow time for healing and care.
The other day, while talking to a friend about getting certain leg muscles to fire, I expressed frustration, at my “knees” and “stupid joints”.

Yet, my knees are mine. My joints are me. Just like my brain is me, and my likes and personality are me.

But before this goes too far into the realm of the metaphysical, let me share with you an excerpt from Oliver Sacks, who’s mind and life’s work made these ideas accessible to us from the lofty realm of neuroscience.

Consciousness (as language, conception, thought), thus conceived, is essentially personal; it is essentially connected to the actual living body, its location, and positing of a personal space; and it is based on memory, on a remembering which continually reconstructs and recategorizes itself. Identity, memory and space….compose, they define, primary consciousness. But it was precisely these three which vanished when my leg became alien to me. They collapsed and vanished together, leaving an abyss, a hole, a hole in identity/memory/space.”

I see holes being poked into people by their own hand. And in the act of aiming for progress, instead chip away at the possibility of it, by not respecting the complete and full connection that is mind and body = you.

What do I mean?

What Oliver Sacks experienced through his accident was a unexpected, forceful and extreme example of this break.
Yet, I see people who chip away at this unity daily, yearly and lifelong. Who run away from their bodies and their body-image because they do not like what they see, often with excellent reason (aka they suck and need change).

Yet change cannot be brought about without awareness. And awareness can be very uncomfortable. So uncomfortable, that we cling to those who tell us to “accept” rather than explore. To ask harder questions.

Body image,” he shares, “may be the first mental construct and self-construct there is, the one that acts as a model for all others….all perceptual categories, of the (spatial and other) frameworks in which they are placed, about memory, about action, and consciousness, about mind – a whole pyramid of considerations raying up from body image.”

Our body image is important, but simply replacing a poor image for a better one and “loving ourselves” stops short of being fully right, in my opinion. Replacement does not equal change. But more importantly, you need to know that your choice of perception cannot be separated from your choice of action. Simply replacing your body image or trying to by “loving yourself”, often does not allow for the awareness that leads to the action that leads to building self-love.

There is a backlash to projected images of health and beauty in the media, as is to be expected.  We are bombarded by influencing ideas daily. Constantly, and mostly UNconsciously. But anything that is “popular” goes in cycles before our view. All you need is a little googling of history to see the patterns. And right now we face a crisis of bodies. People are getting further away from themselves in health, and we should not accept it.

In the course of living, we can often forget that “what we see is all there is”. Unless we spend time actively thinking about where our perceptions and models for “health” and “being fit” come from, we will adopt whatever comes to mind first, whatever is shown us most, not excluding how we think of body image, body love, body acceptance and our desire for progress. All that influence is stored somewhere in our heads from watching commercials, tv, other people in the gym, Oprah, Dr. Oz, reading on the internet, browsing FB and reading arguments, or staring up at the ad as you ride the bus. Those things, in this current life, aren’t going away. It is not practical to try and shut yourself off from all outside influence.

Yet you cannot avoid staring in the mirror and experiencing the psuedo-contradiction you face between acceptance and change, if change has not happened.

If acceptance impedes action, what is the use? If shame encourages action, what is the harm?

Negative body-image is a yucky feeling, one that is felt in our most primal and deepest sense; that of the physical. Our body is who we are. Our body is not the only part of who we are. But how we approach this face-off between body acceptance and body changes needs some work, in my opinion.

We denounce shame and encourage acceptance. But acceptance is a two-way street, and shame does have use. This is a very uncomfortable and unpopular idea, so allow me to explain what I mean specifically.

In “Turning Pro”, Steven Pressfield says, “We have reality and we have humility. These are powerful allies. And we have a third force working in our favor: shame. Why is shame good? Because shame can produce the final element we need to change our lives: will.

 We must not attack that impulse in the idea of loving your body.

Reality is what is. It does not change by replacing your view of it and reminder of it, with something more soothing. “I am fat.” or “I have chronic injuries” should not become “I just going to love my body the way it is” or “Well I just wasn’t made for that.”

Shaming another makes you an asshole, but helping someone to face shame or facing your own, can connect reality and humility and induce the will to change aka intrinsic motivation. It is not the job of a coach to craft a reality. But to expose it.

Humility and awareness at the end of the day, is love. Humility is accepting reality. Humility is loving yourself. Shame is a personal and powerful emotion, and it should be used with the care all powerful and personal forces need.

On the one hand, body-acceptance and body-love ideas are good, on the other hand, they are as superficial as saying beauty looks like Adriana Lima only.

Shame, as an emotion, is not good or bad. It is useful or not useful. How do you use it?

Sometimes I joke with clients, that when they are “sick enough of not seeing progress” in whatever area that is, then they will be ready to hear what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear. And that’s just one of those “duh” facts, that nevertheless requires immense accumulation of thought in our heads. We have to build up to the point of action.

Oliver Sacks jokes that Goethe’s famous line “In the beginning was action”, should really be “In the beginning was impulse.”

How can you inspire that impulse? How can you get yourself closer to what you need to do? This is why shame does have use.

On my arm is a tattoo. I got it at a point in my life, when I was most terrified of life. I got it as a extremely obvious and realistic reminder for myself in a brief moment of desperate realization. I literally wanted to stamp it on my brain, so I got it stamped on my arm by a very mediocre tattoo artist in a small town in Vermont.

It says “He conquers who conquers himself” in Latin. I got it specifically so I could not avoid reading it. So I could help myself force awareness on myself, and acclimate myself to thinking differently. Of course, as with all obvious and superficial actions, the tattoo itself did nothing.

But it is a constant reminder of the only thing I needed and will need for the rest of my life to induce change; aggressive personal responsibility.

Years later, I find awareness and aggressive responsibility is a very long campaign hahahaha. One that will last till I am dead. It’s fucking WWIII over here. But one you can choose to get better at. That is really what all this mindset, tracking, logging, checking in, coaching, advice etc etc is for. To allow you to act. And keep on acting.

To discover what change IS in your life. What it looks and feels like.

And you cannot do that by alienating your body from your mind. In any context.

I learn this lesson daily, physically, where I catch myself speaking unkindly and with disgust towards my “knees”. I hear this in people who want me to help them dismiss their frustrations about how they look rather than address them and change them, so that they can do the work that will get them there!
Imagine fighting a battle, where half your troops are always committing suicide. That is what you are doing when you say that part of you, is not you. When you speak with words that alienate your body from your mind. Your body from your actions. Your body from your thoughts. You reduce your power. You give it away.

When someone tells you to love yourself, but when you look in the mirror you see nothing to love, you experience the contradiction of accepting a fact with no proof.

It is this contradiction that is most painful and personal.

That is because the proof is NOT there, and you know it. You must build the proof. With the building of proof, you start the building of self-love. And then, the physical can begin to manifest itself in the ways you have set out to get, because you will begin to see and DO the right actions.

Love is not induced, it is built. For this you need humility and reality.

Shame should be used, not abused. For this you need honesty.

In “The Disembodied Lady” from Oliver Sack’s, “The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”, he describes again an extreme physical example of this massive separation between body and mind and the absolute despair of it;

“For, in some sense, she is pithed (seed removed from flesh), ‘disembodied’, a sort of wraith. She has lost, with her sense of proprioception, the fundamental, organic mooring of identity – at least of that corporeal identity, or ‘body-ego’, which Freud sees as the basis of self: the ego is first and foremost a body-ego. Some such deep depersonalisation or derealization must always occur, when there are deep disturbances of body perception (injury, pain, dysfunction, movement frustration) or body image (hate, anger, obesity, poor health, eating disorders, etc).”

And therein lies why there is a fitness industry to begin with. All coaching, advice, and action needs to be based on bringing a mind and a body together, not encouraging the separation either through language, ideas, or cognitive laziness.

“And yet it has always been intuitively clear,” Sack’s concludes, “that we are in no sense machines or impersonal automata; that all experience, all perception, is self-referential from the start; that all our memories are nothing like the memories of computers, but are organizations and categoriazations of personal experience…and it is clear first and foremost that our bodies are personal – that they are the first definers of ego and self.

*As always, please respect context and nuance when sharing/commenting. I am not old enough yet to tell you to fuck off if you don’t. And definitely not old enough to totally transcend the whole “fucks given” model altogether.

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