Recently I’ve been involved in a couple of conversations where people have been wondering how as Alexander Technique teachers we can work with patterns of misuse which have a strong emotional component, so I thought I’d share a simple example of one way we can approach this from my own practice. I know many other teachers have evolved similar ways of working. To preserve confidentiality this is not a verbatim account but a composite drawn from several different interactions with different people.
The Solicitor and the Turtle
I’m working with Sarah who is a senior partner in a law firm. She has complained about constant stiffness and soreness in her shoulders. We’re working on the floor, and as she talks about the times at work where her shoulders bother her I notice they keep going up. I point this out.
What's going on there do you think?
I don't know.
How does it feel when that happens?
Uncomfortable. I don't like it.
What's it like to imagine being in a stressful situation at work, and being able to not do that?
It would feel better. More relaxed and in control.
So why not stop?
I can't. Especially when stuff's going on or I'm overwhelmed.
So it feels impossibly difficult to stop it when you're busy and overloaded?
I'm wondering what might be in it for you. You don't like doing it, but at the same time you can't stop. I imagine there could be a pretty big pay off at some level. Some part of you seems to want to do it even though the conscious part of you doesn’t.
Hmmm maybe, but I don't know what the pay off would be.
I'm wondering — this is just a conjecture so tell me if I’m wrong— whether it's something to do with feeling safe and secure. Like a turtle going into his shell?
Try exaggerating the movement a little, does it feel that way?
Yes it does! It's like withdrawing.
And I'm also wondering if the shoulder thing is quite far down a chain reaction of responses and feelings about your situation, which makes it very difficult for you not to do it—because at some level, though you don’t like how it feels physically, it makes you feel safe?
[Thinks] Actually, that sounds about right.
What if there’s a better way to feel safe? What if, when you are in one of these stressful situations, you pause and at least allow yourself to breathe a little, and find your feet?
It's too hard when I'm in it, it's impossible [she visibly tenses, her breathing quickens].
Can you imagine such a situation now?
Yes! Like last week I had an important deadline, one that I had to meet, and I was struggling.
How does it feel to think about that?
And what's happening with your body?
My shoulders are way up.
And your breathing?
I'm holding my breath.
And what's going on with your attention?
It's gone inwards.
And narrowed down?
I'm imagining that maybe if you don't hold this thing together with your breath and your shoulders and your attention then you lose the case, and the client is devastated, and everyone loses their job, and the firm goes bust and it's all Sarah's fault …
So can you be here and imagine being in that scenario of the deadline and let go into it a little. Can you let your breath do its thing? Can you contact the ground?
[Throughout this conversation I have had one hand on her knee. I give a little invitation to release and wait patiently. Her system starts to integrate, and her breath frees up]
So that feels like being with the scary thing a little bit, and you can let go?
Yes, but that's here, it's not happening now.
No, but the stimulus is essentially the same. What if you accept that right now it is too much to expect to let go of such a strong habit when you’re right in the thick of things, but play with letting go in situations which are only a little stressful. If you experiment with not going into your shell in easier situations and the world doesn’t end maybe it will start to feel safer not to do it in more difficult situations.
Yes, I think I could do that [she relaxes more].
She works with this over the next few weeks and finds she is increasingly able to not get pulled into her fear response but instead can find a different kind of security when she’s feeling stressed, and her shoulders start to feel more comfortable and relaxed. My impression is that in identifying the emotional part of her response she has a more complete picture of what she's up to, and this more complete understanding makes it easier for her to choose to react differently, and also ultimately helps her to let go of a need to 'hide' which partly underlay the pattern of misuse....