“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” – Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
A tall, dark-skinned, successful professional woman, Anya grew up feeling she was “too much”. Her body size, feelings, and needs were “too big”. When I’d ask her about her feelings, she reported keeping them “shoved in her body” where she “held on tight”. This manifested in stooping to reduce her height, gathering her shoulders up around her ears, and collapsing in her chest.
Her body posture gave her a sense of invisibility, self-doubt and defeat. She often felt angry and suffered symptoms of anxiety and depression. Unstructured time was threatening to her, as relaxing amplified her inner critic. Having plans and being a workaholic turned down the volume of her inner critical voice; she was too busy to hear it.
In Malaysia, Anya’s mother had been a successful businesswoman who’d left the caring of her children to others. Her daughter felt abandoned and wondered what was wrong with her. When the family moved to the United States, Anya’s sense of being “too big” was exaggerated when her features didn’t match the idealized Western body she saw in magazines and on social media. Cultural body ideals amplified her personal issues, a crisis that afflicts many women, and increasingly more men, in our consumerist society. In lieu of working with the deeper feelings and issues that give rise to their sense of inadequacy many seek to “fix” themselves through expensive products, plastic surgery, and implants of various kinds, a personal choice that may not resolve deeper issues.
Sensing it would be a gentler transition for Anya to begin with a more structured approach to movement, rather than an inner-sourced method such as active imagination in movement, I asked her at one point, “Are there any female role models you can think of whom you admire, who feel genuine to you, have height, and don’t mind standing tall?”
Immediately Michelle Obama and Beyoncé came to her mind! When I asked her for her associations to Michelle she said “Grace, articulateness, and integrity. A professional woman and a mother who cares about people, about health care, education, good nutrition for children, exercise for adults and equal rights for everyone – people of color, women, different sexual orientations, disabilities and more. She’s powerful, yet warm and approachable.”
I then invited her to become aware of what she felt in her body as she imagined Michelle, first in her chair and then standing if she wished. Coming to a stand she took a relaxed, solid posture lifting her chest, squaring her shoulders, and making direct eye contact. She looked fuller and powerful, tall yet not intimidating. Her breath deepened more than I’d seen it before.
Her associations to Beyoncé were: “Sexy, powerful, creative, wealthy, and successful. A hard-working professional woman who is on the road, yet also married with a child.” As Anya attended to her body while imagining Beyoncé, she began to lift her chin, and walk with a sense of strength and fluidity, with a swing in her hips. At first smiling at the strangeness she felt, a sense of playfulness and potency grew in her movements. Drawing from these positive shadow figures supported her in exploring qualities she had within and had not yet fully developed.
Over time, naming and working with these strengths, and exploring the earlier family and cultural biases that had thwarted their development, allowed her to become more self-confident and to grow into more of her fullness in her professional work. She also began to feel more relaxed in her marriage, and to talk about the possibilities of becoming a mother to a child of her own.
Explore how you can foster a feeling of safety, resilience, and ease through bodily experience, natural movement, and creative arts. Tina Stromsted’s course Coming Home to the Body offers case examples and practical tools to help you reconnect with your deeper inner resources.
Tina Stromsted, Ph.D., MFT, LPCC, BC-DMT, RSME/T is a Jungian psychoanalyst, Board Certified Dance/ Movement therapist, and Somatic psychotherapist and educator.More Posts by Tina Stromsted