Exploring Attitude in the Body Part 4- Holding In
So far this series has explored how the body-mind reacts to situations in early life where there is stress from external tension or inconsistent care. But what happens when care is forthcoming to the point where a growing child feels stifled? Let’s conjure up a scenario to explore this.
Imagine a child who is oohed and ahh-ed over. This is a good thing right? Right, but the saying “everything in moderation” has merit even here. When a baby is fondled and oohed and ahh-ed over, it is meant as encouragement and an exchange of joy- this is essential for healthy development. But for some babies, over time and in certain situations, they end up learning the precise responses that make the ood-lers coo. That too is fine, up to a point, but sometimes the caregiver gets so much pleasure out of baby’s responses that the interaction becomes about making the caregiver happy instead of the caregiver enjoying and getting to know who baby is. Sometimes the caregiver may even inadvertently communicate dissatisfaction if the baby’s responses don’t meet their expectations. After awhile of this baby begins to learn it is his job to please the adult… so he smiles and responds in certain ways that make him look smart and coordinated so that mother can feel proud and important. This parent derives an unbalanced amount of pleasure over the child’s performance, feeling it reflects on them, and comes to expect it not because baby is happy, but for her own comfort and happiness. This baby can develop habitual patterns geared toward pleasing someone outside of themselves rather than balancing information from outside with messages from within, this may cause baby to lose contact with his own impulse and life flow.
Sometimes even a child’s feeding times can be for the pleasure and on the schedule of the caregiver. Imagine what it is like to be fed when you aren’t hungry, the spoonful of food comes looming toward your face. One needs to be able to turn their head away and keep their lips closed to the spoon if their stomach isn’t giving receptive signals. But if we have already learned that it is important to please the caregiver, or that it is futile to resist, and may even cause problems in the connection between our self and our caregiver, we submit. Over time in this situation we lose access to our own innate needs and wants and learn to “follow” rather than to “be” in a way that is harmonious with oneself. When a caretaker is dominant, and in this scenario they can also be overly sacrificing, the child feels obliged to her to the point that the child loses contact with their own needs and desires.
Rebellion, however mild, has an important role in one’s path to grounded independence. The baby whose job it is to generate “oohs” and “ahh’s” for the happiness of another learns from the beginning to not express his “WAHs”, his “Guffaghs”. The process differs from the child whose system has not been given to, where there is little charge and they go into the previously described (in other articles) freeze or collapse. Our current subject has been given to, their system is charged and there is a lot of energy there. But, when sensing the disproval from the other, he stops the expression of his energy by holding in, he does this in order to please which, in baby-speak, is to survive. My teachers were fond of saying “whenever there is an obligation there can be no love”. This situation is riddled with obligation.
Holding in emotional expression develops strong muscles in the young body. But because muscle control and coordination isn’t fully developed before 18-24 months of age the baby begins to experience anxiety and fear around the impulses that arise from his own body. This can be sound- joy or complaint, or even physical elimination since the baby cannot differentiate sound from the mouth vs. poop from the anus. It can be the impulse to run or reach out, to sing or to complain. He learns to close the doors of the body as best as possible. The way to hold-in is through pinching the anus and tilting the pelvis forward from below creating a flat buttocks; also by lowering the head to close the throat and rolling down the shoulders to buckle down” or “hunker in”. Take this posture and see if it feels familiar to you.
Once a child has achieved mobility, between the ages of 2-4, his job is to explore the world and to practice his independence through self-assertion (remember those “terrible two’s? This is when they try out having their own opinions of things and then see if their ego can support it). But the child with the pattern of in-holding may have difficulty doing this, his environment doesn’t supply the necessary freedom for him to explore. There may be a lot of incoming energy from his environment that, while not confrontational or degrading, contains the subtle message that “I exist for you (parent)”. This can go a long way in creating muscular and emotional responses that lead to enduring life patterns. This child gives up their freedom for closeness with the caregiver and it is self-defeating.
During puberty the child may experience shame, which is also exacerbated from difficult family situations that many of us face like divorce or peer pressure. The father may be preoccupied or absent in this family constellation which is part of mother’s focus on the child to meet her emotional needs. Of course this scenario has many different details or levels of intensity in different families. But to some extent, in their teens children from this family style might become good followers and a loyal friends; they may have an easy time fitting in since they do not assert themselves; sometimes they have problems with older siblings overpowering them but they do not like confrontation so this isn’t dealt with. If we have this pattern we may be overly submissive and very long-suffering; we can endure much. We don’t often give others honest feedback or assert ourselves, we do not express our own needs. This is a person who suffers from anxiety and a self-defeating sense of inadequacy.
When I am with people with the in-holding pattern I sometimes think of Eyore in the Whiney-the Pooh books. They might have a dense heavy muscle structure and might suffer from intestinal problems. Their charge, their impulses and expressions, are held-in. You wouldn’t notice it because it’s deep in the system but this with-held energy ends up being turned against the person who holds it. This is where the sense of inadequacy and the self-effacing attitude come from. In order to heal we must open the physical system and over time create an environment where the client can tolerate their natural responses to life, to make contact with themselves and begin to find pleasure in the flow of energy moving through the body. Over time they can learn that to do this without fear and anxiety. Through relaxing and reshaping the physical holding patterns they can learn to accept and express their own feelings. Although this may feel risky, like an act of rebellion at first, over time and with much care the person with the in-holding pattern can learn to trust and to share their deeper self. With proper help and support they can learn to reconnect with their own joie de vivre, their exuberance, joy of living, love of life.
by Aylee Welch, LICSW