by Brett Hershey
I was recently working with a 63 year-old man in generally good shape, but complaining of stiffness and pain in the upper back, shoulders and neck. He was also experiencing hoarseness in is voice, sometimes losing it all together, which was causing him to miss work.
When I watched him walk, I noticed that he held his shoulders and torso square, preventing them from moving contra-laterally (in opposition to the legs). When I pointed this out, and encouraged him with my hands to let the torso move with each step, he couldn’t believe the difference, how much easier it was to walk. At first he smiled, delighting in the rediscovered freedom.
But then he paused and became emotional.
I asked him what he was experiencing. He answered that he was remembering when he was a teenager, when he was made fun of for “walking like a girl.” To stop the teasing, he stiffened his movement and flexed his arms and shoulders.
Here he was – 50 years later – still trying not to walk like a girl.
Jung said that at points in life we experience such “core wounds.” While the event itself is psycho-physically traumatic, our “reaction formation” to these core wounds can also have significant (negative) ramifications in our lives. He felt that these reaction formations played a big part in our personality.
I have seen this over and over in my Alexander practice as well as experienced it myself. We form a “reaction formation” to a traumatic incident so that we never have to experience the trauma again. The boy who is beaten up, becomes a bully himself. And, we often forget the incident, but the reaction formation stays subconsciously with us, even becoming who we are.
Most character flaws in movies, like Top Gun’s Maverick (literally his call sign), are a reaction formation to a core wound (his father’s alleged dishonorable death in combat). The story is about the protagonist overcoming his misbehavior (becoming wingman or team player), which usually includes revisiting the core wound from a fresh/safe/wise perspective.
Psychologists do the same work, tending to work inside out. As Alexander instructors, we tend to work outside in.
I find core wound stories fascinating (my first teacher Ari said we can write a lot of poetry from those places!). However, we can also become stuck in the story and not get out of it. My daughter was born three months premature. She lived in the NICU at the hospital for two months and would often forget to breathe in my arms, turn blue and have to be resuscitated. Fortunately, she is alive and healthy now at eight years-old, but that traumatic experience created an over-protective reaction formation that I still have to ‘inhibit’ at times.
Our main mission in Alexander Technique is to become conscious of the psychophysical reaction formation (usually a combination of tension and collapse), so that we can address, dissolve and no longer allow it to hold us back.
By doing so, we live with less pain, greater ease and increased performance.
Alexander Technique Classes, Lessons, Workshops by Brett Hershey in Los Angeles Burbank at www.alexandertechla.com