body language trust young adults

Body Language, Trust, and Being Taken Seriously

“Sit up”

        “Stop fidgeting”

              “Don’t Slouch”

                     “Look at me when I’m talking to you”

                                                “Speak up”

                                                            “Don’t yell”

                                                                    “Sit still”

And so on. . . . . . . . .


body language trust young adultsMost of us, at some point growing up heard some form or another of these cues. Some of us heard them a lot, and many of us learned to either rigidly obey or completely ignore. Is all of this nagging really necessary, or important?   Well, the answer may be yes. . . . . and no. Really, it depends.

As a therapist, who also happens to be a Personal Fitness Trainer and Yoga Teacher, I tend to be sensitive to what is being said (not only WHAT, but also HOW), what is not being said (body posturing, gestures used, speed and intensity of movements, breathing, etc), and to the energy that is in the room (especially subtle shifts). I’m sure I’m not the only one who uses all of this information in order to help our clients move through their “stuff,” toward growth and goals.

Once I get to know my clients a bit and have established a decent amount of trust, many doors open up to how I may choose to work with each one. I often think, “My job is so easy, all I have to do is show up, be present, real, and honest, and then just wing it.” This is partially true ;). While my client sits in front of me talking, I often get a sense of the depth of their breath, where their energy gets stuck, their level of physical comfort/discomfort, incongruences between any information I am receiving. I use all of this as I begin to coach the client to make subtle changes along the way.

If a client tends to “check out,” I may instruct them to “stack their spine,”, or untuck their legs from underneath of themselves and place their feet on the ground, start to observe their surroundings “right here, right now.” When the “slacking,” or “leaning on an armrest” client is asked to sit up and stack there spine, there is a shift in his or her awareness. I then begin to talk about how the change feels from my side. Most of my clients want to be taken more seriously, and I let them know that in order to be taken seriously they need to appear present and engaged. When they stack their spine there is an impression of “being there,” that is validating to those they are talking with.

In a group, I may have one client who seems to be reclining in the chair or who has his or her head in hands. He or she may be participating in a meaningful manner or not. I will ask if I can give then some feedback. Usually, the response is “yes.” I will first let them know that I appreciate that they are following what is going on in group, but that if I only pay attention to their body language, I may misjudge them as not paying attention, or not caring or being interested, or perhaps even as being disrespectful.

Even though these interpretations and observations may not be accurate, I am still picking up on possibilities that would lead me to have preconceived ideas about them, which may or may not be accurate. I let them know that not every one, or every situation, will allow the luxury of time to send a clear message about yourself, so it is important to take everything into consideration. If you’d like to be seen as someone that is involved, eager, respectful, etc, then it is important that you position yourself in a manner which eliminates any question otherwise. . . .”sit up straight”. . . .”Look at me when I am talking” J Get it?

On the other hand, I had a client who sat up “rod iron straight” front tailbone to crown of head, elbows resting on armrests, excellent eye contact, and what at a glance appears to be a very open-to-receive body position. However, as our work together progress, her body posture remained the same, and what once seemed open to receive, began to feel rigid, uninvolved, and closed. Trust having been established, I began to provide some feedback about her body language and how it felt from my vantage point. She was surprised that I was seeing her as uninterested, minimally engaged, uncomfortable, etc. She was telling me she felt present and comfortable, and I believed her. Both of our perceptions were real, and yet very different.

She then started to remember was being a little girl. She was told by her parents, often, to “stop fidgeting,” “stop talking too much,” “sit up and be quiet.” She learned to follow these instructions, to appease her parents, and these patterns became a part of her. She hadn’t even been aware of it but now is, and she is trying to really relax into herself. I cue her to “let your shoulders fall away from your ears, take a deep breath in threw your nose and open your mouth to sigh it out, while softening your belly,” “every now and then to reposition/shift in your chair.” I am working on helping her feel herself in her body, at this moment, in this room, and really become mindfully present.

Another client came in with low self-esteem, insecure, afraid to speak up for herself, and out of touch with who she “really” is. I noticed immediately that she spoke in a very low, timid, shaky, and childlike voice, and her breath was shallow. After trust was established, I stated the obvious, “You realize your voice is very childlike, fragile and quiet, right?” She says “I’ve always spoken this way.” I asked, “Has anybody ever mentioned it to you before, perhaps in previous therapy?” She said that this has never been brought up. I let her know that I would like to help her reach her goals of discovering who she really is, having a voice in her life, being taken seriously, etc. She wanted this. I let her know that we would begin with the way she speaks and breaths. I explained that it felt like she was speaking from her upper chest, and that I wanted her to try to let her voice come from much deeper, maybe even as deep as her tailbone. She laughed, but started to practice letter her voice come from a deeper place. This did not come easily, and it was uncomfortable. She was self-conscious, BUT she was willing to try. Eventually it became a joke, as she would explain to peers that noticed a difference “I’m speaking from my tailbone.” As she became used to hearing the strength in her voice change, we started to bring her family into the sessions, and she would practice with them, and she started to get over her resistance, and began actually feeling stronger, more capable, and like she had a voice worth hearing. This was the beginning of many more transformations. If we hadn’t addressed this early on, and tried to work around it, I do not believe she would have had the outcome in treatment that she did. She is a strong, vibrant, and outspoken young women today, and those in her life had to adjust their relationships with her as a result. Eventually, the whole family system got stronger and more resilient.

I could go on and on with examples. I love this work. I see my job as empowering my clients to take reasonable risks that lead to stepping outside their comfort zone in order to get in touch with strengths and capabilities that they were not aware they possessed, but had been there all along. Learning to trust, respect, and love themselves is key. My clients often say “I want my parents to trust me more.” I explain that that is not something that they have control over. The best they can do is take action that lead them to trusting themselves and to be consistent and honest along the way. Let others see this, and they may slowly begin to start to trust you also. It helps when the clients understand they are doing this work for them, and the rest will follow.

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