One of the pioneers of body psychotherapy, Wilhelm Reich, surmised that we block our own energy to defend against unwanted feelings or impulses. He referred to these blocks as “the physical instrument of emotional repression.” As he saw it, the blocking of energy was an adaptive strategy to manage life’s frustrations.
Take a young child, for example. Every night when her father comes home, she runs to him and jumps into his arms. Each time she does this her father pushes her away either overtly or subtly. The child, feeling the humiliation of her father’s “rejection,” begins to contract and restrict her excitement and physical impulse to run towards him. She also begins to formulate a story to make sense of the experience. She may tell herself that her love is too much or that physical contact is bad. She may conclude that showing a man how much she wants him will lead to rejection or abandonment. Over time, the containment of her impulses and drawn conclusions about her experience will have the effect of pulling back her energy, of contracting.
When we meet this little girl in her adult life we may see how this energetic contraction has impacted her life. We may see her struggle with expressing her feelings. She may describe her relationships as physically distant. She may have tendencies towards perfectionism and seek the safety of admiration and adoration over the risky nature of love and intimacy. She may have a narrative that includes: “I’m too much,” “I’m not enough,” “I must contain myself,” or, “I will not show anyone my needs and desires.” In summary, she lives by a life task whose goal is to avoid rejection and humiliation, and the pain associated with it, at all costs.
This adaptive life task of avoidance directs all her energy towards ensuring its fulfillment. She will most likely rely on her will to control herself and situations around her. She will most likely live in her head where reason and intellect reside and where, with the help of her strong will, her emotions and impulses can be contained. The energy of rage and grief resulting from the original experience with her father will most likely be masked by the energy of withholding, aggression, or a numbing of her felt experience. She may report being misunderstood as cold and unfeeling. And yet this couldn’t be further from the truth of who she really is. For underneath the maneuvering and manipulation of her energy, underneath all of her distorted beliefs, is the truth that is her energetic life force. It is the energy of the child following the natural impulse to run and jump into the arms of life.