How are we aware of the space between what we want or need to do and what we think we are able to do? It’s a feeling, isn’t it? An underlying sense of tension, resistance, and insecurity if the space is wide enough. It seems that when there’s a discord between our self-image and the perceived demands of the environment — whether social, athletic, functional, or a combination thereof — we begin to feel and express tension and rigidity. These are the manifestations of insecurity. This tension is not only physical, that of the neuromuscular system, but also cognitive such that thoughts become repetitive and lack flexibility. When the gap between our self-image and our perception of the environment is large and pervasive enough across several domains, we experience these tensions in a way that is difficult to relieve and affects both function and performance.
Insecurity and the Gap
In order for us to function and perform well our self-image, which is shaped by developmental learning and experiences, must be congruent with the perceived demands of the environment. If we are unable to match the demands, our response is insecurity and the tensions therein.
When the expected sensation is unknown, untested, we tense our body sufficiently to be able to cope with it and prepare for the greatest possible intensity. Feldenkrais, The Potent Self
Here’s a common clinical example: if one doesn’t have great sensory reference of the ground, or spatial awareness of the pelvis — the anchor of efficiency in the body — then that lends some subconscious insecurity to our self-image within the environment: “I don’t know where I am in space” can be quite threatening. So in order to maintain upright function we work our way around it while creating tension to guard against uncertainty*. One may use the ground to physically extend themselves — a typical stress response to guard against threats — or subconsciously create other patterns to compensate for the missing input (visual, stomatognathic, auditory).
Regardless of the individual compensations, the larger the gap between one’s self-image and the perceived environment, the greater the tension and insecurity. Behavior and environment cannot be acted upon separately. And for most, one’s self-image feels immutable because they believe themselves incapable of change. They have identified their sense of self as existing within an environment that is acting upon them, widening the gap. Behaviors are predictable and compulsive, without the ability to self-regulate.
Removing the Compulsion
However when we give the nervous system options, a choice, by putting people in new positions with novel sensory input, it is better able to let go of automatic responses and expand the self-image. It’s a re-orientation of the self. A new you! So going back to the previous example, if I learn to identify my automatic responses (over-extending) and re-orient my sensory equipment to feel new inputs or familiar inputs differently I now have a better sense of where my body is in relation to the ground. This narrows the gap between what I think am able to do (move with more efficiency and less tension) and what I need to do (walk around the environment). A narrower gap between the self and demands on the self with the ability to control one’s automatic responses.
This is the essence of proper learning.
*Often this uncertainty is not explicit and is difficult for people to articulate, making it necessary to observe how well people move and breathe in progressively challenging positions.