How do you know who you are? That’s a heavy question to start off this article and one that I certainly cannot answer. But I’ve been struck lately with how many of the clients I work with are uncomfortable in their own bodies, often reporting they feel ‘phony’ or otherwise physically insecure – unsure of who they are. I wonder if this is because many people don’t accurately know where they are in space. If you don’t know where you are, do you know who you are? In order to understand this better, we have to dig a bit deeper into spatial references and thus Part I!

Our sense of who we are is influenced by the ways in which we sense and perceive the world around us

Feeling “At Home”

This question of feeling phony or not at home in one’s own body is something we  often don’t realize at first blush. But many people, once questioned further, will report a generalized unease or insecurity about themselves that they will often struggle to describe (perhaps a subclinical version of alexithymia?)*. They are uncomfortable, many times in pain, and certainly not performing as well in life. This manifests in the movement system as well. 

How do we know this? Well, we all see it: rigid, compulsive movers who hold themselves in predictable postures and with significant muscular tone. They are uncertain and uncomfortable when asked to move in new ways, particularly in ways that displace their center of mass. In other words very hindbrain-driven. I think much of this is due to an altered spatial awareness, or reference frame.

Reference Frames

​Spatial reference frames are the ways in which we mentally represent where we are in relation to our environment. These reference frames guide our behavior and are comprised of multi-sensory input resulting in sensory mapping, many of which are topographically organized. Each sense provides different information about the space around us. Visual, auditory, vestibular, somatosensory, proprioceptive, and interoceptive cues inform the nervous system to our orientation. And our orientation, then, informs our sensory interpretation. 

​In the main, there are no isolated sensory experiences as we test our senses against each other and integrate them via higher order multi-modal neurons. You can understand something better if you see it, hear it, and touch it versus just hearing it. It is this integration that gives us a sense of self within the environment.  

‘We cannot conceive consciousness without fixing the position of our body in relation to the outside world.’ Feldenkrais in Body & Mature Behavior


From: Hach and Shutz-Basbach. In (or outside of) your neck of the woods: laterality in spatial body representation. Front Psychol. 2014
Spatial references influence body image, in that sensory inputs help determine the mental representation of our self. In other words, the spatial representation of our own body sets the vantage point with which we perceive the environmentIt is the lens thru which we view the world. 

So wouldn’t someone who is misinterpreting their own body’s position in space adopt postures and movements that reflect that?

Egocentric vs. Allocentric

In their excellent paper, from which I drew heavily for this post, Prouxl et al. describe two particular reference frames, the egocentric and the allocentric:

  • Egocentric: representation of objects in relation to the location of the self.
    • E.g. identifying where my hands are in relation to my body. The ground underneath my feet. The perception of optic flow while walking down the street. 
  • Allocentric: representation of objects in relation to one another, independent of one’s self. 
    • E.g. describing directions to the Braves stadium. The location of Batman in relation to Superman and Lex Luthor. 

Ideally, one is able to switch aptly between them depending on the task. But might  those who are spatially challenged struggle with this? And might it lend a sense of insecurity?

​Stay tuned for the next post(s) – we’ll bring this together into a model that will hopefully lend some credence to, and ways to help, those who aren’t comfortable in their own bodies. 

Key Takeaways

  1. Rigid, compulsive movers likely perceive themselves and thus the world differently.
  2. We use our senses to construct a spatial framework of ourselves.
  3. It is likely thru this bodily representation that we view the environment around us – a projection of our own embodiment.

​- Seth

*Many of these folks probably need a psychotherapist in addition, so find a good one!

Dig Deeper

Want to read more on this topic? Here are a few resources:

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