Another way to be expressive is to show others your feelings. We can give ourselves permission to say vulnerable things about what is happening in our hearts, but we can also learn to show more nonverbally. We inhibit 80% of our body impulses! Imagine how much more we’d know about ourselves and others if we weren’t so defended. A lot of what affects our relationships has to do with what is happening or not happening on our faces, unconsciously. We can practice in the mirror or with others allowing our faces to be more open, receptive, expressive of what is happening inside. Some of the women I work with are longing for connection but have blank faces that don’t invite it. Open and vibrant expressions become even more important in parenting because the children look to your face to know if it is safe and if they are adored.
If you are not sure what to say or how to begin to let people into your inner workings more, think about letting people into your process. When I work with people in group, their job is to say what they are feeling to each other. They will tell me, “Well, I didn’t know if I should tell that person I felt angry or how to say it without hurting him, so I decided not to say it.” Letting someone in to the process, would mean saying just that: “I’m having a feeling of anger but I’m scared to say it because I’m also really not wanting to hurt you and I don’t know how to put it into words.” Often we have the ingredients but we don’t offer anything unless we have already baked the cake. We don’t always have to give a perfectly baked cake—while tasty, it doesn’t leave space for another person to get involved and feel important. Instead of offering someone a cake, tell them you have eggs, flour, and sugar. They can then help with the baking or even have some ingredients to add that will influence what you make. They’ll feel closer to you just knowing more about you and what you are thinking about.
Okay, let’s talk about exhibitionism. Why are we so afraid of that as women? For many people our exhibitionism gets shut down in childhood. We come through the kitchen pretending we are part of a band playing our drums full volume, smiling ear to ear, “Dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun…” Someone yells at us to be quiet or keep it down. Our hearts sink. We want to be big, we want to get attention, we want to have fun and express to joy and creativity inside. Isn’t there room for that on this earth? I’d say there is not only room, but it is desperately needed. Love seems to be getting stagnated with our rigidity and lack of playfulness. Cheesiness is a concept we use to shut ourselves and others down. Maybe things feel cheesy if the intimacy or vulnerability of it scares us or makes us uncomfortable. I’d encourage you to push the boundaries on that and let yourself open to the discomfort whenever you feel something is cheesy or makes you squirm. Play and silliness decreases anxiety and boosts immune system function. I remember working at the University of Texas Counseling Center and being stressed with seeing so many clients and the seriousness of their concerns. Sometimes if I was in the elevator alone I would do silly dances and make funny faces to loosen up and relax and restore my nervous system. It worked. I would walk out of the elevator with a smile feeling a bit refreshed.
Many of the women I work with in group therapy stop themselves from opening up, or in the middle of opening up about something, because they are scared of looking like they are just trying to get attention. Many hold back exuberance because they fear being seen as insincere or they are embarrassed to change. As with the baking analogy, they need to just express that they are afraid of seeming insincere but are really speaking from their heart. About attention-seeking, though, I always say that if they aren’t seeking attention, that’s sad! Why not seek attention? We all need attention desperately and there is nothing wrong with putting ourselves out there to get it! If we suppress our need for it, then we might end up trying to get it in ways that harm us—lots of sexual partners or striving indefinitely to be the very best, etc.
Expressiveness involves softening defenses to be your real self instead of your protective false self. You are not in your childhood situation where you needed those defenses any more. If you have recreated your childhood and you still need those defenses in the life that you have set up, you might consider changing your life. Losing your real, expressive self is not worth sacrificing to maintain the status quo. You want to surround yourself with people who will feel closer to you, appreciate you, and be able to care for you when they are with your vibrant, expressive, true self. Anxiety is a defense. If you are able to access the primary feeling under the anxiety then the anxiety often resolves itself effortlessly. I hold anxiety as a cue that we need to open and feel more. Depression can be a defense against anger—anger shut down or turned inward on yourself. It is a draining of life energy instead of the invigorating feeling of allowing anger to move freely in your body.
Feelings that are defended against wreak havoc on the body in so many ways. When I taught at the University of Iowa, I had a student with diabetes who was going blind over the course of the semester. As the semester progressed, he began using a cane and was learning a whole new way of functioning. He was a great sport about it, but told me he was having severe digestive problems that none of the doctors could figure out and was scheduled for surgery. As you might imagine, the mysterious digestive issues he was encountering were due to repressed grief over losing his vision. A friend of his tragically died and my student reported crying straight for almost two weeks. After that his digestion returned to normal. One way to start letting out feelings and being more expressive to heal your psyche and body is through journaling. James Pennebaker, also at The University of Texas, has studied the beneficial health effects of journaling and found enormous positive outcomes by writing about an emotional event or situation for a short time for just a handful of days. The self-disclosure of truly honest writing or speaking creates not only psychological healing but physical changes such as lowered blood pressure, better immune system functioning, etc. Dr. Pennebaker recommends destroying what you write immediately after you write it so that no one, including your future self, will ever read it again. We can’t help filtering what we say if we know it will be seen by others or our future self. True, honest, raw expression is necessary in healing.
One fun and easy way to look at defenses that may help you identify your tendencies, is to look at four instinctual patterns we received from our animal ancestors: fight, flight, freeze, and friendly. When there is a threat we might respond with energy to our large muscles and away from our brain and digestive system so that we can have all our strength to attack or run away from a predator. Those are fight and flight. Today our threats are often not something that needs fighting with or running from, so we are stuck with useless adrenaline and sympathetic nervous system activation felt as anxiety. A less-known way that animals defend themselves in the freeze response—think of a bunny or a deer. They blend in by becoming still. Many women do the same—learn to be invisible and almost disappear through not speaking up and erasing themselves from any situation. Sometimes they are forgotten even when they are sitting right there with everyone else. It works, but the shallow breathing and general frozenness can cause digestive issues, irritable bowel syndrome and other problems.
In terms of an example of being frozen, when thinking about making this program I vacillated between excitement to share from my heart and create something, and fear of not being able to do it. I had my first time away from the kids for more than one night when they were 4 and 7, and took off for a trip to Costa Rica. At the back of my mind I was hoping to finally record some videos to talk to you about loving yourself. I packed lightly and filled the other half of my small suitcase with a giant microphone. Once in Costa Rica I only brought out the microphone and tried to record once and I was completely tongue-tied. I couldn’t say more than one sentence without turning off the recorder. That is the freeze response. I couldn’t even think straight! And, on the way home after recording nothing, the metal in my suitcase caused it to be searched in customs and they took all the beautiful shells I had collected throughout the trip and dumped them (because apparently you aren’t allowed to bring things like that back to the US). Defeat! Good thing this program isn’t on being perfect or I would have had to give up right then!
So we have fight, flight, and freeze. A final defense category is “friendly.” Apes evolved to grimace at each other (it looks like a smile) to quickly communicate that they wouldn’t hurt each other. You might know people who not only smile to keep others away, but also talk non-stop to protect themselves instead of to let people in. You can feel a sense of not knowing the person and almost being repelled by their words. My mentor, Andrea Olsen, told a story about a man with a top hat following her to her apartment in New York City when she was in her twenties and putting his foot in the door as she tried to quickly sneak in the door to escape. She couldn’t run. He was bigger than her so fighting probably wouldn’t have worked. She couldn’t hide. She talked his ear off. It was instinctive. She remembers saying: “It is because of people like you that people like me have to be scared.” She talked nonstop and created a wall. He eventually went away. Defenses are great to have in situations like those where we need them, but extremely problematic in our daily lives. As you gently notice and eventually soften your defenses it might be necessary to repair with yourself for how locked up you have kept her. She might need to hear that you want to know her and that you are sorry you pushed her aside and took away her voice. You can also care about the part of you that did this—she was trying to protect you. The whole system can be held in love as you repair it and invite your true self to the table.
We disown our sensual and feminine essence to conform and replace it with a trip to victoria secret or trying to lose weight. In fact our root chakra is our generator and if we shut it down we try to do things from our adrenals and we get stressed and burnt out. We are women. We need to generate from our sensuality, and open ourselves all the way through our bodies. One of my mentors, Dr. Deb Kern says that if you want to be sexy, as well as full of energy to create beautiful things in the world, you have to learn to turn yourself on—like a light—through love. Let that energy from your pelvis, connected to the earth, feed you and give you power. It is your right to believe you are worthy and enjoy your life and your body.