"If you keep doing that your face will get stuck like that."
body language and Character Armor
As a body shapes around a persona, the ability to move in uncharacteristic ways gets harder and harder. The muscle tension, fascial density, scar tissue and neurological habits that keep your body language consistent with your persona can be called character armor.
Unfortunately, anytime normal physiological movement gets restricted, the loss of movement puts strain on the body. Either the part that is held still gets tight, or the part that has to move extra to compensate for the stillness gets overworked, or the edge between the still and the moving parts gets worn down. All of these can cause pain and 'age appropriate' joint deterioration* as well as make injury more likely.
What's tricky about character armor is that it usually doesn't change with a purely physical intervention. Even if the fascial restrictions are released, the scar tissue mobilized, the sleepy muscles activated, and the possibilities for freedom of movement are restored, people will often still fall back into the old postural and movement patterns that created the pain they're trying to escape. If the posture or movement that would make your body feel and work better threatens your persona, you're most likely going to resort to your old habits. Here are a few real-life examples from my clients:
- An intelligent, articulate woman was consistently talked over and underestimated at her job. She also had jaw and neck pain, partially because she tucked her chin and kept her head hanging down. Even though she was several inches taller than me, she looked at me through the top of her eyes, literally looking up to me. When I helped her to balance her head over her spine and look through the center of her eyes, she said she felt arrogant.
- An athletic, stereotypically masculine man had back pain and sciatica, partially due to his hips staying frozen as he walked. When I helped him to find a fraction of normal pelvic movement he said he felt effeminate.
- Many women come to my office knowing that part of their chronic pain and tension of the upper back, shoulders and neck come from the habits they developed as teenagers to cope with ongoing sexual harassment. Even now, when they stopped rounding their shoulders and sinking their chests they felt like they were inviting sexual attention by presenting their breasts.
- A considerate, thoughtful man had back and neck pain partially caused by his sunken chest. When I helped him lift and open his chest enough to get to a neutral posture, he said he felt like the bullies in his high school who would puff up their chests and swagger.
- A deeply religious woman had low back and pelvic floor pain partially caused by her constant tail-tucking and immobilizing of her pelvis. When she started to allow normal pelvic movement in walking, she was shocked by how sexual it felt.
- A tall woman had upper back pain partially due to the way she rounded her shoulders and let her head hang down. When I helped her to balance her head over her spine and rest her shoulders gently on her ribs, she talked about how she had grown up trying to be smaller than she was. An upright posture felt too big and vulnerable.
- An easy-going woman who didn't mind being labeled a hippie had ongoing foot and ankle pain. Her laid-back attitude fit well with her habit of leaning back so much that all her weight rested into her heels. She noticed that her feet immediately felt better when she allowed her weight to come forward until she was balanced evenly on the fronts and backs of her feet. But she couldn't stay in that position for long because she felt pushy.
- An outgoing, friendly classmate of mine in Advanced Rolfing Training had back pain partially caused by her habit of leaning slightly forward with her chest. When she softened back to a neutral posture, she spent the next 24 hours grieving what felt like the loss of the warm, open-hearted aspects of her personality.
Freedom, personal growth, play
Through your tensions and lack thereof, your movements and your patterns of perception, you are demonstrating both your current mood and your personality. You are presenting yourself as humble or confident, as laid-back or a go-getter, as your preferred expression of gender and sexuality and social role. If this expression is causing you pain, is it worth it?
If you want to change a pattern that causes pain in your body, your emotions or your relationships, what do you do? Taking an acting class, playing pretend with your kids, talking to a psychotherapist, and getting bodywork might have more in common than you think.
* Age appropriate joint deterioration is a diagnosis frequently given to people as young as in their 40s experiencing pain. Just because it's normal for people to wear out their joints doesn't mean it's an inevitable part of aging. If you never rotated the tires on your car, they would wear out much faster. If your mechanic didn't know that it was possible to rotate tires, they would tell you that it's normal for your tires to wear rapidly and unevenly. You could think of your joints as tires and your Rolfer as a mechanic who does know how and when to rotate them so as to protect your investment and keep you driving safely.