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Befriending and Re-Wiring our Plastic, Fantastic Nervous Systems

Jan 11 Written By Sarah Aborn

Richard Strozzi Heckler, a pioneer in the field of embodied leadership, teaches that humans have three basic needs: safety, belonging (or connection), and dignity (or a sense of significance). These qualities correspond physically through the ways in which we inhabit our depth, width, and length, respectively.

When one or more of these basic needs is compromised, we will adapt our bodies as an attempt to procure those qualities.

If we grew up in a threatening environment where our safety felt compromised, we will likely see this show up in the dimension of our depth. Growing up in an unsafe environment will kick on (and keep on) our Sympathetic Nervous System response - often referred to as fight/flight/fawn. We might respond to this lack of safety by holding back in fear - think caving in at the chest for protection, or situating yourself towards the back of the room or disappearing behind the crowd. Or, the opposite - we might handle lack of safety by protruding forward in some way to establish dominance or begin appeasing, or leave the situation altogether. This often shows up as the head sticking out in front of the body either looking for a fight or an escape route, or ready to start explaining or fawning, if you have learned that this is your best defense tactic. The way we respond just depends on how our personality has developed.

If we lack a sense of belonging, it may show up in the width of our bodies as a narrowing in our shoulders or hips as a way to take up less space... space that we feel we aren't worthy of, or we might just feel a slight numbness in our sides. Or, perhaps we will overcompensate by getting as wide as possible.

And if we felt unimportant in our formative years, it is likely that this will be reflected in our length - either we shrink down or stretch up, depending on our personality type. Take a moment now to sit or stand in a natural way. Give yourself a few deep breaths as you notice how you are landing in these three dimensions of depth, width, and length.

These postures, or conditioned tendencies, that our systems have adopted since childhood have been seeking to protect us and/or get our needs met, and are based on our beliefs about ourselves and the world. These embodied beliefs become hard-wired throughout our nervous systems, innervating our muscular systems, skeletal systems, endocrine, cardiovascular, respiratory, etc., which all send messages back to the brain. This can create a negative feedback loop in terms of how safe our bodies are making our brains feel and vice versa. Thanks to neuroplasticity (which got us to these hard-wired positions in the first place), we still have the ability to re-structure how we show up to the world in our bodies and being, catalyzing enormous potential for foundational healing and soul evolution.

Neurons that are used frequently develop stronger connections while those that are rarely or never used eventually die away. We can do some incredible pruning of our neural networks by way of the body, to intentionally affect this primal circuitry. The way to approach our hard-wired survival strategies (that have actually worked, by the way) we must begin with unconditional self-love and acceptance. If we go into it seeing ourselves as broken and in need of changing, our ego/sense of identity will skillfully resist, as the ego’s very existence depends upon our belief systems remaining at status quo.

From this place of acceptance, we can then lovingly invite our bodies and breath towards our center. The more we practice these moves, the more we develop muscle memory around this updated, embodied consciousness. Once our muscle memory is shifted, it becomes our default response to stressful, triggering situations.

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