What are we saying when we say to a friend, ”you’re not yourself today”? What’s the missing ingredient when the physical appearance, the arrangement of features, the proportions of body parts, all the things machines are programmed to recognize, haven’t changed, but the most essential element, the thing that makes people themselves, seems to be absent?
Alfred Adler once wrote, “Watch only movement” in advising psychiatrists about how to understand their clients. What people say may be the expression of their ideal of themselves and not consistent with their behavior. He emphasized that their actions contained the key to their troubles; the way they present themselves and respond to events reveals their expectations about how they’ll be received by life. It shows in personal gestures and patterns of day to day living (Adler coined the word “lifestyle”).
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Action is character” reminding us that the key to personality is in behavior. We reveal ourselves in motion. Who we are has more to do with the attitude that coordinates our response to the world than what we look like.
I was fascinated when I read that Jung said he didn’t need to know about his clients’ past, he could see it all in the first ten minutes of their meeting. The particulars were far less important than the response patterns and body language that revealed the nature of their fears and defenses. If this is what one fears and defends against, this reveals the dynamics of early life, where there were very real fears and situations where the individual psyche of the client needed defending.
Setting an example is offering a behavioral pattern in motion. It reflects the underlying attitude toward experience. When we’re growing up, we mimic the example of others to learn the behavioral norms, and in assuming the actions, adopt the underlying attitude.
The attitude is the foundation of body language, organizing the posture and pace of movement. The success of bodywork for psychological issues is likely due to the different feelings that accompany new body positions. The head sinking between the shoulders is self protective, like a turtle retreating into the shell. Straighten the body and the attitude shifts accordingly. The I Ching states, ”With the back straight the ego ceases to function”, suggesting that our particular crookedness is the result of the individual life experience that shapes the personal ego.
When people talk about role models, they’re referring to modes of behavior, ways of living they want to emulate. The very first insight that pulled me into the I Ching was that being a “superior person” depended on the parts of oneself one chooses to cultivate, we all have superior and inferior parts and what rules our time is up to us. In the worst and best of circumstances we have a choice about the attitude with which we approach it.
Today there are workshops that teach people the best ways to influence others by mirroring their body language. Politicians learn to control their facial expressions. What they can’t control is the way their faces get from one expression to another, what Paul Ekman called “microexpressions”. We may not see them consciously, but unconsciously we’re aware of the contradiction. When we distrust people, we sense the inconsistency in their actions. When we admire, we feel the harmony. What we call “charisma” may be connected to the wholeness in an individual’s expressive movement.
Our mirror neurons mimic the motion we see, and that internal pattern of neural firing enables us to feel the meaning of those gestures. A student once said she could recognize me from a distance because of the way I walked. If a person isn’t moving in their normal way we know that something’s not right. The attitude toward being we’ve come to know is missing. The dance of gesture reflecting a personal stance toward life may be the essential element in recognition.