A friend comes to my home. She tells me that she is very mad, and her mouth forms a tense but full smile. Another conversation, the person tells me that he is feeling “good, real fine.” His eyes make no contact with mine, his brow is furrowed, his body appears stiff. At a party, a recent acquaintance says that she would like to get to know me better. Her arms and legs are crossed, and she is leaning away from me.

What’s happening here? I am aware that these bodies seem to be saying something very different from the words that I hear. An angry person who is smiling? I tend to think that smiles are reactions to pleasure, and a congruent angry face looks angry. I ask about this possible contradiction. She says that she “knows” that she is mad. How does she know? She gives herself a few moments and responds that her heart is beating fast, her breath is rapid and shallow, and her stomach and abdomen are constricted, her face feels flushed and tight. Her body is communicating “I am angry.” The smile? She says that she was not “allowed” to be angry as a child. Her parents rarely showed their anger and did not accept her displaying this emotion. “Don’t be angry.” “There’s no need to be mad.” “Don’t talk to me like that (with anger).” She learned to mask her anger with a smile, but the anger is still there. And the smile doesn’t fool her body.

The man says he is “good, real fine”; what is his body saying? His furrowed brow, stiff body, and distant (non-contacting) eyes seem to communicate that he does not feel good. When my body is rigid, when my eyes don’t connect with another person’s, I am usually feeling unreceptive, unrelaxed, and not fine. I feel my best when I am loose and receptive. What applies to me, though, may not apply to him. He may feel good when he appears tense and distant.

I ask the woman at the party if she really does want to know me better. Her closed body (crossed arms and legs) and positioning (leaning away) indicate that she does not, and I feel cut off from her. She says that she is ambivalent, wanting closeness but also afraid of rejection. I speculate that her body posture seems to be rejecting me. “Less risk involved if I reject at the same time that I extend myself,” she thinks aloud.

Our bodies communicate vast amounts of information to our conscious and unconscious minds, and to other people. We cannot hide our feelings, at least not from every part of ourselves. Our faces, eyes, body posture and position visibly indicate how we are feeling. Even if we have perfect control of our physical appearance, our bodies act when we feel. Heartbeat and breath rates change, muscles and skin contract or expand, organs secrete acids, hormones, and other fluids. Our metabolism changes in subtle and obvious ways when we experience emotions. We are whole organisms, and we act and re-act on many levels at once.

An easy way to verify this for yourself is:

Relax in a comfortable standing position, arms at sides, and eyes closed for a few minutes. Still standing with eyes closed, let yourself imagine the emotion of anger (to feel angry, you may need to remember a time when you were angry, or someone or something that you are angry at in the present). Be aware of the processes that are occurring in your body as you feel angry. Describe to yourself for a minute or two what’s happening. Let yourself feel other emotions, such as joy, grief, frustration, love. Go through this process again imagining these emotions without any body reactions. Finish by comparing and contrasting the different experiences.

Most of us have learned to hide our feelings from strangers, acquaintances, often from friends, family, and ourselves. We have learned to disguise our feelings so cleverly that we frequently act as if we are feeling the opposite of what we are really feeling. And our conscious minds no longer distinguish between what we feel and what we imagine we feel. We become confused, unhappy, fearful, alienated, neurotic. The grief and anger and hurt are internalized because, for many reasons, these feelings were/are considered undesirable and inappropriate. Instead of exploding into tears or sobs or shouting or pounding, we implode into headaches, ulcers, sickness, depression, terror. Instead of responding to our feelings, we surrender our response-ability with our fear of being ourselves, and our lives lose the fullness and richness that are possible.

In order to change these patterns that most of us have developed we need to tune into ourselves. As we become aware of how our bodies feel, we have the opportunity to respond (and thus finish our incomplete feelings). When tense we can loosen up by stretching or exercise. If we identify the tension as anger, we can act angry by shouting or hitting a pillow (emotions like anger can be released without beating someone up). If our feeling is sadness, we can cry, or, if tears are too difficult, we can sob and act as if we are crying (I went through the process of “pretend crying” for two years before I could respond to my hurt with tears). Since many of us learned to internalize our pain when we were young, we may still be carrying that childhood hurt and anger with us in the present. As we communicate more with ourselves, we become more able to locate the sources of our feelings and more fully experience them. With time and love, we are able to complete our past incompleteness and experience the present with wholeness, healthiness, and enjoyment.