As a therapist, people frequently come to me for help with codependency. They feel as though they are living their lives primarily in reaction to others’ behaviors, feelings, and needs. They complain of depression. They find it difficult to know their own wants and preferences. They don’t know what makes them happy. They feel empty inside.
This pattern of overly focusing on others, without being able to feel a reliable sense of inner wellbeing and self-care, often dates back to early childhood. Perhaps it was learned as an adaptive way of coping with an ill, needy, dramatic, or abusive family member. In adulthood, it can lead to one-sided, enmeshed, unhappy relationships, along with a lack of self-trust, and a sense that one is neglecting their health, passions, and dreams.
These folks often feel ashamed of themselves, too, for being “overly sensitive,” emotionally volatile, and reactive. They have internalized a negative self-image as someone who has no center, self-esteem or self-control. It’s scary to not be able to trust themselves, always feeling like the slightest let-down could ruin their mood for an entire day.
It is challenging, but possible, to change these deep-seated compulsions. To stop putting others first at your own expense; to instead center yourself with a sense of inner equilibrium, and proactively attend to maintaining that wellbeing through attuned self-care. To bend, but not break. To flow, but not flood. To gain confidence that you can move through a world in which other people will continue to push and pull this way and that, without allowing them to knock you down. To progress toward your goals at a sustainable pace, with core strength, balance, and agility.
Physical core strength helps prevent injuries; psychological core strength helps prevent mental wounds. Physical core strength is about far more than the abdominal muscles that come to mind when we think of a bodybuilder’s six-pack. Core strength is about balance and coordination. It involves many smaller muscles that connect the upper and lower body.
In Pilates, one of the best approaches to core strength training, exercises frequently involve simultaneously moving upper and lower body parts in various ways while maintaining a certain alignment in the hips, abdomen, and shoulders. In other words, it’s often not the core itself that visibly moves; rather, the core learns to hold itself in place while everything else moves around it. The core helps you keep it together.
Core strength is an important element of agility, which is perhaps my favorite of all fitness-related words. I love the word agility because it beautifully sums up the practical result of well-rounded fitness. An agile person is not easily winded, so she is in good cardiovascular health. She has quick reflexes. Her movements are fluid, responsive, adaptive and graceful. She has a good active range of motion, in which strength and flexibility work together harmoniously to allow for a wide variety of shapes and movements without injury. She is well-coordinated.
Her agility serves her in whatever her passions may be, whether ballet or hockey, and in whatever responsibilities she holds, whether running after a toddler or remodeling a staircase. Most importantly, the well-rounded fitness that comprises agility allows her to trust her body to move through the world capably, without unnecessary fear or hesitation. An agile person is a truly capable, confident adult.
We all need that, don’t we? Take away any one aspect of agility and you lose a bit of functionality in life. Then you compensate in some other way, and that has repercussions. This is where injuries, tensions, pains, impairments, and limitations develop. I am talking mind and body here. These statements are equally true whether we are describing a physical or a psychological phenomena.
If you struggle with feeling easily thrown off-center, you might want to check your core strength and balance. Feel into your body, both as a real somatic experience, and also as a metaphor for your psyche. Can you stand on one foot? Feel into what helps you to do so. Perhaps it’s finding a certain stance, steadying your gaze, regulating your breath, pressing down through the ball of your foot, lifting up through your arches, shifting your hip this way or that, making micro-adjustments to the alignment of your lower leg, lengthening your torso, or straightening your head posture.
Now, can you allow yourself to wobble a bit, and come back to center? Can you bend this way and that without falling over? What happens if you ask a friend to gently push on you?
Notice how attending to all of these brings you into the present moment: an immediate mindfulness boost, drawing you out of the ruminative thought processes of the Default Mode Network into the alert awareness of the Task Positive Network. Making this kind of shift consistently over time can alleviate anxiety and depression.
If you are not in the habit of cultivating fitness, you may be chagrined to notice how difficult these seemingly simple experiments feel. If that bothers you, try doing some core strengthening and balancing exercises for a few days, and notice how that feels in your body. Observe the connections between core strength and balance, how each affects the other, how they work together.
Grounding also plays an important role; balance begins with the alignment of the feet on the earth. From there, it works its way up through the ankles and legs, to the hips, abdomen, torso, shoulders, neck, and head. In the center, the core holds it all together, allowing these parts to coordinate with graceful integrity, effectively and efficiently, toward one’s desired aims.
As you become agile, you become competent at moving through the world. Competence is a key element of genuine confidence. Opportunities open up as you know that you can trust yourself to interact with whatever situations arise in ways that support your overall wellbeing and aims.
You have found your center, the strength that supports it, and the limberness to adapt around it without swaying too far. You are ready for the world.