Where does “Self” come from

In my practice as a Feldenkrais Practitioner®, I see people change. They change in their movements. They change in their bodies. They change in their relationships to their bodies. Some people embrace this change with open arms. Some proceed more cautiously, but with optimism, hope or determination. Others hit the panic button. For those who panic when they sense change in their bodies, a similar sentiment is expressed: “I just don’t feel like myself.”

So what is this sense of “self” and where does it come from? It can’t be coming from an analytical framework, or someone wouldn’t be reacting to merely moving differently. Other than a brief initial discussion of any relevant injuries or medical diagnoses, I don’t ask clients for their stories. I don’t ask them to talk about their childhood or their “identity” or how they (or others) label themselves. I’m not a psychotherapist. They don’t see me in order to make meaning of their lives or to analyze their life story or interpersonal relationships. Yet the very physical, non-story, non-“identity” work we do somehow reaches deep enough into their core to threaten their very sense of Self. If “self” is not just their story, then what IS it?

During childhood, we learn about the world through sensation. From the moment a child is born, he learns about the outside world via the senses of sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. But even in the womb, before birth, he is learning about his inside world through the sense of proprioception. Proprioception (PRO-pree-oh-Sep-shun) comes from the Latin proprios, meaning “one’s own,” and percipere, meaning to “seize, understand.” So it refers to self-perception, or “understanding one’s self.” Proprioception sends us information about our internal state, such as joint angle, muscle length, and muscular tension. This collective information tells us where our body is in space, and where our limbs are relative to each other.

Proprioception is at the core of our internal sense of “Self.” From infancy, proprioception is what allows us to sense—in a visceral way—who we are, and how we relate to the outside world. As we learn to distinguish between these subtle physical sensations, we learn where “I” ends and “another” begins. We also learn to sense in our bodies whether we are tired, excited, scared, hungry or peaceful.

To learn more about ourselves and our environment, experimentation is required. What happens if I move my arm this way? Can I reach the ball, or do I lose my balance and fall over? What happens if I cry? Will Mom come and help me? How do I make sure my cry gets Mom’s attention? What’s the best volume? What’s the best pitch? Which does she respond to? How do I reproduce the successful version? 

All of these experimentations, however simple, require action. Action requires movement. It is through a long process of movement experiments that we come to learn which outcomes serve us best.

Successful experiments are repeated until the patterns become strong. The more a baby repeats a movement pattern, the stronger that pattern becomes. Over the course of her life, she grows into a toddler, goes to school, becomes a teenager, graduates into adulthood…along the way, the patterns that had been successful throughout childhood get repeated until they’re so deeply ingrained that she doesn’t even sense them anymore. They’ve become part of her self.

This brings us back to the dilemma of changing one’s movements. During Feldenkrais® sessions, we change movement patterns. Since these patterns have been the result of years of experimentation and repetition, they’ve become central to our sense of “self.” They literally embody the very essence of who we feel we are, and give us a visceral sense of continuity throughout our lives. By shifting how someone moves, we’re also shifting how they sense themselves.

To some people, this shift feels more like an earthquake. And it’s no wonder. To change a pattern in one’s movements is to shake the very foundation of one’s bodily feeling of “self.” In the face of such core-shaking changes, some panic. It’s scary. It feels threatening. Because if they’re not themself, who are they?

Young children never panic. It takes many years of relentless repetition for the movement patterns to become a firm sense of “self.” And it’s not until adolescence that they begin to have cognitive constructs about their Identity, and assign any meaning to those constructs. Young children are still very malleable—their sense of self is not yet established, so they’re open to any new experiment that points them to a more pleasant or usefulway of doing or being. They’re more open to change.

For adults, change can be frightening. As adults, we have decades of investment in our Self. We’ve perfected our movement patterns to the point of unconscious action. And we’ve attached mental constructs and meaning to the world around us, and to our Selves. All of these factors make it harder to shift, and more threatening to change.

Deep under our adult mental constructs, our “self” has very physical roots. Our earliest sensation and movements began in the womb. During infancy we developed patterns of movement that supported our survival. During childhood, adolescence, and adulthood we perfected those patterns, adding to them as new survival needs arose. Long before we had mental concepts for our Self—or even had the use of language—our visceral sense of Self was developing through experimentation and repetition. If we address only the mental constructs, we leave half of the work unfinished.

But if we persist through the fear or apprehension, we can change not just our mental ideas of ourselves, but also our internal, visceral sense of “self.” Like young children who are still eager and open to change, we too can learn to shift our ingrained sense of Self, and to embrace any new experiment that points us to a more pleasant or useful way of being.