Content Note: brief child rape example.
Have you held a small child recently? Supported by trusted arms, small children rest with their whole weight, warmly present and relaxed. Over time, many of us lose the ability to relax into support, some gradually, some violently.
When a rapist commands, “Relax!” the assaulted child understands the message. For survival, don’t fight. Don’t resist. Go limp. Be silent. The immense energy mobilized for fight or flight is suppressed into surrender. The body’s urgent signals of violation and pain are silenced through dissociation.
After a rape, life goes on. Muscle tension holds secret pain and memories at bay. When told to relax, the child dissociates into limp blankness, or looks around to see how others perform relaxation. The deep belief, “I’m wrong, I’m bad,” interrupts natural responses.
Now grown, the adult survivor struggles to find a new meaning for “relax.” When receiving bodywork, relaxation is supposedly easy and enjoyable, but brings strong emotions and flashbacks instead. Relaxation in social situations is equally puzzling. “Be yourself” is easier without complex secrets to keep or reveal.
Even without assault, a command to “Relax!” is a boundary violation and a red flag. Our internal state is not subject to other people’s demands.
Relaxing is not work
Many bodywork clients work hard to relax, and feel embarrassed or defensive when their arm resists being moved by a practitioner. While bodywork is often relaxing, clients are not required to relax. Forced limpness gets in the way of allowing genuine presence, calmness, and lengthened muscles.
If you find yourself working to relax, bring kind attention to your experience of tension. How does your body interact with the surface supporting you? Are some parts less relaxed than others? How would you describe your sensations? A part might feel braced, withdrawn, defiant, angry, or frightened. Gently inquire, and allow words or images to float into awareness.
Ongoing tension can be a signal that something feels uncomfortable or unsafe. Check in with your boundaries. What needs to change to feel safe?
During bodywork, perhaps you want to keep more clothes on, or avoid touch on your feet, or turn off distracting music. Tracking and expressing your boundaries is an important part of healing. When boundaries are heard and respected, it becomes easier to relax.
We associate relaxation with safety, trust, and comfort. We breathe a sigh of relief in environments where we feel fully welcome, accepted, and safe from attack.
Remember (or imagine) a time when you felt at ease. Notice your surroundings, and who else is there, if anyone. How does your body feel as you visualize this scene? You might notice warmth, pleasant heaviness in your limbs, a gentle smile, a deeper breath. If you dissociate to relax, you might notice numbness, blankness, or quickly get distracted.
Many people find it difficult to relax without alcohol or other numbing agents. Anxiety, hypervigilance, or chronic pain can make relaxation feel impossibly distant. Allowing relaxation is a skill that improves with practice.
Not only do we need a trustworthy environment to let down our guard, we need to trust ourselves as well. When we believe there is something wrong with us, we maintain control instead of relaxing. We do not need to try harder, accomplish more, or become better people to deserve relaxation.
Healing can appear to be a difficult, active process to become someone else. While learning new coping skills takes work, much of healing is letting go of all the “shoulds” and relaxing into who we already are.
Internal safe space
Our fierce battles to fix “bad” emotions, memories, and characteristics lock unwanted aspects in place. When we can make room for all aspects of ourselves during internal conflicts, we create a safe space that allows relaxation, movement and change.
We can begin the process with patient listening to the judgmental parts of us who are trying so hard to be “good.” Each part gets to be the way it is right now, including the parts that are frustrated with the way things are, until a shift arises organically.
Relaxation is more subtle than we expect. It has always been there underneath loud tension, quietly awaiting our welcome. Relaxation is surrender, not to someone else, but to our present truth. We release the intense striving to fix what was never broken, return to our first home, the body, after too long away, and rest.
Inner Health Studio offers a variety of relaxing scripts and information, including tips for allowing relaxation.