Exploring Attitude Through the Body, Continued: In-Holding

A woman places her hand on her mouth, as if to keep her emotions hidden. So far this series has explored how the body-mind reacts to situations in early life where there is stress from external tension or inconsistent care. But what happens when care is forthcoming to the point where a growing child feels stifled? Let’s conjure up a scenario to explore this.

Imagine a child who is oohed and ahh-ed over. This is a good thing right? Right, but the saying “everything in moderation” has merit, even here. When a baby is fondled and oohed and ahh-ed over, it is meant as encouragement and an exchange of joy—this is essential for healthy development. But, for some babies over time and in certain situations, they end up learning the precise responses that make the ood-lers coo. That too is fine, up to a point. Sometimes the caregiver gets so much pleasure out of baby’s responses, that the interaction becomes about making the caregiver happy, instead of the caregiver enjoying and getting to know who the baby is. The caregiver may even, inadvertently, communicate dissatisfaction if the baby’s responses don’t meet their expectations.

After a while, the baby begins to learn it is his job to please the adult. He smiles and responds in certain ways that make him look smart and coordinated, so that mother can feel proud and important. This parent derives an unbalanced amount of pleasure over the child’s performance, feeling it reflects on them, and comes to expect it, not because the baby is happy, but for her own comfort and happiness. This baby can develop habitual patterns geared toward pleasing someone outside of himself, rather than balancing information from outside with messages from within. This may cause the baby to lose contact with his own impulse and life flow.

Sometimes even a child’s feeding time can be for the pleasure, and on the schedule of, the caregiver. Imagine what it is like to be fed when you aren’t hungry, the spoonful of food comes looming toward your face. One needs to be able to turn their head away and keep their lips closed if their stomach isn’t giving receptive signals. But, if we have already learned that it is important to please the caregiver, or that it is futile to resist, we submit. In this situation, we lose access to our own innate needs and wants, and learn to “follow” rather than to “be” in a way that is harmonious with oneself. When a caretaker is dominant, and in this scenario they can also be overly sacrificing, the child feels obliged to her to the point that the child loses contact with their own needs and desires.

Rebellion, however mild, has an important role in one’s path to grounded independence. The baby whose job it is to generate “oohs” and “ahhs” for the happiness of another, learns from the beginning to not express his “WAHs,” his “guffaghs.” Our current subject has been given to, their system is charged, and there is a lot of energy there. But, when sensing the disapproval from the other, he stops the expression of his energy by holding in, he does this in order to please, which, in baby-speak, is to survive. My teachers were fond of saying “whenever there is an obligation, there can be no love.” This situation is riddled with obligation.

Holding in emotional expression develops strong muscles in the young body. Because muscle control and coordination isn’t fully developed before 18-24 months of age, the baby begins to experience anxiety and fear around the impulses that arise from his own body. This can be sound—joy or complaint—or even physical elimination, since the baby cannot differentiate sound from the mouth versus poop from the anus. It can be the impulse to run, or reach out, or to push away, to sing, to complain, or to disagree. He learns to close the doors of the body as best as possible. The way to “hold-in” is through pinching the anus and tilting the pelvis forward from below creating a flat buttocks, this also compromises the diaphragm; also lowering the head to close the throat and rolling down the shoulders to “buckle down.” Take this posture and see if it feels familiar to you.

After a child has achieved mobility, between the ages of 2-4, his/her job is to explore the world and practice his independence through self-assertion (remember those “terrible twos?” This is when they try out having their own opinions of things, and then see if their ego can support it). But the child with the pattern of in-holding may have difficulty doing this, his environment doesn’t supply the necessary freedom for him/her to explore. There may be a lot of incoming energy from his/her environment that, while not confrontational or degrading, contains the subtle message that “I exist for you (parent).” This can go a long way in creating muscular and emotional responses that lead to enduring life patterns. In not protesting, this child gives up their freedom for closeness with the caregiver which is self-defeating.

During puberty the child may experience shame, which is made worse from difficult family situations that many of us face, like divorce or peer pressure. The father may be preoccupied or absent in this family constellation which exacerbates mother’s focus on the child to meet her emotional needs. Of course this scenario can have many different details or levels of intensity in different families. To some extent, in their teens, children from this family style might become good followers and loyal friends; they may have an easy time fitting in, since they do not assert themselves; they may have problems with older siblings overpowering them, but they do not like confrontation, so this isn’t dealt with. If we have this pattern we may be overly submissive and very long-suffering; we can endure much. We don’t often give others honest feedback or assert ourselves. We do not express our own needs. This is a person who suffers from anxiety and a self-defeating sense of inadequacy.

When I am with people with the in-holding pattern, I sometimes think of Eeyore in the Winnie the Pooh books. They might have a dense-heavy muscle structure and might suffer from intestinal problems. Their charge, their impulses, and their expressions are held-in. You wouldn’t notice it, because it’s so deep in the system, but it ends up being turned against the person who holds it in.

This is where the sense of inadequacy and the self-effacing attitude comes from. In order to heal, we must open the physical system and, over time, create an environment where the person can tolerate their natural responses to life, make contact with themselves, and begin to find pleasure in the flow of energy moving through the body. We can learn to do this without fear or anxiety. Through relaxing and reshaping the physical holding patterns, a person can learn to accept and express their own feelings. Although this may feel risky, like an act of rebellion at first, with much care, the person with the in-holding pattern can learn to trust and share their deeper self. With proper support he/she can learn to reconnect with their own joie de vivre, their exuberance, joy of living, love of life.

© Copyright 2010 by Aylee Welch, LICSW, therapist in Seattle, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • hunt


    November 30th, 2010 at 12:19 PM

    it’s amazing how our mental state and body are related…almost as if every little thing composing us plays an indirect role on the other…!

  • margaret


    December 1st, 2010 at 12:50 PM

    although help is required by parents and family to a child doing so in excess is unnecessary and Kay in fact have negative consequences…

    there are phases in life where even the slightest mistake can have a huge impact and that is why it is so important to ensure the proper development of a child…

  • Aylee Welch, LICSW

    Aylee Welch, LICSW

    January 28th, 2011 at 9:38 AM

    It is true that our body and mental state are integral to one another and it helps us have more doors to find ways to feel beetter. I am not sure that the slightest mistake a parent might make will have such an impact though. There is always something to be gained from a parent undersatnding how his actions might affect a child and taking time to talk it through or help support the system to process the experience so it doesn’t stay trapped in the trauma. However, when certain behaviors are repeated over time the reaction patterns can build up in the child’s system. It then becomes a muscular armor that comes from using the muscles so much and is linked to beliefs, and an image that may still need correcting. I hope this makes sense!

  • Anonymous


    May 17th, 2013 at 7:22 PM

    So how do we work through this? And please don’t suggest regular exercise, that makes me feel even worse (yes, I said WORSE!). Could we work through this with yoga?
    You can’t just drop this problem without giving guidance on how ti change it.

  • Aylee Welch, LICSW

    Aylee Welch, LICSW

    May 19th, 2013 at 11:33 AM

    Thank you for your comment Anonymous. This article is part of a series of articles about the work I do. Included in the series is an article that articulates the need to address the issues on all levels: in the body, the mind, the emotions and behaviors. This article brings our attention to how we do what we do which is a big step toward healing. But it would be out of context and misleading (too simplistic) to give any interventions here. The article highlights the theory behind Core Energetics, so the clearest path would be to find a practitioner in your area to work with.

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