Sensing the Self: A Dance/Movement Therapy Model of Embodied Identity Development
Watch my masters paper presentation!
Given to complete my degree in May 2020, this presentation outlines the main points of my research as well as the new model I created.
Plus it ends with a pretty sweet celebration dance party : )
Excerpts from the paper:
Identity is widely considered a pillar of the human developmental process. Its link to psychological well-being, adaptive traits, successful psychosocial functioning, and coping with stress (Hatano, Sugimura, & Crocetti, 2016; Schwartz et al., 2015; Berzonsky, 2003; Berzonsky, & Cieciuch, 2014; van Doeselaar, Becht, Klimstra, & Meeus, 2018; Marcotte, & Lévesque, 2018; Meeus, 1996; Thoits, 2013; Marcussen, Ritter, & Safron, 2004) makes issues of identity development of utmost importance to mental health counsellors.
Counselling literature primarily addresses identity from a cognitive perspective, and the field of dance/movement therapy (D/MT) has an important somatic perspective to contribute. D/MT centralises the body in its understanding of persons, and uses body sensation and movement as the primary means of developing self-awareness and self-knowledge (Levy, 2005). Though its systems of developmental movement are uniquely equipped for exploring developmental themes, D/MT lacks a model for the process of identity development. This article proposes a D/MT model for embodied identity development based on interoception and the developmental movement of Body-Mind Centering known as the Five Fundamental Actions (FFA) or The Satisfaction Cycle. Overlapping cycles of sensing and moving will be suggested as the main mechanisms of the identity development process. This model seeks to counter purely cognitive views of the self, and lay a foundation for dance/movement therapists’ clinical work with identity development.
This article reviews relevant concepts of identity development in counselling literature, as well as D/MT approaches to body identity, embodied self-awareness, and developmental movement. A comprehensive review of all theories of self and identity is outside of scope of this article. Since this model focuses on adult identity development, an in-depth review of infant development is not included. This theoretical model strives to inform the counselling process, but clinical application will not be emphasised.
Identity is defined as one’s subjective, experiential sense of self that develops over time. This term overlaps with but is more expansive than terms like self-knowledge and self-concept. Identity is an organizing experience that has qualities of coherence, continuity, history, agency, and affect, and integrates somatic, cognitive, and relational information and memories (Erikson, 1968; Marcia, 1966; Caldwell, 2016; Siegel, 2012a; Stern, 1985). Individuals hold both a conferred identity of which one “becomes progressively aware”, and a constructed identity formed through one’s choices about who they are or want to be (Marica, 1993, p.7). The terms identity, self, and sense of self will be used interchangeably in this article. Discussion of identity development pertaining to specific sociocultural locations (such as race, gender, or sexual orientation) is outside the scope of this article.
Dance/movement therapy approaches to identity: body identity
Developmental psychology recognizes the body and the lived sensory-emotional experience as the basis for infant development (e.g. Piaget, 1948), but tends to view adults as having ‘advanced’ into a cognitive realm (Caldwell, 2016, p.221). In contrast, somatic approaches posit that the ‘True Self’ lies not in the mind but within the tissues and workings of the body (Winnicott as cited in Fogel, 2009, p. 103). In the field of D/MT, Caldwell (2016) asserts that identity is a bodily phenomenon. Drawing from theories of narrative identity and body memory, Caldwell (2016) describes body identity as:
"our core identity out of which other identities are built. It is generated, preserved and enacted by the body, via our explicit and implicit relationship to sensation, movement and physiological processes, relationships, interactions and bodily awareness of emotions. Body identity occurs lifelong, and is changeable, multiple, non-verbal, relational, situational and social. Cognitive identity is constructed within the infrastructure of body identity." (p. 228)
Body identity is a present moment phenomenon of feeling and moving that results from both one’s physical form and lived experiences; experiences act as input and the body generates output in the form of narratives and movements. Ideally this creates a sense of coherency and well-being, resulting in ‘being able to think and act in ways that are aligned with what “feels” right in the heart and gut’ (Caldwell, 2016, p. 230). The mechanisms at play here can be broken down into two parts: interoceptive awareness and developmental movement sequences.
Interoceptive awareness as sense of self
Interoception, sensing the internal state and experience of the body, is an important form of self-awareness and self-knowledge (Damasio, 1999; Manos & Critchley, 2016). The understanding of body-awareness as inseparable from self-awareness is a common feature of mind-body therapies (Mehling et al., 2011). Fogel (2009) distinguishes between conceptual self-awareness, cognitively thinking about the self, and embodied self-awareness, feeling our present-moment sensations, emotions, and movements. Sensing the body constitutes ‘an implicit “knowing” about the self’s likes and dislikes, joys and pains, in relation to the world. It is a way of filtering the world into what is self-relevant and what is not’ (Fogel, 2009, p.20).
This link between sensory-emotional states and behaviour is embedded in the nervous system via the sensorimotor loop. Bodies are constantly taking in sensory information, both internal and external, that is then directly linked to a motor response (Cohen, 1993; Caldwell, 2014). Also called sensorimotor process, physical sensations and movement impulses constitute a ‘bottom-up’ type of information processing that ‘precede[s] thought and form[s] a foundation for the higher [cognitive] modes of processing’ (Ogden & Minton, 2000, p.153; Frank & LaBarre, 2011). Incoming sensory information is compared and interpreted with previous experiences before a motor response is enacted (Cohen, 1993, p.114). This action creates additional ‘sensory feedback, which provides information about what happened during the response and then our interpretation and feelings about what took place’ (Cohen, 1993, p.114). In this way, interoception is a key factor in creating coherence and alignment between one’s feelings and actions.
Developmental movement and The Five Fundamental Actions
While interoception enables sensing the self in the present moment, movement patterns provide a framework for actualizing the self out in the world. D/MT offers unique and in-depth perspectives on human development through the lens of developmental movement patterning. From birth through childhood, humans proceed through consistent stages of motor development that correspond with psychological development (Aposhyan, 1999; Hackney, 2002; Kestenberg Amighi, Loman, Lewis & Sossin, 1999). Action patterns from early life are ‘refined and reshaped’ over time and ‘play a significant role in organizing adult experiences’ (Frank & LaBarre, 2011, p.3).
Body-Mind Centering (BMC) uses developmental motor sequences to explore correlated phases of psychological development, and serves as the foundation of the model presented in this article. BMC specifically links exploration of the sensorimotor loop with one’s sense of self, and discusses the alignment of awareness and action (Cohen, 1993). As Bainbridge-Cohen describes, we come to ‘know ourselves’ through ‘shifting and alternating between the listening and expressing roles’ (Cohen, 1993, p.13).
The FFA, or Satisfaction Cycle, is a sequence of movements consisting of yielding, pushing, reaching, grasping and pulling, with each action building off the previous ones to create a fulfilling neurological cycle (Aposhyan, 1999; Brook, 2001). Embedded in these actions is one’s experience and understanding of self in environment.
To aid in understanding this cycle, imagine the way a baby reaches for a toy. The sequence begins with yielding, a state of ‘resting in contact’ with the environment from a place of safety, and trust (Aposhyan, 1999, p. 64-65). When an object of interest enters one’s awareness (like the toy), pushing begins mobilisation by raising the child up from the ground. When infants push, they become aware of their weight, presence, increasing capabilities, sense of inner support, and boundaries (Hartley, 1995; Aposhyan, 1999). This action is associated with differentiation, independence, confidence, and empowerment (Aposhyan, 1999, p. 67). From the support of the push, reaching through the arm can occur, an extension into space motivated by curiosity and desire (Hartley, 1995; Aposhyan, 1999, p.69). Reaching has an external focus as the child ‘extends out into space, towards others, towards objects’ (Aposyhan, 1999, p. 69). After the reach is the grasp, where the child captures the toy with the hand, bringing the body into contact with the external object. If the object is pleasing, the infant proceeds with pulling the object towards the body. Pulling is associated with fulfillment and taking in nourishment (Aposyan, 1999, p.70-72). Finally, yielding occurs again at the end of the cycle, resting into the satisfaction of having obtained the object. Here, completion and achievement can be savored and a new cycle is ready to begin (Brook, 2001, p.70).
These actions occur throughout life, whether one is reaching for a toy, a cup of tea, a loved one, or a career goal. Experiencing the full cycle ‘allows a person to feel desire, to move into action, and to complete the action … they are able to participate in the world and meet their essential needs’ (Brook, 2001, p.65).
Embodied Identity Development Model
The following Embodied Identity Development Model (See Figure) strives to answer the question of how identity develops in and through the body. Embodied identity development can be thought of as an ongoing conversation between embodied self-awareness, conceptual self-awareness, and movement behaviours. Congruence between these three factors is never finished or ‘achieved’, but is rather in a constant state of adjustment as new somatic and emotional responses to lived experiences arise and direct future decision making.
The process of embodied identity development begins with embodied self-awareness through interoception. These internal felt senses interact with cognition and conceptual self-awareness and are interpreted into a hypothesis about one’s identity, including desires and values. The hypothesis is then enacted and tested via the sensorimotor loop, which transforms inner sensation into outward action in cycles of the FFA. Continued interoception through this course of action provides immediate sensory-emotional feedback, a felt sense of if this action and its results are a ‘good fit’, thus either confirming or refuting one’s initial hypothesis. Identity is continually developed and modified based on repeating and overlapping cycles of sensing and moving. Each successive wave provides new information about one’s identity, ideally in a continual process of aligning embodied self-awareness, conceptual self-awareness and outward action in one’s environment and relationships.
In the sensing aspect of the loop, interoception is the foundational mechanism by which self-knowledge is developed, acting as a kind of internal compass that directs us towards or away from external objects, people, activities, etc. It provides raw data about the self that is then actualised in movement. The movement aspect can be broken down more specifically into the FFA. As one’s movement behaviours progress through this developmental pattern, so too is one’s identity developing.
Yield-type behaviours are receptive, and though interoception happens throughout this cycle, yielding provides optimal conditions for sensing the body, emotions, and environment. With the addition of conceptual self-awareness and cognition, meaning-making and interpretation can occur as one assesses their desires, needs, values, and relationships, and hypotheses about the self are formed. When inner senses and hypotheses are listened to, the motivation to enact this sense of self arises, leading to push-type behaviours that garner together one’s strengths and resources, create differentiation and distinction, and begin to mobilise the body towards an external objective which seems consistent with the hypothesis. The following reach-type behaviours are acts of seeking and moving towards the chosen objective. Grasp-type behaviours are lived experiences in which one makes real, embodied contact with the objective. Finally, pull-type behaviours are acts of incorporating and integrating that contact with existing identity. The final yield provides another optimal opportunity for assessing and listening to interoceptive signals of satisfaction or dissatisfaction, alignment or misalignment, that either confirm or refute one’s initial hypothesis. Either way, the whole lived experience provides a new wave of information about one’s identity.
Of course, the full Satisfaction Cycle does not always develop to completion in this orderly fashion and may be interrupted or redirected for a number of reasons. For instance, interoception during a grasp may signal misalignment earlier in the cycle so that a pull is never engaged, or an experience not chosen by an individual may skip the push and reach. The individual is also receiving environmental information about how to interpret internal experiences, and what actions and objectives are acceptable and accessible for their particular body. Supportive or oppressive environmental responses encourage either expanding or narrowing of the range of objectives and actions (Frank & LaBarre, 2011, p.18). This includes limitations placed on different bodies due to sociocultural locations such as race, gender, or ability which may alter, interrupt or entirely prevent the cycle from unfolding. Even with disruption or modification, these cycles of sensing and moving still provide continual loops of feedback that develop into one’s embodied identity.
The Embodied Identity Development Model is a process-oriented approach that seeks to address the how of identity development. This model uniquely centres the role of the body and the body’s lived sensory-emotional-movement experiences in the identity development process. One of the primary contributions is naming interoceptive awareness as the foundational developmental mechanism, rather than cognition, and positing that attention to interoceptive awareness will lead to a greater sense of congruence and satisfaction in one’s decisions and identity over time. This model also breaks-down the generally broad idea of ‘behaviour’ into sequences of the FFA, bringing in greater nuance and additional areas of potential therapeutic intervention. More work is needed to investigate clinical application and applicable D/MT interventions, and to elaborate on how environmental factors influence this process. There is also opportunity for exploration into how this framework may apply to different sociocultural populations, and how its flexible and adaptable quality could address multicultural identities, intersectionality, or experiences of code switching.
A main limitation of the Embodied Identity Development Model is its ability to address factors that may disrupt or alter the flow of sensing and moving as presented. Various mental health conditions are linked to interoceptive dysfunction, including mood disorders, eating disorders, and drug addiction (Khalsa, et al., 2018) Autism greatly impacts interoceptive accuracy and sensitivity (Garfinkel, et al., 2016). Trauma often leads to dissociative symptoms (DePrince & Freyd, 2007), impairs neural integration (Siegel, 2012b), and disrupts trust in interoception as sensations continue to signal danger long after the traumatic event has passed (Rothschild, 2017). This includes the trauma of oppression, in which personal, social, and institutional/systemic oppression and marginalisation becomes a collective, developmental trauma that produces trauma symptomatology (Leighton, 2018). Internalised oppression can manifest as judging, misinterpreting or suppressing interoceptive signals (Caldwell, 2018).
It is also vital to acknowledge the privilege and power involved in having the freedom of movement, choice, and personal decision making implied in this model. However, Caldwell (2018) suggests that the harm enacted on the body and body identity by oppression can begin to be challenged by paying appreciative attention to the body’s authentic signals and consciously moving in response such that ‘we can behave in ways that emerge from a sense of responsive connectedness to what is happening inside and outside of us, rather than reinforce our body’s domestication’ (p.40). Siegel (2017) similarly posits that top-down cognitive processing with its reliance on generalized schemas serves to enforce the status quo, while bottom-up embodied processing allows for novel, present-moment perspectives of reality to arise free from limiting stories about who we are. It is the hope of this author that the Embodied Identity Development Model will be applied, adapted, and expanded with this intention of liberation.
As a somatic counselor and dance/movement therapist, I guide clients in connecting to their bodies as a way of deepening their self-understanding and ability to make satisfying life decisions. If you would like support in this process please reach out for a free consultation.