I was standing in line at Starbuck's the other day, looking around at nothing in particular. I noticed a woman waiting for her drink with an adolescent daughter or niece. "Wow," I caught myself thinking, "it's hard to believe adults can really be so little." As I paid and went over to the same counter to wait, I realized she and I were the same size. If anything, she may have been a touch taller.
Self-perception is a funny thing. I noticed early in my training career that when I asked some of my female clients to place their feet hip distance apart, they would set up with their feet wider than their hips. Their perception of their hips and the reality were different (I have also had the opposite happen, with people setting up more narrow than their actual hips). Becofsky et.al, found in 401 individuals with osteoarthritis, perception of disability was more strongly correlated with depression than actual reduction of physical functioning; those with reduced functioning that didn't view their condition as a disability were actually in a better place psychologically than those with less reduced functioning, demonstrating that perception can affect both our physical and mental health. Our perception of our physical selves and abilities can be our biggest barrier (or our most powerful aid) in attaining our athletic potential. I often wonder how we get so out of touch with our physical bodies. Is it because we don't use them very much? Or that we are inundated with press about knee replacements, arthritis medication, and the obesity epidemic? Many of my clients that come to me as new exercisers don't trust their bodies to be strong. They wait for something to go wrong, assuming their bodies will fail them. It is my job to teach them their bodies are capable, and if they are patient, their body will perform feats far greater than they expected. The reverse is also true. Sometimes there is an expectation that "I should be able to do x because I could 30 years ago." While "x" might still be an attainable goal, if a person's body is different than it was 30 years ago, "x" might have to be achieved in a different way or on a different time schedule. A yoga teacher once said what we think we look like we while we are practicing yoga and what we actually look like are two different things. There are times where I think I must be in the deepest backbend ever, only to find my hands and my feet are miles apart. As a result, my perception of my ability to backbend is that I am not "good" at it and probably won't ever be able to do poses that require a lot of back mobility. This is in contrast with my perception of my ability to handstand. I know I can handstand in the middle of the room (I have accomplished this on several occasions, just not consistently); as a result, my perception is that eventually I will be able to always handstand in the middle of the room. My perception for handstands translates to confidence, while my perception of back bending borders on self deprecation ("I cannot currently backbend; therefore, I will never be able to backbend").
Perception also affects how people with chronic pain move and and their ability to perceive where their body actually is in space. Wand et.al, found 50 out of 51 patients with chronic low back pain endorsed items on a questionnaire suggesting distorted body perception. (Body-perception distortion was found to be infrequent in the healthy control group). Recently, I trained a gentleman that had suffered from bilateral sciatica in the past year. While he was feeling better, he still suffered from a bit of pain, particularly walking up and down stairs. The first time I had him come into a supine position with his knees bent and feet flat on the massage table, I noticed his right pelvis was pressing heavily into the bed while his left pelvis was barely in contact with the surface. "Which side of your pelvis feels like it is most in contact with the bed?" I asked, assuming he would say his right. "My left," he responded with certainty. "My right feels like it's barely touching it." Though I learned a long time ago not to assume anything about how a person feels or experiences movement, I was a little bit shocked that his perception of his body and the reality were so different. His perception wasn't wrong; it simply didn't resemble what my eyes saw, further demonstrating the importance of asking rather than assuming what a person is feeling or experiencing.
Something that I find interesting about self-perception is the ease with which it can change. The new exerciser that perceives movement as a potential threat to injury with the right guidance can begin to view her body as strong and able. Using imagery and focused attention over time has allowed my client with low back pain to begin to perceive both sides of his back and where they are in space. I doubt I will look at a person while waiting in line again and think about how little she is, knowing now that that is a more accurate representation of me. While I think about movement and how my body moves a bit obsessively, I don't think much else of my physical self. If someone asked about my self-perception, I would describe myself as strong, not short or little, though I would probably qualify it with, "stronger than average, but there are many that are stronger than I am." If asked about my flexibility, I would quickly say my flexibility leaves something to be desired. Perception is relative and largely depends on one's frame of reference. Watching women regularly perform incredible feats of athleticism on the yoga mat and in the weight room (thank you, Youtube) gives me a different frame of reference of strength and flexibility, leading me to feel that compared to my peers, both could be improved upon. However, it could probably be argued that my strength and flexibility are above average when compared to the normal population. It is impossible to know a person's frame of reference and one's perception of his physical self. The client who has always been told her hips are bigger than her torso will probably regularly set up with her feet a little too wide, while the client that has been told she is frail might balk if given heavy weights too soon. The value of asking, "how does that feel," shouldn't be overlooked, either as a trainer, or as self-reflective question. Conversely, our experience of proprioception and how we move might be impacted by pain, our movement vocabulary (how much or how little time we spend thinking about movement), or our current psychological state. Connecting with our physical selves and beginning to paint an accurate picture of our body in space can improve athletic performance, self-confidence, and overall well-being.
Yours in health and wellness,
Becofsky, K., Baruth, M., & Wilcox, S., (2013). Physical functioning, perceived disability, and depressive symtoms in adults with arthritis. Arthritis, 2013.
Wand, B.M., James, M., Abbaszadeh, S., George, P.J., Formby, P.M., Smith, A.J., & O'Connell, N.E., (2014). Assessing self-perception in patients with chronic low back pain: development of a back-specific, body-perception questionnaire. Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation.