Updated: Dec 17, 2019
According to Wikipedia, shapeshifting "is the ability to physically transform through an inherently superhuman ability, divine intervention, demonic manipulation, or magic." We have a rich popular culture that abounds with half-human-half-animal, alien, or bug mutant tropes: Spider-man, the Avengers, and the X-Men are the current half-and-half heroes of the day. But under the right circumstances, any of us can change form and acquire qualities we had not previously imagined for ourselves.
As I see it, compassionately guided emotional growth, particularly when it involves a focus on the body, is a form of modern day, scientifically-informed shapeshifting. This kind of physical transformation is one that accompanies a personal access to the trove of innate resources that is an inherent human well-spring of strength and resilience. Tapping into it doesn’t require divine intervention, Satan, or magic. Nor does it require being a super-hero with a full-time career dedicated to fighting crime.
Shapeshifting in Everyday Life
Anytime we undertake the challenge to uncover as yet hidden inner resources, we are not just attempting to change how we think and behave. We are involved in an internal evolutionary process that can re-activate developmental processes in the brain and body that were interrupted by trauma or insufficient nurturance at earlier stages of life. Regaining possibilities as adults that were untapped as children is a revelation that is self-affirming and self-energizing.
Typically, people who go into therapy and even their therapists may think “change your thoughts and actions, your feelings will follow.” Psychological thinking calls that a left brain top down approach. Top down change, however, can be hard to maintain.
No matter how hard we may try to control negative thoughts and disruptive behaviors, we’re likely to encounter frustrations and disappointments in life and a relationship that trigger painful emotions. And before we know it, we’ve blown our good intentions. Top down approaches just don’t go deep enough.
Shapeshifting Bottom Up
Personal growth from the body up, comes from experiencing the truth of how we feel in the moment, in our heart and gut. Delving into bodily sensation through a full experience of the body, awakens memories, uncovers key moments when we shuttered away a forbidden felt truth, and uncovers a true self. This is thought of as a bottom-up, right brain approach.
Breathing into feeling, the heart opens, the gut relaxes and the whole body becomes a source of insight, intuition, creativity, and wisdom. The more we practice the more we lighten up. We begin to look different. Our face and posture change. We stand and sit differently. We walk differently. We laugh more easily and become more playful.
This shapeshifting is real not magical. Not superhuman but an inborn capacity of human development that lasts a lifetime. It is certainly not magical—though it may sometimes feel that way—but innate and intrinsic to our health and happiness. Here’s an example.
Shapeshifting in Action
A man I had worked with over year, came to his session one day with very sad news: the young woman he was seeing had collapsed at a shopping mall and died instantaneously of heart failure. She had no previously known heart problems. Ed was in a terrible state of grief, exacerbated by a sense of enormous guilt that he could have prevented her death if only he had proposed to her.
He felt he loved her, he told me, and he knew she loved him. Yet he hesitated to get closer to her. Now as he sat in my office, he felt terribly guilty that he might have prevented her death if he had proposed to her. He reasoned that he loved her but held back on committing to her. He felt that had he proposed it would have strengthened her heart and she’d still be alive.
As always, Ed’s outer demeanor was stiff and withheld, his face devoid of expression, his voice a monotone even as he spoke of tragic loss.
The pain of mourning impelled him to delve deeper into his insecurities about his ability to trust his gut feelings about anything. His eyes became teary as he talked, and I encouraged him to breathe deeply and stay with the pain in his throat and chest. Suddenly, the floodgates broke and he sobbed deeply. Then he spoke not only about this loss, but of the loss of himself as a child to be the good son to his strict parents, and to nullify his own feelings and desires.
The following week at his appointment, I immediately noticed something different about him but I couldn’t tell what it was. Was it a new haircut? I kept searching him, genuinely stymied about how different he looked. He smiled and replied triumphantly “The mask is gone. I’ve seen it myself.” In fact, his whole body moved in a fluidity I had not seen before.
I’ve seen this effect a hundred times over. The depressed young woman with a sullen, ashen face, empty eyes and stooped shoulders, begins to confront the affronts of her past and her present and over time Jill turns into Supergirl with a feistiness I was not expecting.
She begins to look different. She stands straight, looks me in the eyes, her big brown eyes connect with me and she smiles broadly. I can see her teeth. I want her to see what I see. I get the hand mirror and thrust it toward her face. “Look at yourself! It’s a new you,” I say. She nods and laughs and I know she knows it.
Embodying Love and Pleasure
Our bodies learn not so much by changing our concepts and thought patterns but from fulfilling person-to-person experiences that open and expand the heart and mind and broaden our repertoire of positive emotions. In doing so, we enrich our capacity for physical enjoyment and emotional contentment.
In this physical and emotional metamorphosis the brain and nervous system become re-wired. We re-do painful memories so they become sources of inspiration, self-affirmation and resilience. We breathe into the heart and gut and find that each has a story to tell—a true story we once knew but forgot.
The Healing Power of Pleasure
When we go into the layers of past experience, we can encounter not just the pain of the past but the hidden pleasures that may have been suppressed in the past. Especially, as we breathe into the pain, we encounter the pleasure of our true self.
I've spent most of my professional life extolling the importance of pleasure to human health and happiness. I call my three books written over a period of three decades, my Pleasure Trilogy. Going through the painful memories of the past is going halfway up the mountain. The rest of the way up, to the fullness of our being, involves embracing the healing pleasures of life--not the short-term pleasures that deplete us, but the long-term pleasures that keep giving,
Many of us are familiar with Nietzsche’s famous expression, “What doesn’t destroy me makes me stronger.” No doubt that’s true. But sustaining emotional pain in lack of forgiveness, whether it’s for ourselves or someone else, or in a tendency to be quick to anger, or by holding on to feelings of guilt or shame is just more pain. All pain contracts the mind and body.
On the bright side, what makes me feel good also makes me stronger—and not just stronger, but happier. Pleasure heals. Healing pleasures are expansive, broadening, and transformative. That’s the kind of shapeshifting that is a part of our inborn capacity to lead a more enjoyable, healthy, and meaningful life.