Three Barriers to Creating Lasting Change

Have you reacted emotionally in a relationship or job and wish you hadn’t?

I have taught and coached thousands of people around the world, and have learned that emotional reactivity is the most pervasive challenge to many people’s professional and personal lives. It can be tough when you experience anger, shyness, anxiety, etc., despite “knowing better,” and it feels even worse when you compound the problem with self-criticism.

How can you change your deep habits and triggers in a lasting way?

Body Wisdom

When leading a workshop exercise, a woman I’ll call Maia started to cry. I approached her gently, and she agreed to work with me to learn and growing by working with her spontaneous reaction. The exercise had evoked feelings of sadness and rage, and she said she felt like hiding under a chair. So, we started there.

It was clear Maia wanted to stay hidden; she felt safe. I asked her if there was something, anything “out there” that she wanted in her life. She said, “Yes.” I asked her to crawl out from under the chair and go for it. Motivated, she moved with determination. As she started to craw out, I put my hands on her shoulders to make forward movement difficult. It was as if I were creating for Maia the cage she had created for herself and had been living inside of her whole life.

I coached her to press forward against this resistance with her “hidden smallness,” as if she had to carry it with her throughout her day and throughout her life. The strain and effort felt very familiar to her. Suddenly, something shifted energetically inside her and I was compelled to let go.

And there she was — almost unrecognizable. She stood tall with her feel spread wide, her spine elongated, shoulders broad and her two fists stacked on top of each other in front of her belly. I asked her to find a phrase to help anchor that energy in her mind and body. She said, “I have a study core and I AM HERE.” In that moment, there was no doubt about this woman’s presence and her ability to hold her ground.

Neither one of us would ever have thought of a phrase like that! It came to her because she was listening to the wisdom of her body.

Maia didn’t know it, but she had discovered for herself a mantra and a mudra that would change her life. Together, they served as a powerful antidote for her to use the next time she felt small, insignificant or angry. Year later when I saw her, she reported that she was continuing to use her mantra and mudra and they had indeed changed her life.

What did Maia uncover? Why does it work? How can anyone do this? Let’s look more closely, starting with the common barriers to changing our emotional habits.

— There are three major barriers to change that we need to understand and address to disarm our emotional triggers.


Regardless of our best intentions, there are three major barriers to change that we need to understand and address to disarm our emotional triggers. I discovered techniques that do this on my journey in transforming the painful shyness of my youth into confidence, and I have fine-tuned them into easy-to-use steps by teaching them for over 20+ years.

Barrier #1: We know the What but Not the How

People often know (or others tell them) what they should do differently, and they can describe it plainly. But the what does not necessarily include the how. As a recovering shy person, when my buttons were pushed, my habit was to withdraw, shut down and not speak, even when surrounded by the people I most wanted to connect with. My shyness was so great that I would wish the earth would open up beneath me so I could fall in, as if being in the bowels of the earth would be more comfortable than being seen. I would often withdraw or simply be dead quiet. I didn’t like the isolation of not connecting, so I would tell myself to stop it, to speak up, and to engage more with others. I knew what I wanted to do, but didn’t know how. My old shy pattern would kick in, strengthened by years of practice, and I found myself saying, ‘Oh no! I did it again! I HATE it when I do that.”

I had a client I’ll call Hans who had an anger problem and often yelled at his young children. They would cry and became afraid of him. He deeply regretted this pattern. He saw he was pushing them away, which was the last thing he wanted to do. He loved them and wanted a better relationship with them. He just didn’t know how.

Somehow we need to discover how to achieve the “way of being” that we desire.

Barrier #2: We Don’t Have the Neural Pathways

Neural pathways are like highways that transport information from your brain to your body and from your body back to your brain. The thoughts, feelings and actions you engage in most often travel along strong and well-developed pathways and represent what you are good at. As you develop skills and habits, you have well-established pathways for knowing how to get dressed, solve a difficult problem, act with confidence, etc.

The inverse is also true. If you don’t think, feel or behave in those ways, you won’t have a strong neural pathway for them. It will seem unfamiliar, difficult or inaccessible. We may also have habitually wired our brain to experience qualities we don’t necessarily want, like shyness, anxiety, impatience, etc. Hans did not want to scold and scare his children, but he had a strong and well-practiced neural pathway for anger and had not developed a more useful pathway of patient listening and loving discipline.

The good news is that your patterns and habits are not etched in stone in the brain. Your brain has “neuroplasticity” — the ability to be molded in new ways through conscious practice and the ability to create new neural pathways.

We need a way to develop new neural pathways that produce the habits we most desire.

Barrier #3: We Don’t Know How to Develop Our Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is the ability to perceive, understand, and manage the world of emotions and feelings. EQ is the key to managing your own emotional life and your relationships with others with good judgment and empathy.

If you increase your emotional range and flexibility, you will become less emotionally reactive and able to respond effectively, resourcefully, with resilience in any circumstances, no matter what life throws at you, even in the face of what had been a trigger.

In summary, to increase our EQ, we need to:

  • Learn the how behind what we want to do differently;
  • Develop neural pathways to build new habits;
  • Increase our emotional resilience to expand our range and flexibility of responses.

It all has to do with listening to our body’s wisdom.

And We Can Learn How to Listen to the Body’s Wisdom!

I will give you an overview of what I’ve developed during the past 20 years of learning, experimenting and teaching. I have had the great privilege of being inspired by many talented mentors and teachers, and hope to contribute the best of what I’ve learned and created to you.

My Body Wisdom approach includes two methods — EnneaMotion and Somatic Focusing.


EnneaMotion has its intellectual roots in the Enneagram. The Enneagram is a personality system that describes nine different patterns of thinking, feeling and engaging with the world. Each type, or style has its own set of predictable gifts and challenges. The Enneagram is useful for understanding the wide variety of our experiences.

It is a brilliant, time-tested framework for increasing understanding of and compassion for ourselves and others. It can shed bright light and insight into our deepest habits.

After studying the Enneagram for many years, I found that knowing about the nine types was useful, but it didn’t help me build new habits of emotional resilience. Drawing on many years of experience as a choreographer, I combined the body’s ability to move in a way that makes us feel different emotions, with the range of emotions inherent in the Enneagram system.

I initially created EnneaMotion as a way to learn the lessons of the nine Enneagram types in a bone- deep way. I quickly realized it was much more than that. Because it engages the body, EnneaMotion engages the brain to develop new neural pathways for the expression of the healthy attributes of all the personality types. This was literally expanding our emotional repertoire. This is what resilience needs — emotional range to support not always responding the way we always responded.

In EnneaMotion, you explore each of the nine Enneagram types to understand the advantages and resources of each. Through a series of exercises, you explore the best of each type as well as the pitfalls or “shadow side” of each. We all have the potential to utilize the advantages and suffer the disadvantages of each personality type, so it is worthwhile to get to know the whole variety of personalities distinguished by the Enneagram.

The Power of Mantra and Mudra

Mantra and mudra are both Sanskrit terms. Traditionally a mantra is a word or phrase that induces a state of resourceful awareness. “Om” is perhaps the most well-known mantra for meditation, but I believe that any word or phrase that enhances your awareness, focus, and a resourceful intention can serve as a useful personal mantra.

You will develop for each type a specific, personal mudra and mantra that will help you gain immediate access…

Traditionally, a mudra is a prayer or meditation position used to enhance your inner state. I believe that you can custom-design a body position that expresses and amplifies your desired inner state.

As I guide you through the EnneaMotion exercises, you will experience a wide variety of body sensations. Certain movements (mudras) and phrases (mantras) will seem natural and powerful to you. Through the care and support of other participants, along with my facilitation, you will develop for each type a specific, personal mudra and mantra (M&M) that will help you gain immediate access to the healthy attributes you desire the most for your personal development. By the end of the EnneaMotion program, you will have developed
and practiced a custom-designed set of nine M&Ms. Through regular practice, your M&Ms will train and strengthen new neural pathways, expand your comfort zone, increase your emotional resilience, and thus support your deep and lasting change.

Change happens by creating and using the neural pathways that represent and support the change you want to make.

From Shy to Confident: An EnneaMotion Exercise

I’ll never forget the first time I taught EnneaMotion. We were doing the exercise for type Eight, sometimes called the Boss, the Leader, or the Challenger. At their best, Eights are grounded, warm, decisive, direct, magnanimous, bold and naturally confident. At their worst, they’re controlling bullies, and their short anger fuse can turn to rage.

We started to do the exercise exploring the challenges, or the lower qualities of type Eight. The room exploded in anger and rage. A man, much larger than me, approached and screamed at me, while striking and flinging his arms. I got scared.

I looked for the door and wanted to run. I only stopped myself when I said, “You can’t leave; you’re the facilitator!” So I stayed, in terror.

And then realized, “Oh, this is just an exercise! I can do that back to him!” Since I had created the exercise, you would think I’d have known that! But my fear was so real I had forgotten. So I did, or rather, I tried to muster up the energy to express some of that anger and rage back at him, but my attempt was pretty feeble. I felt a profound sense of loss because my neural pathway to express anger had been so neglected.

By exploring the shadow side of type Eight, I learned to strengthen my neural pathway for expressing anger. That doesn’t mean I now have license to go out and express rage whenever I’m angry — NO! It does mean that I’m no longer afraid of the energy of anger. I learned that anger is just energy. It happens to be a lot of energy. The exercise taught me that nothing terrible would happen to me or by me if I allowed myself to experience that much energy. After becoming less fearful, it became possible for me to stand in the energy of anger, my own or someone else’s, without having to yell, scream or run away. I could hold my ground and speak with confidence.

What I’ve noticed in working with individuals who are a type Eight is that they long to find an alternative to expressing their anger, which happens all too readily. Once they get in touch with how much they’ve hurt other people (emotionally or physically), they discover a consistent pattern of wanting to open their hearts, to allow their vulnerability, and to surrender to “what is.”

As you explore the Enneagram types that you’re less familiar with, or rather, the ones whose gifts are less available to you, you may experience some surprising gifts. This exercise gave me a wonderful gift – an antidote to my shyness. My personal mudra for type Eight was standing with feet firmly planted, shoulders pressed down into my back, belly center engaged, with my hands reaching towards the earth. My personal mantra became: I am grounded, warm and I speak my voice. This was huge in embodying my confidence, and has changed my life.

… they discover a consistent pattern of wanting to open their hearts, to allow their vulnerability, and to surrender to “what is.”

Like Maia, this is another example of how a mantra and mudra created during an EnneaMotion exercise created greater resilience, increased emotional intelligence and supported lasting change.

Somatic Focusing

Somatic Focusing is the second Body Wisdom system I created. It’s a form of alchemy, but instead of transforming lead into gold, we transform emotions we don’t like into emotions we do like. It uses the same core strategies as EnneaMotion:

  • translate emotional energy into physical energy;
  • listen to the body’s wisdom; and
  • anchor the preferred feeling with an M&M.

From Anger to Connection: An Example

Remember Hans, mentioned earlier, who was angry with himself for yelling at his young children. I asked what his body felt like when he was angry. He said his energy was hard and fast; his jaw was tight, every muscle in his face was contracted, his hands were clenched in fists, his energy felt very fast, he felt like striking out, and there was a lot of energy in his whole body.

In real life, Hans had often yelled at his children. They would cry and become afraid of him. He was sad and confused about his reactivity, and felt terrible about alienating them. The core issue was never resolved, and they were all left with underlying resentment. Hans wanted to change; he wanted a different result. As you know, if you’d like to change how you handle challenging situations, you have to do something different.

When change is difficult, it’s important to by-pass the thinking mind and to listen to the body’s wisdom.

And so I asked Hans what his body would rather feel. As he focused on listening to his body’s wisdom, there was a softening of his energy; he let that softer energy spread throughout his body. He started to feel something stirring in his heart center. Energy
follows attention, so I invited him to focus his mind’s attention there.

To understand the body’s language, you must notice whatever sensation starts to arise in answer to this question, and to exaggerate whatever that is, allowing your body to respond to that impulse.

Eventually, his body settled in a position that captured the feeling he wanted. His arms were thrown back so far that his sternum (or heart center) was splayed wide open. It looked like his heart had literally cracked open. He was lunging forward. His head
was thrown back, and then he brought both palms to his heart center, as if reminding himself to soften his energy. In doing that, he remembered his love for his children.
By letting his body inform his mind, he anchored this sensation by feeling this new energy in his body, and completing an “I” statement, like: “I . . .” or “I am . . .” or “I have . . .”

The mantra Hans came up with was, “I speak gently from my heart.”

With his M&M, he can still ask his children to pick up after themselves. He doesn’t have to yell or scream, or repress his thoughts, but rather he can speak from a place of tenderness that leads to a deeper connection with his children.

As the M&M is practiced and repeated, the new neural pathway becomes stronger and new emotions become more available. The mantra can eventually be spoken quietly in the mind. Once the neural pathway is established, the mere thought of your mantra is enough to activate the pathway; this will change how you think, feel and engage with life.

The BODY WISDOM methods of EnneaMotion and Somatic Focusing are easy-to-use techniques that create new neural pathways that support lasting change.

Your body has the wisdom you need to create the change you want.

Now It’s Your Turn

You really can change your habits to become less reactive and more emotionally responsive. By exploring a wide range of emotional responses, for instance through the diverse types of the Enneagram, you can create your “how” for desired change: creating new neural pathways for greater emotional range, flexibility and resilience, the components of increasing your emotional intelligence. It’s not hard or strenuous, but it takes a thorough exploration of yourself and the willingness to develop and practice your new mantras (phrases) and mudras (body positions).

Your body has the wisdom you need to create the change you want.

Listen to your body and change your brain. Easy tools for lasting change.

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