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How to Make Pain Care Less Painful: the power of coming alongside ourselves

Two people walking along a dirt road
Photo by Juan Pablo Serrano via Pexels

Chronic pain doesn't limit itself to your body,

It also induces a sense of loss for the life you once had, the fear of experiencing more pain, the loneliness of being misunderstood...

Even the things you do to treat and heal your physical pain often end up adding stress and feelings of failure on top of it all.

Fortunately, pain care itself doesn't have to add to your pain. With just a shift of perspective, you may find that not only is pain care less painful, but your efforts to change your pain actually become more effective.

How Healing Efforts Go Wrong

If you have ever:

  • viewed your body as having betrayed you

  • been self-critical when you overdid it and ended up having a pain flare

  • beat yourself up for being inconsistent with your pain care

...then you know what it's like to fight against yourself.

We all have ideas of what we should feel, what we should be able to do, how we should be. When those expectations aren't met, we begin to struggle with ourselves.

The part of ourselves that has unmet expectations and the part of ourselves that is failing to meet those expectations interact much the way that my young son and I did when he was learning to eat.

How We Initially Approach Pain Care

My son had always been difficult to feed, and transitioning to solid foods was especially challenging.

I tried the airplane method, but he would shut his mouth tight when the spoon zoomed toward him. I'm sorry to say that at one point I even tried prying his mouth open and shoving the food inside. I thought that if he would just taste it, then he would realize that food is delicious and he would want to eat.

Instead, he became suspicious of me at mealtime, and was even more likely to reject new foods.

Many stories of healing our pain begin the same way: we tried everything to get the pain to go away, but nothing worked. In fact, sometimes it got worse!

What We Need to Understand

We eventually hired a feeding therapist who transformed my understanding of learning to eat, and so, also transformed my experience of helping my son.

The therapist taught me that there are a whopping 32 (!!!) steps to eating, which are divided into 6 phases:

  1. Tolerate food

  2. Interact with food

  3. Smell food

  4. Touch food

  5. Taste food

  6. Eat food

I had been expecting my son to be in the 5th and 6th phases when he was actually in the 1st phase with many foods.

He had given me all the indications that he wasn't ready to eat the food I wanted him to eat. But until I learned that the path to eating was far more nuanced that I previously knew, I misread his cues as ignorance and stubbornness.

When I was able to see his cues for what they were, I was able to offer him food in a way that he would more readily accept. I was less anxious that he wasn't eating yet, and he and I no longer had to gear up for battle every time we sat down at the dinner table.

While I cannot pretend that learning to eat was quick and easy after that, my son did make progress over time and we were able to eliminate most of the unnecessary struggle during the process.

The key to painlessly helping my son expand his diet can also help you make your pain care less painful: come alongside yourself instead of fighting against yourself.

Practice coming alongside yourself in your movement practice. Try our new class series, Moving Through the Shoulders, to find your sweet spot.

How to Come Alongside Yourself

Imagine that you're walking down a road when you come across...yourself. It's the part of yourself that's struggling with pain and struggling to get through life. This part of you hobbles along slowly, moving in fits and spurts, and looks utterly exhausted.

You decide to help.

But instead of pushing your struggling self down the road from behind, or pulling from the front, you stand right next to yourself and walk along together. No lectures, no pressure, just loving presence and encouragement. The journey may not be easy, but it's instantly sweeter.

It's a beautiful picture, but HOW exactly do we get there?

Let's look at 3 ways to get started:

  1. Recognize that the different parts of you are for you, not against you

  2. Allow yourself to be where you are

  3. Show up for yourself

#1 Recognize that the different parts of you are for you, not against you

There is no one who cares more about you than you. The different parts of yourself may have different ways of showing it, but they all have the same ultimate goal: your well-being.

Take a moment to consider and appreciate what each part of yourself is trying to do for you. For now, set aside whether or not each part is successful, and focus only on the intention.

Your body is FOR you. It is constantly adjusting to a changing environment, doing its best to achieve equilibrium at every moment.

Your nervous system is FOR you. It wants to keep you safe from danger and is constantly assessing when to rest-and-digest and when to fight-flee-or-freeze.

Your inner critic is FOR you. It wants you to learn from your mistakes and motivate you to do your best.

Even the parts of you that seem to fail you are FOR you, not against you. The part of you that failed to be consistent may have known that you needed rest and the part of you that pushed too hard may have wanted you to experience pleasure or a sense of accomplishment.

#2 Allow yourself to be where you are

When we tell ourselves that we shouldn't be experiencing what we are, or doing what we're doing, or feeling what we're feeling, we begin to feel unacceptable.

When we feel unacceptable, it doesn't feel safe to be ourselves.

Since pain is a response to potential threat, healing pain requires a felt sense of safety.

That's why, when we allow ourselves to be where we are, we're actually putting ourselves in a better position to heal our pain. We feel less threatened and more secure when we're not pressuring ourselves to be doing, experiencing, or feeling something different.

When we allow ourselves to be where we are we:

  • Are able to accept ourselves as we are, including our vulnerabilities

  • Recognize that our struggles are valid and significant

  • Create an internal environment where it is safe to express the full range of our human experience

An internal dialogue that allows you to be where you are may sound something like this:

I really wanted to do something special for my family, so I pushed myself hard and now I'm really hurting. I feel frustrated that I can't fully enjoy doing special things because of the pain I suffer later. I feel afraid that I'll never get out of pain because I keep pushing myself, even though I know I will eventually feel awful.

It makes sense that I wanted to do something special because I love my family and showing my love is a beautiful and very human thing to want to do. It makes sense that I'm frustrated and afraid. Going through life with pain is HARD.

I'm struggling right now and that's ok. It's ok to feel frustrated and I will let myself feel it. It's ok to need rest right now, and I will let myself rest guilt-free.

Want to learn more about allowing yourself to be where you are? Read Emotional Resiliency As a Path Toward Healing.

#3 Show up for yourself

Just because you allow yourself to be where you are doesn't mean you're content to stay there. When we come alongside our struggling selves, the intent is not to sit in The Pit of Despair indefinitely, but to move through it and eventually past it.

When we show up for ourselves, we are hopeful and action-oriented. We know that things can be different for us and so we are motivated to change.

Because of the hope, care, and love we have for ourselves, we show up again and again, to point ourselves in the direction of healing.

Showing up for ourselves can look like, or even slip into, the perfectionistic pain care that activates our inner critics. Here are some key distinctions:

  • Perfectionism stems from fear and is done with desperation, while showing up for ourselves stems from hope and is done with love

  • Perfectionism expects a linear upward trajectory in the healing journey, while showing up for ourselves expects that we will experience peaks and valleys

  • Perfectionism gets anxious when we break consistency in our pain care, while showing up for ourselves knows that it's less important that we had a break and more important that we always return to caring for ourselves after a break

The Takeaway

Sometimes our pain care seems to make our lives harder rather than better. This is often because we feel at odds with ourselves when we experience difficult things like chronic pain and chronic pain recovery.

However, we can ease some of the internal tension with simple shifts in perspective, such as:

  • realizing that the different aspects of ourselves that may seem in conflict are actually all on the same team

  • accepting ourselves as we are

  • knowing the difference between loving action and perfectionistic action

If you liked reading about how perspective shifts can lighten your pain, you might also like Can Gratitude Actually Change Physical Pain? Check it out!

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