September 28, 2018

How to Stop Ignoring Life’s Red Flags.

For the past six months or more, I’ve been dealing with a shoulder injury.

It started one day during my yoga practice, with a simple arms-wide-open chest opener, a move that I do repeatedly every day. No big deal.

But this day, this one time, I felt a little twinge in the front of my shoulder that made me go, “Huh. That hurt.” And the next time I did it, the same thing happened.

Every day, every practice was a repeat of a mildly annoying pain. I tried to just be present with it—to notice it, not judge it, and just be there with it.

I kept using the shoulder normally, beyond what it was persistently telling me it could reasonably do, and, predictably, it worsened. Go figure.

Over a week or a month or who knows how long, my “Huh, weird” turned into a “Wow, that really hurts!”

Before long, my shoulder was popping and sticking, and the pain was affecting every move I made. It wasn’t just a little twinge anymore, but a deep, searing, drop-my-arm-quickly kind of pain. And not just in yoga, but in daily life.

Shutting my car door, putting on my seat belt, getting dressed, and holding a heavy plate of food were no longer things I could do without hurting. Eventually, my shoulder was waking me up at night, I could no longer sleep on that side, and forget about rolling over or adjusting myself in bed. Not happening.

So, I went to the doctor, who examined me and ordered an MRI, and then delivered the unsurprising news that I had a torn rotator cuff, as well as a torn biceps tendon and subscapularis from overuse.

No longer a “Huh,” but now an expletive that I’ve gone ahead and edited for print:


I started physical therapy, nonsteroidal medications, and massage to try to avoid surgery. My physical therapist was pessimistic that I would get much better because of the degree of tearing.

She was right, and now I am scheduled for surgery.

And what keeps looping through my mind are Pema Chodron’s words, which I preach daily to others and, apparently, didn’t practice myself: “Nothing ever goes away until it teaches us what we need to know.” (God, why is she always so right?)

I have already had a surgical repair of a knee from pushing myself beyond my limits in yoga. And I really and truly thought I’d learned to stop doing that—“That was years ago, old news, I don’t do that anymore!”

But this time was different. This injury was so subtle, so sneaky, so very “ehh…it’s not that bad…” that I wasn’t able to see the cumulative deterioration that had invaded my life.

This tiny little injury worsened ridiculously slowly. My tendons were tearing, one microscopic fiber at a time. My own movements were inching me closer to a point of no return, to an injury that was irreparable without drastic measures—to a moment that would finally slap me upside the head and make me pay attention.

And, I’m struck by how often this happens in life—to all of us, in different ways.

Physical lessons are imparted to us by our bodies, after years of abuse or neglect, and, more often, psychological lessons are presented to us in our relationships, with the people in our lives and within ourselves.

These lessons are written clearly—but we often skim and then ignore them, bringing us to an eventual crossroads, at which we ask ourselves the question: “How the hell did I get here?”

But, in truth, the warning signs are always there. The red flags. The indicators that foreshadow what’s coming if we don’t pay attention and put up the boundaries that keep us from getting hurt or from hurting ourselves.

And, like with my shoulder, sometimes the lessons are understated and nearly imperceptible.

But they’re there. 

And, if we’re honest with ourselves, we can easily see our trajectory.

In retrospect, we can see what was in front of our eyes from the beginning and exactly how our own refusal to quit or our fear of change allowed us to stay on that path. We can see how our dogged determination to keep going, despite the physical or emotional pain, discounting the obvious symptoms of the injured body or relationship, brought us to that unavoidable point of no return. To the point of agonizing decisions and laborious, exhaustive work. To the point of a painful surgery, a difficult decision, a messy divorce.

A major life overhaul.

But, hindsight is 20/20, isn’t it? So, how do we, in real time, see what’s happening? How do we learn the lesson before the tendon tears or before the relationship is unsalvageable?

>> By listening to that quiet voice in our heart.
>> By exploring that little feeling in our gut, instead of burying it in the sand, along with our heads.
>> By being authentic with ourselves and our needs.
>> By loving ourselves enough to do the hard work, as soon as we notice the signs that not all is right.

It is terrifying to take off the blinders and see things we don’t want to see. To notice our own shortcomings and weaknesses and see how they put us on a path that we never meant to take. To potentially upset others. To risk upheaval and conflict. And to face our fears of failure or change or abandonment—or simply not being good enough.

And, we will never stop the life lessons from coming.

But, maybe, with time and practice, we get a bit better at learning them more quickly and, in doing so, prevent the damage to our lives. Maybe we empower ourselves by putting up boundaries with others or with ourselves. And just maybe, with time, we start to learn exactly how worth it we are.

And appreciating our own self-worth might just be the most important life lesson we will ever learn.

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