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“Body problem, body solution. Body question, body also answer. Lucky, you have good body teacher.” ~ Pichest Bonthumme
As a massage therapist, I constantly hear people refer to their bodies in less than positive terms.
People apologize to me for being overweight, not shaving their legs, having moles.
I have a client who told me, “I hate my left shoulder. I mean, my left shoulder is a real bastard. No one can figure out what’s wrong with it. Nothing helps. MRIs, PTs, energy workers, massage therapists, orthopedic surgeons—no one can find anything wrong with it. If I could have you cut it off, I would. That is how much I hate my left shoulder.”
This kind of commentary is sadly the norm.
“Maybe try saying you love your left shoulder?” I suggested, suddenly feeling a bit self-conscious of how hippy-like I sounded.
His pain was not made up; his pain was undeniably real. But he was leaving his body absolutely no room for improvement—cutting off any possibility of change before it could manifest, and was asking that I join in on the hatred. The second we start condemning a piece of ourselves as dysfunctional or unworthy, it will start to act as if that is the truth.
Think about it.
If you tell a child they are stupid once, they may not believe you. But say it to them a billion times, and usually the outcome is unfortunate and predictable. A child will hold on to the verbal trauma inflicted by parents, teachers, and other kids. If this weren’t true, we wouldn’t have psychotherapy as a profession.
Our bodies are no different from a child’s mind. Brutally honest, reactionary, and always moving toward love, the body will curl inward protecting itself from the emotional onslaught of the world around it, and most especially from the world created within it. Your left shoulder can’t decide to move to New York City, take ‘shrooms, and flip you off for making it miserable. It gets painful and angry, and, in my non-scientific opinion, is more prone to injury due to the repetitive shutting down of any option other than pain.
Healing an injury isn’t just about the site of the trauma, but about how all of the pieces play together. This includes our emotional body. While pursuing recovery, there will be physical pain but also frustration, anger, and maybe even grief over an injury. But becoming friends with your body is profound and healing in the same way that reconciling with an estranged family member can be. It isn’t perfect. It isn’t pretty. But dammit, love is there, and getting to a place where you can express that is pretty amazing.
Take me, for instance. I used to get really nervous trying on shoes. I felt like salespeople were too attentive and I had a serious hangup about attention. So, I reacted to the perceived pressure I was creating by poking fun at myself. I talked about how horrible my left foot was when trying on shoes. I would say I had a “gimpy” left foot and needed some serious arch support. Oh, and bring two different widths because my Sasquatch of a left foot was unpredictable and I almost always needed a wider width just for that foot.
Yes, it is true that my left foot is different from my right foot. But the way I condemned my foot set the stage for me to disconnect myself from that part of my body, inviting more injury. I went through orthotics and discussed surgical solutions with podiatrists—everything except accepting my left foot as it was and opening up to the possibility that it could change for the better.
I’m not saying that orthotics and surgery are not needed sometimes. They are tools in the toolbox. But by thinking about my foot as permanently damaged, and believing that the only direction would be one of decline, I had already eliminated any other possible outcome.
Once I decided to treat my left foot as though I loved it, everything changed.
This doesn’t happen overnight. Often, learning to love and accept parts of ourselves is a “fake it till you make it” scenario. I saw how clients coming in with injuries tended to heal faster and not repeatedly injure themselves when they stopped talking about their body as a joke or a betrayal. These folks also seemed more likely to do the prescribed exercises. I saw this and made a connection.
I didn’t just stop talking about how “screwed up” my left foot was, but I started telling it how much I appreciated its efforts. I investigated ways to support it and helped create integrity in that ankle, knee, and hip with exercises. I massaged my own foot, and I did some difficult work with it as well, like picking up things with my toes and opening up my feet by sitting back in Broken Toe pose. I even threw away my shoes for work and just wore socks. Being barefoot was hard at first, but after the first six months, I knew I’d never go back.
I wore zero drop shoes and tossed my inflexible-soled shoes aimed at stifling movement. I took a yoga class that focused on the feet and balance. I fell over, a lot. But with everything I did, my foot and I became more connected. While I still pronate, I can mostly control it without flopping inward and putting stress on all the joints above that foot. The pain in my foot is gone most of the time. If it comes back, I know I need to stop and pay more attention. I know my foot’s likes and dislikes as intimately as a romantic partner. And, I am rewarded not only with less discomfort and injury, but with a feeling of accomplishment at creating a connection with my body that no orthotic could provide.
— Allie Amenta (@AllisonAmenta) March 4, 2019
So, how can we start?
We can know that something is correct, but knowing it intellectually does little to change our habits. We know smoking is bad for us, but unless we experience the act of quitting we won’t understand what it means to not smoke—same thing here.
The first step is to be aware.
Notice when you are thinking or saying something about your body that is confining and leaving no opportunity for growth. Just recognize it. Say to yourself, “Hmm, that’s interesting. I didn’t realize I said xyz about my right big toe.”
Start to notice when this reaction pops up. Are you around certain people? In certain situations? Or, maybe it’s only when you’ve had that second margarita.
The second step is remembering that form does not always dictate function.
A client of mine contracted the Polio virus when she was a young child. It mainly affected her right leg, and if you were to only look at this leg you would think there’s no way she can walk on it. But, she does. She has a small brace that fits around her lower leg, and she walks without a perceptible limp most days. Energetically speaking, her leg is robust. I put my hands around her calf, which is about the size of my forearm, and I can feel the strength radiating from it.
Her doctors are amazed at her balance and control. She credits her success at being able to use this leg not only to physical exercise, but to the fact she visualizes it as a strong and healthy working leg that is integrated into her body. She meditates and uses body scanning to help create awareness and connection. Neuromuscular exercises designed to get the brain talking to both halves of the body equally are essential.
She gives herself the gift of having a relationship with her body. And, relationships are not always unicorns and rainbows. They can be difficult and imperfect. Form may tell us what job a structure performs functionally, but it is never the whole story. How well something functions isn’t entirely dictated by form alone. She proves this just by walking down the hallway.
The third step is to get back to practicalities.
Once you are able to recognize when and in what situation negative body-talk takes place, see what happens if you choose not to say accusatory things about your body. What would happen if you didn’t point out your weight while trying on swimwear? What would happen if you didn’t refer to your “bad” shoulder, or your “trick” knee, or your “gimpy” foot in those terms?
The thought will likely still be there—note it. You also may say it even after you told yourself to not this time. That’s okay; as Elephant Journal founder Waylon Lewis says, “Fail as many times as you need to fail.” Meaning, keep at it—eventually you will change the habit.
Try meditating in a comfortable position and mentally saying to yourself, “Smile at your eyes/shoulder/hip/knee/foot.” This isn’t some syrupy sweet forced smile, but an acknowledgement of all the love you have for that part of your body and for your body as a whole. “I got up this morning and peed on my own. Thank you for that, kidneys and bladder. Thanks to every part of my body that did that.” And, if you needed medical assistance to make that essential function take place, still thank your body for responding. Then, thank any and everyone who made the medical advancements necessary to make that happen.
My favorite example of this meditation is from Tara Brach.
The fourth step is don’t own it.
We all have a tendency to say “my” diabetes or “my” trick knee, but instead of claiming ownership of the dysfunction, let’s change how we engage with it. Your body is experiencing things caused by diabetes or joint damage, but those things are not yours. Get to know them, but don’t propose marriage. This makes the dysfunction less of a possession and, I believe, allows the nervous system to relax around it a little easier, making for less reactionary responses by the body.
Learn what actions of yours delight your body, especially the part you feel distant from. What does it like or not like? How can you tell the difference? Take a class or workshop aimed at the area you have a difficult time accepting.
Above all, if it is an area you can reach, touch it. This can be emotionally charged and you may find all sorts of excuses not to, but do it anyway. Have a good cry over your wrist that doesn’t work well or the Irritable Bowl Syndrome in your gut that causes pain. No experience we have is totally physical, and that includes pain and discomfort. Honor it by thanking your body every day just for waking up—that’s a pretty amazing thing in and of itself.
Hopefully, after a while we become more accustomed to smiling at our body, and it won’t seem weird at all. More bodily awareness may allow us to notice a moment or two before our knee “gives out,” and enable us to adjust our gait in time. We will get to know our body better and figure out what it wants, needs, likes, and dislikes.
Try having a love affair with your creaky joints, your imperfect colon, and your sometimes eccentric heart.
Love your body, and it may just love you back.