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I am happy to say that I am 90% out of the pain I'd been living with since 2007! This video explores how I did it using non-medical approaches which I developed for myself when nothing else worked. I believe that they can help you finally come out the other side of chronic, intractable pain by working with the whole self, holistically.
In the video, I discuss the aspects of living with pain that most doctors do not address, nor recognize - the way pain affects our feelings about ourselves and life, and how our emotional suffering needs to be healed alongside our physical pain.
As most of you who have been living with pain a long time know, there is no magic pill, no quick fix, but these six approaches can be a positive turning point in your healing journey, as I found them to be for myself.
It doesn’t make any logical sense that anyone would feel guilty about living in pain, but I have.
In our goals-oriented culture, we’re supposed to keep on keeping on and not complain. We worry that if we let ourselves withdraw from participating fully in life for more than a very brief time, we will be left behind. Or worse, it will mean that we are simply not good people. Good people take short breaks and then keep going, keep trying, never give up and never say die. In fact, it is considered almost a sin to do nothing, to step out of the constant stream of work, entertainment, and busyness.
But once I was injured, I couldn’t do that anymore.
I was forced to slow way, way down and I felt bad about it. I thought I should try to take care of all the things I used to take care of. I thought I had to hide my pain, pretend it wasn’t there and attempt to do as much as I would normally do. I thought I was supposed to just “grin and bear it.” But that didn’t heal me. It only made things worse.
As the length of time I was in pain lengthened, I experienced a subtle, creeping, persistent feeling of shame and failure. Here are the seven things I learned to tell myself to counteract my feelings of shame and guilt around living in persistent, unhealable pain:
1. I am not wrong for being in pain.
Being in pain is not my fault. I am not wrong, guilty, bad or screwed up. Being in pain does not equate with being weak, bad, or needy, nor does it mean I am inadequate as a person.
2. I am not on anyone’s timetable.
Pain keeps its own timetables and no one has the ability to read them completely accurately, not even my doctor. My body is on its own healing schedule that can’t be forced.
3. It’s OK for me to do less.
While in pain, my ability to attend to the every day tasks of life is compromised.It’s part of the package. I give myself permission to do less, and to be honest with others about how much I can and can’t handle.
4. I can ask for help.
Sometimes shame and guilt about needing help makes me reluctant to ask for it, but everyone has times in life when they need to depend on others to help them or take over what they can’t do. This is my time. I will ask for the help I need as clearly and honestly as I can.
5. I can receive financial assistance graciously.
One pervasive perception we have in our culture is that people who accept assistance are mooching off society. The truth is, the money is supposed to be there for me, whether it is from charity or government assistance. At times I have put money into the collective pot and now I need to draw money out. It’s the way it’s supposed to work.
6. I can stop trying to make other people feel better.
Making other people feel better can take the form of a) not expressing what I need so I don’t burden others, b) downplaying my continued pain so my doctor or other caretakers feel better about the job they’re doing, or c) attempting programs or exercises that I’m not ready for because I am responding to someone else’s urging, or avoiding blame for not trying harder.
7. I know that healing is my current job.
My real job, for now, is healing. I won’t judge myself harshly according to what I used to be capable of doing. I am handling another aspect of my life right now that requires a great deal of time and energy.
In doing all of these things, I am taking care of myself, which has to be my highest priority right now — without shame or guilt.
For many of us, living with chronic pain is like losing our place in the world. It feels like our friends, our coworkers, and sometimes even our families have moved on without us. They are proceeding with their lives while we are left behind, exiled from our own life, our dreams, and our own identities, all because of pain.
These are very difficult feelings to talk about. Many of us have no one to turn to. No one who can understand. We feel guilty sometimes just for feeling the way we do.
As a result, we live with our pain in silence. Because pain takes up most of our energy and attention, we often put our inner lives, our emotional selves, on hold, but that can lead to a sense of hopelessness and depression.
Here are 4 ways I've learned to be with myself in the pain, to honor my feelings, and to begin to find who I am again in the world.
1. Acknowledge What You're Feeling
For me, the first thing I needed to do was acknowledge the depth of the emotional distress. Too often, we put our attention on the medical and physical aspects of pain, leaving our inner selves out of the equation. Instead, it’s important on a regular basis to check in with ourselves and tune into our feelings.
It’s not easy. We’re afraid that if we allow ourselves to know what we’re feeling, we will feel even worse. What’s true, however, is that denying our feelings doesn’t take care of them, it only pushes them underground. We must acknowledge them on an emotional level. Only then can these feelings begin to release.
2. Understand Your Feelings Are Normal
You are not alone in your feelings. Most people who live with chronic pain feel some combination of: being misunderstood, loneliness & isolation, guilt, sadness, grief, shame, overwhelm, panic, terror, remorse, anger, anxiety and depression. That’s a lot. Sometimes we can run through the gamut all in one day!
Knowing that you are not alone in your feelings, and that these feelings are a normal response to the tremendous toll that living with pain takes, can bring an immense sense of relief. That acknowledgment alone can move you into a more balanced, healing state.
3. Express Yourself
We’re usually taught not to talk about our pain, not to show it, not to be a burden on others or to “dwell on it”. While we certainly don’t want to wallow in pain, physical or emotional, it is unhealthy to simply never talk about or express it. Unfortunately, we are given few invitations to do so.
I have found writing about how pain has affected my life to be very helpful. Finding someone who is willing to be a compassionate and open-hearted ear to tell your story to is also helpful, but you need to establish one important guideline: Listen only, don’t try to give advice.
You can also use drawing, painting, simple movement and dance, singing or toning, or communing with nature and animals to be incredibly supportive ways and places to express your emotional life without having to explain yourself to anyone else.
4. Let Go of Feelings That Are Not Helping You Heal
It’s also important to know that feelings that are not acknowledged, understood or expressed today can turn into something toxic over time. Sadness becomes victimization, fear turns into panic or terror, anger becomes bitterness and resentment.
It’s important not to hang onto strong negative emotions, even when you think they’re justified. Emotions that become embedded because we refuse to let them go are not helping us heal. In fact, they can be contributing to the longevity of our overall pain, both emotional and physical.
When we allow ourselves to express how we feel about being in pain through creative arts, talking to someone-understanding, communing with Nature or our God, we feel heard, we feel seen, and we are validated. When that happens, those feelings no longer have to remain hidden or stuck, undermining our energy and resourcefulness. They can flow, move, and complete themselves allowing us to be more available to life, to others, to greater possibilities for overall healing, and to ourselves.
Despite trying to keep a positive attitude, other people and I can find ourselves feeling worn down and hopeless when we’re living with chronic pain. We’ve tried everything to heal our condition and to relieve our pain, yet we’re still in it. What can we do?
A Daily Act of Courage
Sometimes it’s easier for us to fall into a kind of grim resignation than to keep putting energy and hope into treatments and practices.
Over time, we can sink lower and lower emotionally, into a kind of omnipresent depression. Here, life seems gray and lifeless, and it becomes a major act of fortitude and resolution just to get up and face another day. I think of this as a kind of seeping loss of hope that can drain whatever remaining well being we have if we’re not careful. Giving up, giving in, abandoning hope, and abandoning ourselves may be just around the corner.
When I feel like this, I have to remind myself that I’m in some kind of process or practice. I’m either moving towards a better place, or I am allowing the pain in my body to decide for me how I feel about myself and about life.
If I insist that pain must leave completely before I can be happy again, then I am making it the master of my emotional well being.
The Practice of Finding Balance
This effort, to live with pain and not succumb to depression or despondency, is an effort to find emotional, mental, and physical balance within and around the pain. A balance between not forcing myself to be unrealistically bright and cheery, but not allowing myself to wallow in self-pity either. This takes mental and emotional discipline. It becomes a form of daily spiritual practice.
Certainly, living with pain is not a path anyone in their right mind would consciously choose as a spiritual practice for themselves. It is a difficult and lonely path that we walk out of necessity, quiet and internal, but it can also be surprisingly deep and rich.
It’s not that being in pain is inherently spiritual, despite the fact that some religions consider suffering to be a holy sacrament — a concept I don’t embrace. For me, it’s certainly not the suffering or the pain or some kind of sacred martyrdom that gives a spiritual quality to the path through the pain.
It’s how we are with the pain. It’s what we do and don’t do with it and through it. It’s the positive choices we make for ourselves on a daily basis.
Standing with the Self through Pain
For me, the spiritual aspect of the journey isn’t that you try to be cheerful or that you think positively or you try not to complain and be the perfect patient. In fact, those things can be very counterproductive. No, it’s first and foremost the choice to stay with myself, so to speak, to be true to my own feelings and to learn to stand by me. I am there for me.
And that standing with the self, believing in the self, not giving up on the self, whatever that looks like for each of us, can be incredibly hard to do. To not take the path of hating life, of hating who we are, of hating the circumstances, is the path.
And when we find the bitterness, the anger, and the hatred rising up —toward ourselves or toward the circumstances — we can feel it and let it pass through. We choose to honor what’s coming up, but we choose not to live there.
It’s a daily spiritual practice to constantly return to openness. This takes a very deep spiritual practice. It takes courage and fortitude, resolution and determination, and an inner choice which we must constantly renew to stand with ourselves, and remain the center and the heart of our own lives.
Everyone who has been in pain for some length of time has probably asked themselves these questions: Why is this happening to me? What did I do wrong to deserve this?
Many of us struggle with feelings of guilt and shame for needing help, for not being able to fix ourselves, for probably asking too much of everyone around us, for causing people to feel bad for us, for needing financial assistance.
To add insult to injury (literally), there is a prevalent New Age attitude that says if you just visualize and think positively, you can change anything you don’t like into the way you want it to be almost instantly.
The secret to the perfect life is “in our heads.” If we’re poor or unfulfilled or in pain, we just need to “think differently.”
Just Think Positively...
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for thinking positively. I practice it every day. It has made a huge difference in my life many, many times and still does. But the idea that people who can’t move out of pain have somehow failed as people has to go.
After years of working through all manner of New Age palliatives to change my beliefs, the way I speak, the way I think and how I perceive myself – resulting in very little perceptible change in my painful condition – I’m here to say that sometimes, when you’re in pain and you can’t get out, it’s not because you’re not thinking positively enough.
Some pain comes in and won’t leave. There may not be a tidy explanation, but it doesn’t mean we are off our center, or lacking in some fundamental way, or not good people, or not in alignment with God or the Universe, or haven’t prayed or fasted or meditated enough, or burnt off our karma yet.
Being in pain does not automatically put you at fault.
The fact that you don’t have an off switch for your pain does not mean you aren’t trying hard enough or that in some insidious way you must want to be in pain. It does not mean you have failed, or must have been a terrible person in a past life.
Asking Different Questions
Being in pain doesn’t prove anything negative about you at all. An estimated one in three Americans are in pain right this moment. That’s a lot of people.
So, the questions we might want to begin to ask about all this pain may be more about ourselves as a culture rather than ourselves as individuals.
Yes, we may want to ask ourselves, What can I do differently in my life to relieve this pain?, but we also may need to ask, How are we, as a people, creating so much unrelenting pain? Then the answers become less of a private struggle and more of a community effort toward greater harmony and balance at all levels of our lives.
And if this epidemic of pain is as much of a collective as a private experience, then maybe part of the solution is to understand that we are, somehow, all in this together.
That the healing needed may not be only along a solitary path, but something we need to address as a society. We have somehow created a culture where violence and alienation is the norm and, perhaps, our painful bodies go hand in hand with that. Isn’t it even remotely possible that some of us may be feeling this collective alienation as illness and pain in our bodies?
And This Helps Me How?
And you might well ask, how does speculating about this help me with my pain today?
For me, as much as I would not want to wish this experience of pain on anyone, it eases my mind to know that I’m not alone in it, that there seems to be something bigger at work here than my own private path through it, and that, while the answer may not be easy, it may also not be entirely up to me to figure it out all on my own.
And, right now, today, that is something of a comfort.
Welcome to The Pain Companion Blog! Reflections and sound advice on living with chronic pain - a peaceful way station on the path to greater well being.
About Sarah Anne Shockley
© 2015-2020 Sarah Shockley and thepaincompanion.com. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sarah Anne Shockley and www.thepaincompanion.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.