On a Scale of 0 to 10, My Pain Is . . .

“Does that hurt?” the doctor asked me, pressing against my swollen foot.

“Yes?” I asked, then added, “No. I don’t know.”

“You’re grimacing.” She moves her hand to a different spot.

“Yeah, I think it hurts.”

Putting my foot down, she makes a note on the computer. “Has the pain worsened since it happened?”

“Maybe. I’m not sure. It comes and goes.”

This was me in the doctor’s office on Thursday as I got my foot checked out after having it hit by a baseball on Tuesday night. Thank goodness she didn’t ask me to rate my pain on a scale of 0-10 because I would have given two answers on two opposite ends.

The truth is, I have no idea how to gauge my pain. When I broke a toe in high school, I walked on it until it healed, wearing four inch heals every Sunday. I never went to the doctor, even though I could clearly see that it was misshapen.

“That’s impossible!” people have told me.

Maybe for someone who grew up in a normal environment—where belts are not considered legitimate whipping tools, where sexual abuse doesn’t lurk around church corners, and where abusive siblings don’t minimize the pain they caused after throwing you across your room by your neck.

Bur for someone who faced the possibility of pain on a daily basis, I’m not sure I could have survived if I hadn’t learned how to ignore it. I became very good at dissociating out of my body, talking myself out of my feelings, and redefining sensations as something else—as something acceptable to my various abusers.

So what happens when I suddenly don’t need the protection of a high pain tolerance?

I have to teach myself to listen to my body again.

Notice I didn’t say teach myself to feel pain again. My body, on some levels, has no problem feeling pain. It registers in my brain just fine. Sometimes it’s from current stimuli; sometimes it’s from past traumas. I feel it, but immediately my cognitive mind works to control its interference. Deep breaths, creative visualization, etc.

Like most things in life, it’s not bad in and of itself. The ability to look past pain is a good tool for pain management.

However, that’s not so good when the pain is there to tell me that something bad happened—like my foot this week, or the shin splints that notified me that I needed to adjust my running a few weeks ago, or the pulled muscle that told me I pushed myself too far in yoga last year.

In high school, I would have ignored all of those unless I simply couldn’t function—and I would have done permanent damage to my body.

I may not feel any more inclined to acknowledge the pain now. I could have muscled my way through this current injury if I were determined. I chose to go to the doctor—not because the pain was more intense than it was the last time I broke a toe, but because this time I’m committed to caring for and loving my body.

Plus I’m surrounded by people, for once, who don’t understand why the hell I wouldn’t go to the doctor if I had a question of injury, so I had lots of encouragement.

Turns out the X-ray didn’t show a fracture.

Immediately my stoic upbringing ran its familiar diatribe.  “You’re such a baby.” “You’re going to get fat.” “You’re so lazy.” “It’s not broken, so why can’t you walk?” “Is the pain really that bad?”

Apparently only broken bones serve as legitimate injuries to this “old me” that I’ve resurrected. It’s hard to make room for weakness and injury when you grew up on the motto “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”

But here’s one thing I realize now that I didn’t realize back when I could bully myself out of listening to my body:

Ignoring the pain doesn’t actually make it go away.

Ignoring the injury doesn’t heal it.

Pain is not weakness leaving the body. It’s weakness entering the body. It’s the signal that my body sends to my brain that something needs attention—something’s wrong. While there may have been times as a child when my mind needed to believe that the pain was unimportant, I’m not there anymore. I’m in a different place—a safe place—where I am responsible for listening and caring for myself, which means using crutches for a few weeks instead of trying to prove my willpower to those ghosts in my head.

 

Killing the Messenger: A Closer Look at Anger

Last week in talking about forgiveness, anger and violence frequently came up. Even though I normally would do something lighter after such a heavy topic, I feel I need to cover my position on anger to try to clear up the misunderstandings. To be honest, I’m not even sure how much of this is original to me or to another psychotherapist because it’s a topic that we’ve covered in depth several times. Then again, how much of an idea is ever original to anyone? All ideas are formed based on our interactions with others. Therefore, here is my spin on what I’ve come to understand about anger through the exchange of ideas with very wise others.

I suppose if you weren’t shocked about my previous post, you won’t be shocked to learn that I’ve come to see anger as healthy. I lost count of how many times I said that last week. Anger really is the most demonized shadow emotion, and it’s unfortunate because anger can be such a powerful tool.

I think the aversion to anger lies in this myth that anger is the same as malice, violence, and abuse.

It’s not.

First, malice is an intent—wishing someone harm. While I could argue a relativistic approach about the neutrality of a “wish,” I do not believe that intending someone harm is either good or healthy. But anger doesn’t have to come accompanied with intent. I can be (and am) angry at my abusers without wanting to see them harmed.

Second, violence and abuse are behaviors—a certain way of expressing various attitudes and emotions. Anger can be part of that mix, but it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes violence and abuse can be about control, entitlement, sadistic pleasure or prejudice without anger ever entering the picture. Even if anger were always part of violence and abuse, it would be fallacious to assume that one is equal to the other. In order for anger to become violence, there must also be a script.

And by “script” I mean exactly what it sounds like. Shakespeare wasn’t too far off when he likened the world to a stage. Life is filled with little scripts that tell us what to do and say in various situations. Think about the majority of your interactions and how rote they can be in the beginning and end. There might be some variation, but for the most part we all follow a basic model of interaction.

Scripts aren’t instinctual from birth. They’re conditioned and taught through culture and, as a result, often vary from culture to culture. If someone tried to kiss me in greeting, I might duck and run, but if I grew up in Europe, that would not be an awkward way of saying hello.

Whereas our scripts are conditioned, emotions are universal across humanity—the one language that can be understood across cultures—and shared with other species. We tend to downplay the importance of emotion in science, but the fact is emotions serve a pretty significant evolutionary function. Our species could not survive without them. They’re one of the oldest surviving aspects of the mind because they are essential to group interaction.

As an emotion, anger has a purpose. It’s the warning light that goes off when something is wrong. By itself, that warning is neither good nor bad . . . actually, I could argue that it’s good because without that warning light we’d have a hard time knowing when something crossed an important boundary. But for the sake of simplicity, we’ll call it neutral.

We are taught how we’re supposed to react to that warning, and that is where we get into problems. When we think of anger, the scripts that most often come to mind are suppression or rage—neither of which are healthy. In many ways, I also see them as the same response. Anger out of control is anger that can no longer be suppressed. And suppressed anger will eventually become out of control.

Let’s use the analogy of urination. It’s not something we consider all that pleasant, but it is a natural bodily function that we all have. If you can’t pee, there’s something wrong with your body. If you try to suppress your body’s need for too long, sooner or later you’re going to pee uncontrollably all over yourself. If you suppress your body’s need consistently over time, you’ll cause permanent damage.

Similarly, when anger is considered something we need to suppress or drive away from ourselves, the only time it ever finds its way out is when we get to the point that we can’t suppress it any longer. Then, yes, we’re going to get unhealthy and unwanted expressions.

If we consistently fail to give ourselves a healthy outlet for our natural emotions, it will also cause all of those nasty little health problems that everyone associates with “negative emotions.” And if the pee analogy isn’t enough to convince you that the health problems are a result of an unhealthy expression of anger, consider adrenaline. It’s common knowledge by now that too much adrenaline in the body can cause pretty significant damage, especially if adrenaline levels are kept elevated over time (aka stress). But no doctor would argue from that knowledge that we shouldn’t have an adrenaline response. We’re advanced enough in our understanding to recognize that adrenaline serves an important function in the fight/flight response. It gets our body ready to deal with an emergency. We need that ability. But if our adrenaline response is repeatedly triggered and our body isn’t given the proper outlet for releasing that energy, it causes problems.

Why should anger be any different? Go ahead and make note of the unhealthy approaches to anger, but don’t kill the messenger because you don’t know how to make use of the message! Instead, find the positive approaches to anger.

It’s an arousing emotion, meaning it creates energy. Like most people, I used to associate that energy with destruction, in a bad way. It’s true that anger can be destructive, but as a part of creation, destruction can actually be healthy. Sometimes it’s better to end a relationship because it’s toxic. Sometimes it’s better to cut some ties, pull down some walls, demolish some beliefs, and tear up some letters. Anger as a destructive force gives us the energy to bring to an end something that no longer contributes to our health and/or growth.

Kali--goddess of time and change, often a symbol of destruction but also a symbol of creation. My "goddess" of anger.

Kali–goddess of time and change, often a symbol of destruction but also a symbol of creation. My “goddess” of anger.

But, I’ve discovered that anger can also be constructive. Some of my best art has been created during a period of intense anger. It’s been the force behind much of my healing and the impetus that prompted me to create a better life for myself. And I wouldn’t be learning how to build relational boundaries without the anger that tells me when someone has done something that violates my person.

Putting the destruction and construction together, I see anger as the catalyst for change, inspiring activism, social justice, and protests. Civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, child labor laws—all of it involved some sort of anger at the injustice of the situation and a desire to see that change. Hell, the U.S. wouldn’t even be here without anger. Anger is a valuable stressor that pushes a system to make adjustments. Otherwise, the system has no reason to change.

Sometimes anger can just be an extra boost of energy. Some of my best workouts have been fueled by anger. I absolutely love running when I’m pissed. Yoga, with angry girl music blasting, is pure exhilaration. And let’s not forget that rumor about angry sex. I’ve been doing my own little experiments on that. I can’t reveal my results, but the gist of my post could probably tip you off. 😉

I’ve even come to see anger as an expression of love! By allowing myself to experience anger over my abuse, I am showing love to myself. By allowing myself to get angry over the injustice that I see against another, I am loving them enough to get upset at the way they are being treated. And I really can’t bring this point out enough—even Jesus (you know, the love your neighbor as yourself guy) got angry enough to build a freaking whip and overturn the tables of a bunch of swindlers.

So, to wrap up my exhausted ramblings, yes, anger can have significant problems associated with it–as can any emotion or natural function that has been demonized and pushed into the recesses of our psyche. And it’s true that living in a constant state of anger can be problematic . . . but to be fair, no emotion is healthy to experience as a constant state of being (not even happiness). So really, the constant state thing is a moot point.

When we no longer try to dictate to ourselves which emotions we’re allowed to feel, the body has its own way of finding balance. Our job is to listen to it (yes I said that last week, but I think it’s important) and sit with the process. We start by questioning the scripts we’ve been taught about our emotions and giving our emotions space to simply be–without judgment, without expectation. Just be.

Fighting the Wrong Villain: Thin Women and the Thin Ideal

It’s the beginning of a new year, so I expect to see a lot of posts and articles about losing weight, working out, eating healthy, etc. I’ve been encouraged by seeing some fighting back against the annual guilt fest and claiming their right to love their bodies and selves as they are.

However, as you can easily guess, the positive body-image posts and resolutions are the minority. Even on sites whose entire mission is to fight the unrealistic expectations of the thin ideal, there is body disparagement, ranging from the typical self-critique to demonizing and criticizing others.

A couple of days ago, Beauty Redefined posted a quote from Zooey Deschanel about refusing to give in to unrealistic beauty standards, and I was dismayed to see how many people dismissed what she had to say because she is thin.

But I probably shouldn’t have been. It’s not really much different from what I have gotten on a regular basis from others.

I’m not a particularly large person, though certainly not as small as Zooey. My mother was very petite, and I inherited her small bone structure. My freshman year of college, I went through a brief period of being slightly heavy, according to the charts, but for the most part, I’ve always been within a “healthy” weight.

That doesn’t mean that I haven’t struggled with my body image. Even though I can’t be classified as overweight or obese, I’m still far from meeting the standards of the thin ideal.

I’ve been working hard the last couple of years to learn to accept and love my body for what it is instead of what it isn’t, but it’s been a lonely journey. It’s difficult to express my insecurities to others. More often than not, when I dare to bring up my own struggle with the thin ideal, I’m met with comments such as “You’re thin; you have nothing to worry about” or “If only I were your size. You’re perfect.”

Perhaps comments like that are meant as an encouragement, but they don’t feel encouraging. Failure doesn’t really come in degrees. I fail to meet the thin ideal as much as anyone else who fails. The goal is still as much out of a healthy, realistic reach now as it would be if I gained an extra hundred pounds, and my need to overcome the thin ideal and to accept my body is as great as any other woman’s.

I’ve grown so tired of being dismissed. I’m tired of seeing women like Zooey vilified for being small. The goal of redefining beauty standards shouldn’t be to make thin “bad.” Rather it should be to accept the range of healthy expressions that women’s bodies can take–“fat,” “thin,” and anything in between.

More importantly, it should be to break away from the idea that a woman’s value is based in her appearance. Zooey’s wisdom or my journey aren’t diminished because of our weight—or at least they shouldn’t be. No woman’s should be, no matter what her weight.

So while we’re all talking about our resolutions and health goals for the year, can we also please stop demonizing women, whether heavy or light, for their bodies? I’d love to see every woman reach a place where she can stand up and celebrate her body as a beautiful part of herself, as my beautiful and amazing friend Dani did, but I understand that kind of journey is a long one that some may not ready to make.

At the very least, though, we can refrain from making the journey harder. The next time you feel like dismissing someone’s body concerns because they don’t match yours, take a step back and just try acknowledging that she is allowed to struggle too.

The Invisible Woman and the Thin Ideal

I doubt there is a single woman in the U.S. who hasn’t felt the need to be thin at some point in her life. The bombardment of thin ideology is impossible to escape. What’s worse, it’s being sold to women under the guise of having something to do with health, finding its way into children’s commercials like the Sketcher’s ad for girls in which their shape-ups keep Heidi fit so that the boys will follow her around to adult ads promising practically the same thing.

The reality is that the thin ideal has nothing to do with health.

The thin ideal is all about the dress size. Exercise is marketed to slim the body down. Foods are marketed for the ability to make a person lose weight instead of for their nutritional content.

It’s this thin ideal that drives people to criticize an Olympic athlete  for being “fat” and obsessively speculate about the few-pound weight gain of celebrities while ignoring the very serious and dangerous weight loss of models.

It’s the thin ideal that makes plus size models (and for the record, plus size in the fashion industry is now anyone size 6 or above) all but invisible in media. The only time they’re not invisible is when their “largeness” is being focused on—an anomaly of being comfortable with a body that doesn’t fit the thin ideal. Think about it. Do you ever see plus-size models on the cover of fashion magazines when their weight or body size is not the focus? When was the last time a female protagonist in a movie was anything but thin? For that matter, when was the last time a female background character was anything but thin?

While we’re on the topic of models, let’s not forget that even the “thin” models are photoshopped to be thinner… that is, if the body is even real.

The thin ideal sets an impossible standard, and it’s used to sell women products they’re told that they absolutely must have in order to achieve this impossible standard. It’s a marketing tool.

But it’s so much more than that too.

In one of my earlier posts, I pointed out how modesty is a tool of the patriarchy to keep women objectified. In a similar vein, I believe the thin ideal is a tool of the patriarchy to keep women invisible.

On the literal front, the thin ideal goes hand in hand with other gender norms—demure, dainty, delicate, frail, fragile. Being thin literally prevents women from taking up too much space or from being too obtrusive. The physical taxation on the body ensures that women remain weaker and in need of a “big strong man” to protect them. Morever, it pressures many women to choose to be weak because working out and eating healthy can cause a form of weight gain. A healthy weight is still too big for the thin ideal.

On a more metaphoric front, the thin ideal keeps women’s accomplishments and abilities invisible. By placing so much important on the body’s appearance, the thin ideal diminishes the importance of pursuing intellectual accomplishment, which means fewer women are a “threat” to men in cerebral fields. And if a woman says “fuck it” and breaks away from the pressure of the thin ideal, her accomplishments are still safely obscured by drawing attention to her body and its perceived flaws, thus people are more concerned with Ashley Judd’s “puffy” face than with her kick-ass activism and with Sandra Fluke’s sexual appeal than with what she has to say.

Lastly, the thin ideal keeps women invisible to themselves. When everything, including exercise and food, is marketed based on its ability to make a woman attractive to others, it becomes far too easy to forget that the body is the vehicle through which we live. Exercise shouldn’t be about keeping a firm butt and flat abs because that’s what others (e.g. men) want, it should be about keeping the heart healthy and the muscles strong so that women can experience life. The thin ideal distances women from their needs and desires for the sake of matching up to an arbitrary (or perhaps not so arbitrary) standard set by an obscure “other.” We’ve come a long way from the days when people thought a woman’s uterus would fall out if she exercised, but we have an equally long way to go to allow women to reclaim their bodies for their own use.

It’s time to change the conversation. We need to replace the thin ideal with a healthy ideal–one that acknowledges the body diversity that exists and that takes the focus off of a beauty standard that requires bad health to achieve. Women need to claim their right to care for their bodies’ needs for reasons that have nothing to do with anyone else. Women need to claim their right to take up space.