What has your pain taught you?

I don’t know if you’re familiar with quicksand, but probably most of us have seen it in the movies or on TV. Our hero is on an adventure in some kind of jungle and they (or someone in their party of merry men and women) falls into what turns out to be quicksand. And they struggle and struggle and sink faster and faster. Usually in the movies the hero saves the day. Struggling in quicksand is a lot like what we do with our pain – both physical and emotional. We fight against it, struggling more and more, sinking deeper and deeper. But do you know how to actually get out of quicksand in real life? Like if you fell in it? Struggling makes you sink, and doing nothing – literally putting yourself into the floating position (arms and legs out, with zero resistance) will help you float to the top. From there you can take very slow, gentle strokes and get yourself out.

What the quicksand metaphor shows is that if you do the opposite of what you think you should do, you can often get to safety. In the case of pain, it means looking at it differently, changing your relationship with it. So that brings me to the question, what are your pain taught you? The answer can be many things. Maybe it’s taught you something about yourself. Or your relationships. Or your values/what’s important to you. Maybe it’s taught you something about the meaning of life. Or helped you set goals. Before straight off answering this question, really take a moment and ponder it. Because often the immediate answer is NOTHING! or THAT LIFE SUCKS! or something to that extent. But is that true? Is that all it’s taught you? Those answers often take us back to the struggle. You’ve fallen in quicksand by responding quickly with the first thing that comes to mind, rather than taking some time to really explore if there is something more you can get out of your experience.

Look, I get it, there is nothing fun about physical (or emotional pain) but that doesn’t mean it can’t do something good for us.

I’m going to use my experience as an example. And trust me, there was a time I was struggling in the quicksand and those would have been my answers. But here is what it has actually taught me, when I’ve taken the time to think about it:

  • I’m stronger – both physically and emotionally – then I thought I was, but it took a lot of work to get here.
  • Being treated with love and respect in romantic relationships and friendships is incredibly important to me.
  • I can do anything that I put my mind to, even if that means I have to adapt some things to what I can do.
  • Loving myself is the most important thing to me.
  • I want to have as many life adventures as possible despite chronic pain.
  • Everything I need is in the present moment, and sometimes the present moment isn’t great and sometimes it is, but that is how life is for everyone.
My first adventure after my diagnoses was to Vienna in 2017.

I’ve probably learned more lessons than that from my chronic illnesses and chronic pain, but should give you a picture of what it can teach you. Your answers will likely be different from mine. This is a key piece to acceptance, and if you can’t accept, you can’t really improve your well-being and quality of life. I want to make a few additional things clear with this post. First, I am not saying that your loss of health is a blessing or that you should be grateful for it. Sometimes as we move through illness grief, gratitude does appear, but that doesn’t mean you have to start looking for it. Also, meaning is not found in loss – it’s what you do after the loss. So the things I listed, are really about things I’ve done after I got sick. This is also not an exercise I’d recommend if you’ve just been diagnosed, because you won’t have had a chance to go through enough to be able to do it.

If you’re interested in contacting the present moment, check out my YouTube channel. This week’s podcast episode is on externalizing language, which can also be quite helpful – find it on Apple, Spotify, and everywhere else you get podcasts. Until next week, keep making the most of it!

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Can Acting “As If” Help Us With Chronic Illness?

No, we’re not talking about Cher from Clueless (did I date myself?). We’re talking about Alfred Adler, who was an early psychoanalyst, and whose work has contributed to the development of current psychotherapeutic techniques, including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. CBT, it turns out, has been incredibly helpful for people living with chronic pain and illness. One of the many techniques Adler developed was acting “as if” which got me wondering, can this help with chronic illness and pain? I’m going to start off by saying, there is not a lot of research in this area, so we don’t really know, but I’m going to do a bit of theorizing today, with the research that I did manage to find on the subject.

Great movie, but not what we’re talking about today.
Image from: https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2015/07/90743/best-clueless-quotes-movie

First, let’s maybe determine what acting “as if” means. This technique has the client make up a new story about themselves, their lives, their ability, or whatever else, for themselves and behave in the way that they would need to in order for this story to be true on a daily basis. (If you’re familiar with CBT you might recognize the cognitive and behavioural components here). Initially it was used for things like giving empathic responses, and being more assertive, or making decisions. The idea is, that by acting differently, and getting different responses from other people in your life because of it, your brain changes so that you can be more like this “new” person. I kind of thinking it as a mindset change.

Okay, I have a story before we move on. I was always a very shy person. To the point where I had some social anxiety as a child (literally would never answer questions in class, and was terrified of doing presentations, though I always had friends). That continued right into my twenties. In my twenties (and early thirties) I worked in retail, so naturally some of that social anxiety went away, but to be honest, a good portion stayed. That is, until I was in my early thirties. Then I decided I didn’t want to be so shy anymore. I set myself down a path where I would either be in situations where I couldn’t be as shy, or I would force myself to just talk more in situations I normally wouldn’t. I was essentially acting “as if” I was outgoing. Guess what? At 36, I can say that while I do get some butterflies in new situations, I definitely would not be considered “shy” or “awkward” or “socially anxious” anymore.

Little me.

But can this apply to chronic illness? And if it does, how exactly does that work? When we’re looking at chronic illness treatment, it’s always best to take a holistic, biopsychosocial approach. Typically, you’ll have a doctor (or team of doctors) that focuses on the biological aspects. Having a mental health care professional can assist with the psychosocial parts. There is a known association between self-efficacy, which is our beliefs about our ability to handle life’s challenges, and chronic illness and chronic pain disability. In other words, if we believe we can’t handle our illness or pain, then we won’t be able to and our illness and pain will actually be worse. This is where I think acting “as if” applies to us. We need to shift our mindset and starting acting “as if” we can handle the pain, we can handle the illness and the symptoms that go along with it. We replace self-pity with self-compassion. We are mindful of what we are doing and saying, and we start to take control of treatment (as holistically as possible). By doing so, our self-efficacy grows, and our pain lessens, and our illness has less control over our lives.

I would not be able to do most of what I can without self-efficacy.
2 years after diagnosis. Toronto -> Los Angeles. Solo Trip.

Okay, full stop. I know this might be a lot to take in, and you can’t even necessarily do this work on your own (though depending where you’re at with that self-efficacy thing, maybe you can). This is where having a support team, including a mental health professional might be helpful. At the very least, working on growing that mindfulness muscle and noticing what we’re doing is free to do (here’s the link to my meditation page which can help with that), until you can find (or afford) to have a professional help you. I truly believe in our abilities to live great lives, even with pain and illness. And, so, keep making the most of it.

New season of my podcast, Chronically Living and how to make the most of it, coming June 28, 2021.