From Pain to Possibility
Episode 9: Why Am I Not Better?
Intro: You're listening to From Pain to Possibility, with Susi Hately. You’ll hear Susi’s best ideas on how to reduce or even eradicate your pain and learn how to listen to your body when it whispers so you don't have to hear it scream. And now here's your host, Susi Hately.
Susi: With this episode, I want to dig into this concept of, why am I not through this already? Why am I not out of pain yet? Why have I tried all these things and seen all these professionals and I'm still not through this already? I want to look at two concepts and then a few strategies that you can play with and consider to help yourself.
So the first one that I want to chat about is this idea of what happens when a human tries to fix a problem or sort out a problem. And this is a very human thing that we, as all humans, do. There is a problem. We want to solve it. We want to fix it, get it over with, and then carry on with our life. And oftentimes, when we have a physical problem, that can happen, right? We go to our chiropractor or a physical therapist or acupuncturist or osteopath or massage therapist, and the thing that’s bugging us gets worked out, and we feel really good.
Other times, we can do any one of those things. We feel really good. But then that feeling really good fades away very quickly, and we wonder to ourselves, why has it faded away? Then we go back, do it again, same thing happens. Go back, do it again, same thing happens. And then what can occur out of that is we can get into this place that is sort of a resigned acceptance or a place of tolerating or maybe even a place of denial or just a space where it's like, maybe this is just the way it is, even though there might be this little innate knowing, a little niggle inside, that says, I don't think so, but I really don't know where else to look.
And so someone may have a similar condition, and they meet them at a cocktail party or they read something online, and they go, “Ooh, maybe that's the thing that's going to help me. They got that fixed. They have something similar. I’m going to go try out that person.” And then the same sort of scenario happens. So we fall into this trap of fix it, and then frustration, which can look like resignation or denial or tolerating of some sort. And different people will experience the other side of fix it in different ways, just depending on who you are.
But it's the basic concept of this oscillation between these places. And one of the reasons this oscillation can happen, particularly in states of persistent pain and persistent symptoms, is that we're trying to solve the problem that isn't. And what I like to say is, where the pain is, is not actually the problem. Where the pain is, is a signal or a sign that there's something up, where the actual issue, or the correlating pieces that are very, very significant in terms of helping solve the issue, is under our level of awareness. And so we go about trying to solve these symptoms, trying to resolve them, and yet we're only working at it from this superficial place. We're not actually uncovering what actually else is going on and correlating to that scenario. Yeah?
So in the process of getting better, there is this piece of awareness that's really, really vital—and I'll talk about that in a moment. Just leave it as a bumper sticker here for now—is that we can't change anything we're not aware of. So it would make sense that you gain some short-term gains from some professionals that you're working with, but then it doesn't consistently stick because there's a piece of your awareness that isn't fully being addressed or you're not fully experiencing or looking at. And then when you start to, that's when things will start to shift. We'll talk about that, the rest of that, in the awareness piece in a moment.
The second piece that's really important is that we can sometimes have a really wonky relationship between expectation and reality so we can have an expectation that, let's say for a yoga teacher, you know, I'm a yoga teacher, or I'm a health professional. I should know better. I'm smart. I'm educated. I've had all this training. I should be able to do and figure this out. And in reality, that's not happening. Or I've done all this training. I should understand movement. I should understand function. I should understand strengthening or mobility. And then in reality, what we're seeing is that the movement capacity that one has, or the capability that they have, is less than they expected. And so it can be very frustrating because there is a miss between what they ought to be able to do, or what they feel they ought to be able to do, and the reality.
And when I’m working with someone, what becomes very, very important and significant in helping them get better is really getting clear on what the reality is, because when they can get clear on what the reality is, then they can start to make the changes that are needed, so then they get to that piece that they're expecting, that thing that they feel they should be able to do or they ought to be able to do. They can get there a lot quicker, okay?
So how does this all happen? Well, as I mentioned a moment ago, the awareness piece is a really, really significant piece to both of these parts: the expectation and reality relationship, and where the pain is isn't the problem. The awareness is really, really interesting and fascinating. If you want to get out of the fix-it space, if you want to get out of the resignation space, there needs to first be an awareness that there is a problem, and you can recognize that there is clearly a problem.
Now, the reason I say that—this might seem obvious—but the reason I say this is that when people can get stuck in resignation or tolerating or numb, a lot of times they won't see that there's a problem. It's just kind of like, well, you know, it just is what it is. So when someone starts to become aware that maybe there is actually a problem here, that's the first piece of the awareness game.
The second piece of the awareness game is deciding that you can change it, you as the individual. And this is really important here, too, because when we are in the fix-it space, we tend to look externally to ourselves for somebody else or something else to fix the problem. And the trouble with that is that while initially it's a good place to start to kind of recognize that symptoms can go down and there can be some relief, but, ultimately, we are a very, very dynamic, systematic, full of blood and bones and communication strategies and emotions and feelings. And there's so much that goes on inside of us that just one external thing, particularly if you're someone who's got persistent issues, one external thing is not going to be the thing that's going to support you. So there's this place of deciding that you can actually lead this process and gain some more awareness about where the pain is isn't the problem, and that there's something that's under your level of awareness and that you're able to start to explore, how do I discover and how do I explore? How do I work with that thing that's under my level of awareness?
So then the next stage of that is discovering the patterns. And the reason why I'm saying discovering the patterns is that the power is in the pattern. So if we just say to our professional that’s working with us, “How do I fix my hip,” or “What do I need to do for my back,” or “I’ve got this shoulder problem,” if you have a persistent issue, very rarely is the issue only in that one joint structure, because what tends to happen when we have an issue that has longstanding-ness to it, it's got some stamina around being a persistent issue, is that you've borrowed from other areas of your system to be able to live your life, because if there's a limitation in patterning or if there's a dysfunctional movement pattern, chances are you're compensating somewhere else so that you can continue to live your life. It's one of the beauties of the way our neuromuscular system is set up is that we can borrow from other areas, compensate in other areas, to enable us to keep moving forward.
Now, the trouble with that, though, on the flip side, is that when we do that, we tend to get weaker. So say, for example, you have a right hip issue. It's not uncommon for you to move out of that right hip and into loading through your left side a lot more. And then that left side can become more tired and more fatigued because it's bearing more of the load. And in the early stages of rehab, well, that can be a really good thing because it's helping the original injury area heal. If that pattern isn’t improved, then that becomes a bit of an issue. So then if that opposite hip now is taking the load, and it's starting to get pooped out, it can have a greater opportunity for injury or just getting pooped out because it's carrying the load that the other hip should be doing.
So then what happens is we'll find another creative way to help the compensating hip do the job of the original hip, and so that might be up into the rib cage, it might be a cross pattern, it might be a pattern that goes up the same side of the body, it might be a bracing pattern through the breath or through the rib cage or through the jaw, maybe something to the feet. I mean, it could go in any direction. But the key here is that we can start to see some of the patterns that are contributing to the issue at hand. And then as we start to see some of these patterns, we can then start to refine the patterns; and when we refine the patterns, we improve the motor control and the motor coordination so the communication between the brain and the body of how it's meant to move.
When we can improve that control and that coordination, well, then, areas of the body that are meant to be doing the movement, do the movement. In the areas that are not meant to be doing the movement, don't need to do the movement. So we become a lot more efficient in our movement patterns, and then we can also notice when the inefficiencies start to arise and start taking us off our game.
So let me talk about that one more time. So we can be in this place of tolerating or resigned or numb. And then we start to recognize that maybe there is this awareness piece that's letting us know that there is actually a problem to solve. So we can recognize that there is a problem, and we decide that we are the ones that can actually change it. We, as the individual. And then from that space, we can discover the patterns that are contributing to the issue and then refine those patterns, right?
So what happens is then if we come to this expectation-reality relationship, we can become really real and cognizant and clear about what's actually happening through our system, what's working that should be working, what's working that shouldn't be working, where we're compensating, how we're breathing, how we're typically going about things. And then at that reality, when we're there, we can be real about what's happening. Then, when we intervene, it's much, much more effective, rather than trying to keep pushing for something that's way outside of what our integrity or physical integrity can actually do. Because if you’re trying to do an activity and you don't have the structural integrity to do it, then the way that force load is being absorbed and dissipated and transferred through your body is just not going to be as efficient as if you're moving better. And so if we can get those underlying coordinating patterns cleaned up and working better, then your ability to gain strength becomes much, much, much easier.
Then what starts to happen is because you've had success and you feel your symptoms decreasing and you feel the gains happening, you feel the new patterns, you've got an inner locus of control that's growing and growing and growing, that you are the one that is aware, you are the one that’s cognizant of the way that you move and the way that you are, then that reality starts to improve, and you can now have a new expectation about what's possible for your life. And then the size of the problem that you're now trying to solve is a lot smaller. Because this is the problem. We have a scenario where we're coming into the reality of what's really so of our movement patterns. It can sometimes be quite frustrating and shocking. When we're first becoming aware of how little we actually move, which is very common for people who have persistent pain, is they don't realize how little they move that's actually really good movement, when they realize that, it can be so frustrating, and the problem just seems so massive. When in reality, the sooner they can get to what actually is so so that they can solve the actual so problem, the resolution comes a lot faster. So it's, you slow down to speed up. The slower you go, the faster you get better, over and over and over and over and over and over again.
But what's important in all of this is that there is a price to pay for growing awareness. And that is responsibility. So once you're aware of something, you'll recognize that there are these patterns. You'll recognize compensatory strategies that you're using. And you can't become unaware of those things. You might not like what you're becoming aware of, and yet it's the goal that's going to move you forward. So what's important is that your awareness and your attentiveness in the process of your improving movement are really, really key in this partnership if you're getting better. These are two characteristics of you that can feed your process moving forward.
There is a third concept that I want to talk about around getting better and where things can go sideways, and that is there can be this expectation of the process being linear. And what's interesting is if you look at it once you're through it and you're on the other side of it and you're feeling much better and you're moving into the life you want to live, it is actually a linear process, but while you're in it, it's very much not a linear process.
So sometimes what I'll do with clients early on is I’ll talk about this non-linear approach to linear progress. And I’ll write up on the back of their program or I’ll put it on a flip chart, I'll say, “Okay, so think about the positive feelings that you're feeling when you feel good.” And so typically, not all the time, but typically, people will say, “I feel taller. I feel lighter. I feel open. I feel spacious.” And I'll often use the words that they've used in their session with me, like, “Ooh, I'm feeling more mobile,” and “Ooh, there's more vitality there,” and “There's more suppleness there,” or “There's more openness there.” I'll use those words for them. And then to give me the words for when things are feeling less positive—strain, tension, pain, tingling, numbness, and ache.
So what I’ll then send them home with is an awareness exercise where I want them to notice when they're feeling the positive stuff and when they're feeling the negative stuff. And what I'll say to them when I'm doing this is that these characteristics, even though I'm labeling them as positive or negative, that ultimately they're not negative or positive; they're simply qualities of how you feel. And if they can move forward with understanding that neither of them really are negative or positive, I'm just grouping them that way for sake of ease, when they get that, if they're just signals in their system and communication in their system, saying to them, “What's up?” then it starts to change the dynamic of how they feel between themselves and their body.
So then when they come back, they typically have some type of graph of sorts, where it's like, I felt open or tall or spacious; or I felt strain, pain, and there tends to be an up and down-ness of it. And then I ask them, “What did you notice in and around those times when you felt spacious, openness, tallness, lightness, supple? What did you notice when you had strain, tension, pain, tingling, etc.? What else was happening before or during?” And then they start to see other data points, other pieces that are contributing to how it is that they're feeling.
So then what starts to occur is they start to see how their whole life and how their practice and who and how they are are contributing to what they're feeling, which becomes even more of an insight into how they have this scenario that they have, and they can become a lot more neutral about the scenario. Rather than feeling and seeing and experiencing their symptoms increasing, they can start to see other factors that are related to them. And so then they can start to make better and better choices for themselves based off of the actual data that they have.
So the distinction, really, between rehabilitation and getting on with the rest of your life is that in rehabilitation you're growing the awareness of these yellow lights, or of these whispers, and utilizing them effectively and improving your overall awareness and growing that awareness and then applying that into more and more complex movements and more and more complex activity. Because even when you get to better and better activity, you still have to hone and improve your structural integrity for every new challenge that you have, because for every level you get to in terms of your ability to move, there tends to be more opportunity for you to explore your capacity. And yet the integrity that you have at the level that you're at now doesn't necessarily match where that new opportunity is taking you. So you have to stay really present and aware to how you're feeling so that you can continue to give yourself the recuperative time or the recuperative exercise to be able to rest and regenerate and be ready for the next day. So it's really not about find it and then fix it. And then when find it and fix it doesn't work, that it's not about eff it. Rather, this idea of being aware and attentive and conscious and deliberate and what is that you're experiencing so that you can become aware of where the problem actually is, you can discover patterns of movement. You can refine those patterns of movement. You can discover those whispers and yellow lights. You understand that as you grow and develop these new patterns and better and better movement patterns, that your integrity is matching the activity you want to do now. And so for each new opportunity of activity that you can be faced with, you need to recognize that your integrity is not quite there yet. So you have to be aware of how your body is moving so that you know how far, how fast you can push yourself, when you need to recuperate, what other support that you need.
Bottom line is this: there is a price of growing awareness. Sometimes it can totally suck to become aware of things, particularly when reality feels so far away from the expectation of what you really think you should be able to do. But the good news is this: facts don't stop existing simply because you're ignoring them. You don't just shove those symptoms aside and not assume that they're not going to come back. And you can't become unaware of something that you have become aware of. So allow yourself to pay attention, to become aware, to start integrating that awareness outside of the time that you are with the professional that you're working with, so whomever that is. So when they're working on you and you get the relief—so whether it's an adjustment or a massage or you have some dry needling done or you have any number of things that are available out there for you—is start to pay attention to when that good feeling starts to fade, because it will, because the relief that you've received from the professional is just a tiny step in changing the pattern. So you need to be able to notice when that good feeling starts to fade. And then as that good feeling starts to fade, notice what else of significance is contributing to that or correlating to that. So that then when you might go back to the practitioner, you can say to them, “Okay, this is what I'm now noticing. So this adjustment or this massage or this whatever technique that you gave me or did for me, that gave a result that lasted for this period of time. And I noticed that when I did x, y, z, that it contributed to it. So now what should I do?” And then they'll likely assess your body and assess your movement, and then there'll be some intervention that will happen, and then from there, you'll probably have a longer period of time. But the key is your awareness, and you're articulating that awareness back to the practitioner, will really support the relationship between you and them, and then you can really move this forward.
So have fun enjoying and exploring that concept of awareness, understanding that it really is a missing piece for many people in the recovery-and-healing process.
Now, if you would like my help in uncovering some of the things that you're not aware of, so you can grow your own attentiveness and awareness for what's going on through your system, then send us a note to [email protected] And if you're a medical professional or you’re a yoga teacher who wants to be integrating these concepts into your practice, then also send us note. We'd be happy to have a chat with you about how you can integrate therapeutic aspects of yoga into your current practice.
Have a great time exploring.