In my mid twenties I developed excruciating pain and immobility down my neck and spine, and every day felt like a battle between my body and I. Would it send in so many lightning strikes of searing pain that I had to cancel my whole day in bed? Would I be able to turn my head, or have to turn my whole body both ways before crossing the street?
As I dove into the healing process for this injury, I did a lot of physical body work with a man whose intuitive healing ability changed my life.
At one point during a bodywork session, he was digging around in a flared-up, tight, and painful area in my groin, which we had come to understand might have been a root cause for a lot of the pain I was in. To distract myself from what he was doing, I made casual chit chat, saying something like “it’s so weird that it hurts so much right there when I didn’t even do anything, the body is so dumb.”
He responded quietly. “Really? You can’t think of any reason this part of your body might have tightened up to protect you?”
It was a watershed moment for me. I had never before considered that my body might have been trying to protect me, instead of trying to hurt me, but I suddenly understood that since I was sexually violated as a child, the muscles around my groin (and other parts of my body) had been on red alert for trespassers.
Decades of a body on nonstop red alert had consequences, and I was now dealing with them in the form of neck and spine pain. Holy shit.
This began a discovery and healing process for me, which I now see played out in my clients all the time, in which a person moves from feeling like their body is the enemy, to recognizing that their body is on their team and has only ever been trying to protect them.
There are consequences to your body’s attempts to protect you, sure.
For example, if you overtrain and undereat for years in an attempt to finally look “good enough,” your body will very likely start to break down. You might get sick, or injured, or develop a chronic illness, all of which are your body’s way of slowing you down to protect you, even if it feels like a betrayal at the time. Or you might experience permanent thyroid and hormone imbalances which affect mood, mental health, or metabolism; the result of your body trying desperately to do what you ask of it, making trades that it thinks you want, and attempting to keep you safe. Or you might permanently damage your fertility, which is your body’s way of adapting to survive in what it perceives as a highly stressful environment, to protect you from having a baby in a world with too much stress and not enough food.
Instead of appreciating the way our bodies protect us in those moments however, we often interpret these issues to be proof that our body is the enemy.
Do you hold any resentment toward your body for any pain, injury, illness, function, or changes that it has made? If so, this is a part of your relationship to your body, and must be explored and healed if your goal is body neutrality.
Consider the ways in which your body has protected you. Your body is constantly trying to talk to you, and serious consequences like major injuries and illness are often the result of your body needing to scream because you didn’t listen when it whispered.
Perhaps back in my mid twenties, my body had been telling me quietly that I needed to take my strength training down a notch, and focus on learning to relax, calm down and breathe deeply. If so, I wasn’t listening.
Instead, I walked around in a constant state of anxiety, with my shoulders up to my ears, my breathing high and shallow, my stomach sucked in as far as it would go, and my hips held awkwardly in a confused attempt to both look “flattering,” and not invite too much attention.
I felt like I had to push myself in order to be worth anything, to perform well and sculpt a killer body and always be in “beast mode.” So I pushed past the physical blocks I felt, worked around them, and ended up injured.
That injury turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me. I’m convinced even now that nothing short of ongoing excruciating pain would have been enough to get me to soften, turn inward, and learn to unwind decades of fear, shame, trauma, and hypervigilance.
Our bodies are always protecting us, and really recognizing and embracing that fact invites a lot more compassion, kindness, ease, and warmth into the relationship.
If this is a new concept to you, start by momentarily adopting the perspective that the body always has a good reason for what it does, and that it’s always trying to take care of you. If you explore your own personal history with your body from that place, what comes up for you?
If you’re immediately rolling your eyes and thinking of the one or more ways in which your body is a goddamn idiot who does stupid shit for no reason just to ruin your life, then bingo! You’ve just found the area that needs examination.
Get curious about the topic that makes you feel betrayed by your body, and ask some questions, such as:
What if this was a message from your body? What might it have been trying to tell you?
What if this was a gift from your body? What might have it offered you?
What might this have been your body’s way of protecting you from?
What feelings might this have been distracting you from, or keeping you too busy to think about?
In what way did this meet (or try to meet) an emotional need you had been ignoring, or set (or try to set) a boundary you had been ignoring?
Assuming your brain and body always has a good reason for what it does, and it’s always trying to help or protect you, what might the purpose be of whatever feature or function plagues your relationship with it?
Sometimes the body will offer you physical pain as either a distraction from emotional pain, or a physical representation of it so that you can feel more valid and justified in your pain. For example, you might have some life events happening that make you feel sad or afraid or angry, but you can’t very well take time off of work to handle those feelings, can you? But if you have debilitating back pain, or migraines, or something else physically limiting and painful, you certainly can.
Likewise, it can be hard to get the validation you crave for feeling emotionally stuck or in pain, while it’s much easier to get validation and attention for a physical ailment. So sometimes physical pain is about getting emotional needs met, even if it’s not direct and comes at a huge cost.
Other times the body will step in and represent a boundary, when you haven’t established a strong enough boundary in other ways. For example, if your parents are always telling you to diet, you might experience a constant urge to eat to break the rules, reject their meddling, and feel free. In this case, your body would be a literal, physical boundary, since you didn’t establish one verbally or emotionally by telling them that your body is none of their business and you need them to stop commenting on or trying to control it.
While we’re on the topic, gaining weight itself can be considered a physical boundary, and often people who find themselves unable to stop eating are actually attempting to unconsciously “pad themselves” against the scary parts of life. With more fat on one’s body, it can feel like one is less visible and less vulnerable, and sometimes that’s exactly what a person most needs, even if they consciously want to lose weight.
Sometimes the protective mechanism of weight gain will be quite clear, as in the case of women who have been sexually violated and gain weight as an unconscious attempt to make themselves invisible and unattractive to men as a way of staying safe, and sometimes it’s not as obvious, as in the case of someone in an unhappy marriage who eats to soothe and distract herself from the scary gut feeling that something big needs to change.
Personally, whenever I’m going through a hard or scary time (think: a big transition, or a global pandemic), I find myself craving more comfort foods and eating until I’m a bit overly full, and tend to gain a little weight. Then when the danger or stress has passed and I’m settled into the next phase of life, my eating naturally regulates back down to normal, and those extra pounds come off.
I like to think of these natural fluctuations as a literal representation of the “emotional safety padding” I need in those moments. I wish to be more protected, to be more durable and less vulnerable, and then poof! Some extra weight comes in to help get me through.
I don’t recommend intentional weight loss for a variety of reasons, but one of them is this: your body has likely gained weight for a particular reason. Attempting to diet to get rid of that weight without figuring out what that reason is sets you up for a lifetime of enemyship with your body, a lack of trust and respect for it’s messages, and a promise to fail.
If your body feels like you’re unsafe and need protecting, it’s not going to be persuaded to stop doing so just because the thought of going back into the world post-pandemic made you take up the keto diet.
This is the basis of so much of the work I do with clients: the restoring of trust and communication with a body they thought was their enemy.
The body always has a good reason for what it does. The body always has your back, it’s always trying to protect you, and it’s always on your team.
How have you been treating your teammate?
Sending big love,
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