Clients come to me for a variety of reasons, but by and large, they mostly show up at my clinic for two primary reasons. They either want help resolving their pain, or they want help improving their ability to perform better. Whether or not we are working to address and resolve pain, working to improve movement capacity and functional strength, or working toward building more mental and emotional resiliency, our ultimate goal is to become a better, stronger, wiser, more self-actualized version of ourselves.
Over many years of working through my own various aches and pains, as well as working with many clients through their healing processes, I have noticed a common denominator with all of them. Whether or not you get better and to what degree has far less to do with the techniques, exercises, passive therapy modalities, or finding a magic healer, and far more to do with how you understand and relate to your pain, and the responsibility you take in owning the healing process.
In order to get the most out of the healing process and resolving pain, you need to fully surrender and understand that you are capable of healing, that you deserve to heal, and that your ability to heal, grow, and thrive in your life is ultimately your responsibility.
The Hierarchy Body Systems
In order to understand and relate to our pain in a more productive way, we need to appreciate the hierarchy with which our nervous systems operate. The integrated nature of the bodywork we do at Denver Pain and Performance appreciates the fact that all of our systems, from the most superficial (tissues) to the deepest (consciousness), are all connected and there is an order of importance to them and they each affect the others. See below.
Tissues - Muscles, Connective Tissues, Bones, Joints
Physiology - Organs, Receptors, Reflexes, Energy Pathways, Meridians
Limbic Brain - Emotions, Thoughts, Feelings, Beliefs
Consciousness - Higher Self, Soul
Most of the time, we get stuck operating at the most superficial level: tissues. Social media feeds are full of posts and articles detailing the nuances of functional anatomy, biomechanics, kinesiology, training techniques, and therapeutic modalities all catered towards addressing pain and dysfunction operating with the assumption that the tissues are root of the symptoms.
Tissues, biomechanics, and functional anatomy all must be taken into consideration when attempting to resolve our pain. However, we must understand that the tissues play a small, and usually low-priority role in our overall experience of pain. When relating to our pain, we operate with a mindset of, “If it’s tight, stretch it. If it’s painful, massage it. If it’s inflamed, ice it.” When we address our symptoms at this superficial level, sometimes it helps, but more often than not it doesn’t. When it helps, great. But when it doesn’t, we need to seek a deeper level of understanding.
Our internal systems and physiology (nervous system, digestive systems, meridian system, endocrine system, etc.) can all have a direct effect on our tissues. Muscles contract and relax via guidance and permission of the nervous system. Compressed nerves or aberrant signaling from the nervous system means compromised muscle function. Compromised muscle function often leads to biomechanical inefficiency during movement, and oftentimes pain is the result.Not only can our other systems adversely affect muscle function and thus create mechanical sources of pain, but our pain can also be referred pain from a seemingly unrelated area. Sometimes our organs are creating referred pain patterns. Sometimes overactive nociceptive pathways create pain signals and impaired movement.
Sometimes lingering trauma from old injuries or events is triggering the limbic system to perceive a threat to our safety. Safety being the highest priority of our limbic system, it will do whatever it can to create safety, including locking up muscles, stiffening joints, creating heightened pain signals, etc. At an even deeper level, sometimes our self-limiting beliefs, negative thoughts, doubts, and fears can also manifest as pain in the body or as impaired movement.
Going Deeper: How Beliefs & Narratives Shape Our Experience of Pain
In therapy and training, in order for professionals and clients to effectively communicate our experiences in a meaningful way, we use narratives. Narratives have the power to help us connect, help us understand each other, and help us understand how we relate to our own experiences as well as others’. Here are some I’ve heard many times over the years.
“You suffer from chronic low back pain because your core is weak and you sit too much.”
“You overpronate your feet when you walk, so by giving you a supportive orthotic, your feet will stop overpronating and causing your hip pain.”
“Your shoulder hurts because of a muscle imbalance between your pectoralis minor and your infraspinatus.”
“You must do deadbugs the rest of your life if you want to avoid back pain.”
“Deadlifts are bad for your back.”
“Your knees should never go past your toes when squatting.”
There are endless narratives within the world of pain and performance that we use in an attempt to more easily understand our experiences, whether that be pain or other performance limitations. However, sometimes these narratives are conveyed poorly, used haphazardly, and are often downright inaccurate. Many times, these narratives are fear-mongering and manipulation to get client buy-in. These ideas can cause us to formulate self-limiting beliefs about our experience with our pain, and can lead us to relate to our pain in a way that is counterproductive.
I’m not here to argue specific narratives as being right or wrong, accurate or inaccurate. The point I want to make here is simple. The beliefs and the narratives we hold onto largely determine how we identify with our pain. How we identify with our pain often directly affect the pain itself. Perhaps if in the midst of doing our healing by working at the levels of tissues, physiology, or emotions, we are not getting the results we expect, maybe we need to change the narratives and beliefs we are holding onto. I’ve had quite a bit of success personally as well as with clients by simply making a conscious shift in mindset.
I recently listened to a podcast from Aubrey Marcus where he and his guest, Christine Hassler, talked about the “Purpose of Pain.” It was a very refreshing conversation on the phenomenon of pain, and what the role of pain is in our lives. If you’d like to check it out, which I highly recommend, check it out here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ZXthOqsEqg). I wanted to share a keen insight that Christine made during their conversation in regards to her healing journey:
“I had to come face to face with a pattern of looking to be fixed. Looking for the answer. Who is the healer, or what’s the treatment, or what do I need to go and do to resolve this problem inside of myself. The more and more I was looking outside of myself for the solution and holding onto the belief that something was wrong with me, the worse the symptoms got….It was ego death. I had to disidentify with a lot of things I didn’t know I was still identifying with.”
We need to stop looking outside of ourselves for the answers. The ability to heal, grow, and thrive lies within ourselves. Your healing process is yours and you have the power to heal yourself. Often times, you simply need to get out of your own way. Techniques are simply tools and professionals are simply facilitators. I tell my clients that sometimes they get better because of what I do with them, and sometimes they get better in spite of what I do with them. We honestly never truly know for sure. I believe that I merely provide the right narrative, guidance, support, and tools to help my clients heal themselves.
In the aforementioned podcast, Aubrey shared his own gem of wisdom,
“The Higher self is often acting as an agent of the universe on your behalf...Your highest self is not concerned so much with your temporary pain….It’s looking at your life cycle across multiple lives. It gives a fuck about your growth. Yes it wants you to enjoy, but it also wants you to learn, and learning, growing, and becoming more of who you are are the things that are prioritized by the highest self.”
I’ve found over time working with many different people that many times, until we change the self-limiting beliefs and narratives about ourselves and our experiences of pain, any techniques, no matter how great, will have inconsistent results at best. Some techniques work great for some people, but not nearly as well for others. Why is this?
Our experience of pain is greatly affected by how we relate to the pain; the meaning that we assign to the pain and the narrative we create around it. The beliefs we hold onto play a large role in our experiences of pain.
Our belief systems are constantly changing over time. As we experience things, learn, and grow, we detach from old beliefs to form new ones that we hope will better serve us in the future. When it comes to our beliefs, we need to ask ourselves:
Is what I believe true?
Is this belief I am holding onto helpful?
One of the biggest challenges I face regularly in working with clients is to help shift their perspective to a place that is more helpful towards their healing and growth. I have to really listen to the client and understand where they are coming from, and navigate the best route to get them to the place they need to be in order to heal. Sometimes we simply have to do some manual therapy on the tissues. Sometimes we need to clear out some neurological dysfunctions. Sometimes we simply need to identify an environmental stressor and remove it. Sometimes we need to tweak their exercise programming. Sometimes I need to help them release emotional trauma from something that happened a long time ago. Sometimes I need to carefully and slowly guide them through a change in their mindset and beliefs.
Taking Personal Responsibility
The most significant key to success in your healing journey is to take personal responsibility and to fully engage with and own the process. Sometimes this means you need to embrace and accept and welcome your pain before it can go away. Sometimes, you might have to make massive changes in your life, like changing jobs, moving to a new place, or possibly getting out of a toxic relationship. Ultimately, you need to be willing to take the red pill, go down the rabbit hole, and go as deep as necessary to confront whatever it is your body, your mind, or your soul is trying to show you.
You’ve probably heard the expression, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.”
Believe it or not, I can’t help everyone get better. More often than not, it is because the person I am working with might not be ready to heal for one reason or another. Sometimes despite my best efforts to help illuminate the path to healing for a new client, they might simply not be ready. Sometimes it’s because they are not willing to go deep enough (“If I avoid it, it will eventually go away). Sometimes it is because they feel like they deserve their pain (self-limiting belief). Sometimes it is because they are not willing to change their lifestyle (fear of change). Sometimes it is because they are looking for a specific answer, and when I don’t give them the answer they are looking for, they bolt (needing to be right - ego). Sometimes fear holds them back from confronting the thing they know deep down they need to confront.
I’ve been reading a book lately called, Life Energy, by John Diamond. In it, he shared a really interesting anecdote in regards to a patient he was working with. She was a prime example of someone who was not ready or willing to fully engage the process in order to heal. In his anecdote, John shared that this woman was financially strapped, having spent all of her resources trying to figure out the source of her pain and suffering. He offered to treat her for free, twice a week. Over the course of 6 weeks, she was starting to feel significantly better. Dr. Diamond recommended that she increase the frequency of her appointments to 5 times per week, and he would continue to treat her for free. He never heard from her again.
Crazy, right?!?! This type of thing happens all of the time, and I’ve experienced it as well to varying degrees. As a practitioner you simply cannot help everyone, because not everyone is ready to receive help. As a client seeking help in your healing journey, you must understand that your process is yours and yours alone. Taking full ownership and committing fully to getting better, whatever it takes, is ultimately how you are going to come out on the other side for the better. This is how growth, progression, and becoming a better version of yourself requires. It requires that you confront your fears. It requires that you embrace struggle. It requires that you be willing to listen and be open to change. It requires that you let your old self die so that a new self can be born.
Pain is not an enemy. Pain is how we know something needs to change. Pain has a purpose.