Before a recent group workshop, a participant approached me and described how she knows her shoulders drop forward. In addition, she was once told to imagine holding a walnut between her shoulder blades, as a means of correcting the habit. The first 20 minutes of the class, she kept hunching her shoulders towards her ears and rolling them back.

I could tell that she had very little conscious say over this tic; it had become habit. I could relate to all the ways I would squirm and adjust myself in the early days of my injury. I could never get comfortable. It always seemed like I was just one shoulder shrug or wrist stretch away from peace.

But this is a maddening place to be. You don’t get to be who you are. In fact, I would posit that it’s an act of cruelty for someone to not let this woman live in her own body as it is. That whoever told her about her drooping shoulders in some way took away her home. Because now every time something enters her awareness about her shoulders, she instantly jerks them back because a supposed expert told her that was better.

An entirely reasonable argument against what I’m saying is that this woman is in pain and it’s better to be free of it. In spirit I would agree. In practice, however, by trying to “hold the walnut” this woman has neither cured nor significantly helped her shoulder pain. In fact, years of doing this has likely prolonged the tension pattern and aggregation of stress in this area. If you want a different future, you need to step outside of what you already know and into something you don’t.

As a first step, I suggested she notice the impulse to check and roll her shoulders. Just stay present so that the impulse to move her shoulders was something smaller that passed through her awareness. If we let the impulse to “fix” our discomfort pass, even just for the duration of a lesson, our next step is no longer predetermined. We are not launching into a whole chain of events which are unthinking and habitual and which have not really helped. Think about it: where along the chain of events will you experience a different outcome if all responses to pain remain habitual?

What keeps us trapped in chronic ache and pain is not just our postural patterns, but the self-limiting beliefs that prevent us from trying something new.

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