Unhooking Shame from Pain: A Way Out Of the Cycle

Pain is tough, of course, but the thoughts and feelings which pain can stir up are the real nightmare. In my own history and my private practice teaching adults with pain, feelings of shame are never far behind a chronic pain condition. In our culture, it seems easy to interpret pain or loss of function as a personal failure.

We look around at gluten-loving, sedentary, slouchy coworkers and think: why don’t they have pain? I’ve tried so hard, done all my stretches and exercises, watched my food and drink, and still, my body is rebelling against me. Anger at our situation, fear for the future, and embarrassment over chaotic emotions can turn our body into a tense knot, worsening our pain.

I felt shame and unworthiness because I had become separated from the ideal person I had struggled my whole life to be: successful and independent. There I was, in my mid-20s, collecting disability benefits and feeling quite ‘unmanly’ throughout my daily cycles of anxiety and sadness.

A secret to stopping this downward slide is simple and powerful. Stop, for a moment, trying to get better. Press the pause button on your treadmill of endless exercises, stretches, diet restrictions, posture proscriptions, etc. Take a couple deep breaths and feel the imperfect, unfinished you. What if you were allowed to feel everything you’re feeling right now?

This practice reminds us that life is not waiting for us at the end of our recovery, but is always right here.

The effort to get better, though certainly well-intentioned, can often have an aspect of self-aggression. I might withhold compassion for myself until I feel better, until my back heals, or I can go running again. Maybe we think people will like us better if we’re healthy.

This aversion to our present experience actually disrupts the healing process. In a physical sense, we stiffen in our body, brace against the discomfort or try to remain forever in a body position we’ve determined to be ideal.

Emotionally, we harden as well. While some deep part of us may feel tender or scared, we believe we don’t have time to feel that now. It would be unproductive and so we wall off against our feelings, ironically becoming less attuned to the body, which makes reinjury more likely.

Even if we consider ourselves “spiritually minded,” many of us see this pain and loss of function as an experience not worth having. We obsessively problem solve our pain and discomfort so we can correct the situation which clearly has gone wrong. The whole situation feels too hot, too worthless to stay in.

Culturally, chronic pain or uncomfortable feelings like anxiety and sadness often trigger shame and cycles of self-hurt. We judge ourselves harshly for being in pain or not having our emotional shit together. But when all our efforts are pointed towards getting “better,” some essential part of us slowly withers due to neglect. Resources of joy, spontaneity, and warmth get diverted into the great project of managing our health crisis.

If you live in the New York City area, consider coming to one or two events in June, “Unhooking Shame from Pain” and “Pain as a Doorway to Change: Transforming Your Relationship to Your Body.” Come together in these unique setting to simply be with other people in similar situations to yourself. No interrogations about your diagnoses, no need to spiel your whole medical history, and most importantly, no need to not be in pain if you are. Together, we can drop our strategies and come together as human beings who wish to make the best use of the mind and body we have right now.

We long for peace and contentment in our body, but we mistakenly believe it will only come when our body does what we want it to, when we can finally control it.

So what is it like to experience pain without shame? It is to embrace our own humanity in a visceral and unshakable way, to know that pain is not a personal failure. And from that truth, kindness towards ourselves and others is born.

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