Suffering makes you feel goddamn moral and tough.
You learned at an early age things that are good for you are also usually unpleasant. So, you eat your broccoli, even though it tastes like piles of wilting grass fermenting in the compost heap.
You let the doctor sting your finger with a needle, the dentist excavate your teeth with a metal pick and suffocate you with a fluoride treatment.
You compromise your vanilla latte with nonfat milk, sweat it out in bootcamp every Tuesday and Thursday, order brown rice at Chipotle instead of tangy cilantro lime white, endure sweltering yoga classes in stuffy, overheated rooms, run because #cardio, and cut out red wine because #calories.
You slug green juice like it’s your job, flinch at the price of organic produce, cut out wheat and gluten and dairy and soy, go vegan, go paleo, go to the gym (and then go more because a little wasn’t enough) and when you finally break down the kind of pain that’s not just soreness but downright injured, you let your physical therapist apply brutal scraping that leaves you bruised and sore with radiating pain searing down your leg.
And you feel pretty smug about it all. Because you’re no slouch, not a lazy slob draped across a sofa, nourished only by an uninterrupted stream of Netflix and potato chips.
And the pain? Is totally fine. Because you’ll put up with anything if it’ll just fix this problem, and pain means it’s working.
Err, maybe not.
A decade ago, I lie on a table shivering (because I was too timid to ask for a blanket, sheesh), patiently breathing as deeply as I could while a practitioner dug his elbow into the side of my thigh. I was pretty sure he had a hacksaw and was chopping off my femur, but I didn’t ask him to ease up. He was the expert. He knew best. (Or, so I thought at the time.)
I was younger then, and spent much of my days looking to others for clues about how to correctly manage a situation. In this instance, it seemed pain was the norm, so I put up with it.
But I’ve lived my life in dog’s years now and am quite a bit savvier. Which is why, when a slick gentleman perched on the edge of the white Scandinavian armchair in my studio explained to me that he understood this process might be painful and was totally fine with that, I kindly enumerated the reasons pain might not be the most beneficial treatment.
To which he replied, “Okay, but all that said, if you need to hurt me to fix this, it’s fine. You can inflict as much pain as is necessary.”
I’ll admit, holding myself on my own stool required literal muscular force. If my stomach had had its way, I’d have stood right up, handed in my metaphorical resignation and walked right out of the door.
Because this guy wasn’t just okaying a little discomfort in the interest of healing. He was straight out asking me to violate his boundaries.
And that just isn’t okay. Not ever.
Now, his words might indicate indicate a psychological predilection (I don’t know, I’m not a psychologist). But, given more than a decade of experience listening to people talk about their bodies this way, it’s more likely they illuminate a cultural malady. A belief system.
A viewpoint from which 1) if a condition is painful, the only way it can get better is with greater levels of pain than inflicted the injury, and 2) he who is the expert knows best, external data trumps all and my personal experience is interesting at best and completely invalid at worst.
And I must listen to the expert at all costs. Even when it’s uncomfortable, makes me squirm, feels wrong or causes me direct bodily harm.
Can you see how this could go bad faster than a gallon of milk in the car on a hundred and five degree day?
When you invite someone to cross that pain boundary, when you make yourself permeable and retreat to your body’s attic (i.e. your brain), it’s like signing that evil agreement Ariel made in the Little Mermaid. It’s a deal with the devil, selling your soul for something you crave in return.
In this instance, you’ll get relief from literal pain, which translates into a modicum of freedom. Or, at least, that’s the theory and the goal.
But pain is such a good metaphor, isn’t it? Because we all feel some kind of restrictive pain in our lives, even if it’s not in our muscles.
There’s the pain of being alone, of worrying that you’ll never find anyone, never mind the one. The pain of survival, of needing the basics like food and shelter and fearing you’ll wind up in a cardboard box on the corner if you lose your job and can’t pay your mortgage (while comforting yourself that it’ll be a classy box, maybe refrigerator sized, and possibly coated with waterproof finish – you won’t give up all creature comforts).
There’s the pain of feeling like it’s not okay to be who you are, that preferring the company of a few friends over a raging party or wearing clothes in the colors of a tropical sunset somehow make you a misfit. There’s the pain of not fitting in, of not belonging, because small talk never made sense to you and the very thought of happy hour with your coworkers causes you to hyperventilate.
And these pains are all equal. They’re just as limiting as physical pain, and like literal walls on your potential, keep you trapped inside their fortress, flailing bloodied knuckles against the walls in desperation. You’ll do anything to make your prison break.
Like let a partner into your life who insidiously degrades your self worth by calling you crazy. Or weird. Or stupid. By belittling your interest in botany. Or making fun of your spiritual curiosity, causing you to hide your copy of A Course in Miracles behind the couch in shame. (But at least you’re not alone.)
Contorting your life around a job that ultimately seems meaningless but, at least for now, allows you to pay your mortgage and put your son through school (and really, you can quit in a couple years when things are less complicated…right?).
Believing that it’s true you must suffer to be beautiful (or that you must suffer to be happy, which is often what beauty is equated to, i.e. you can be happy when you lose the weight, reach a certain size, have the perfect boobs and vaguely resemble a plastic doll with a dead eyed stare).
Believing that having your boundaries crossed is normal. That you must gnarl yourself into some other form, warping and convoluting and shattering your values to meet what appear to be cultural norms, or even the norms of a small community.
Let’s parse this out a bit. Why is inviting pain so dangerous, especially in the context of a relationship between an expert and advisee?
Well, the most obvious reason is that you’re basically handing over control of the situation to the person wearing the white coat. You’re giving them permission to do whatever they want, whether it’s within your level of comfort or not.
This creates an imbalanced power dynamic, and it gets you used to being out of control. You become the follower. Now, experts are experts for a reason. They’re there to guide you, advise you and, yes, perform procedures. Some of those might not be pleasant. Surgery comes to mind.
But experts show up in many areas of your life. There are doctors and lawyers, therapists and even spiritual experts, often called gurus or preachers or pastors, you get the idea.
How many examples are there of boundaries being crossed in the spiritual community? I’ve heard countless stories where leaders of yoga groups or Buddhist meditation centers or even churches have crossed the line with a student, developing an inappropriate sexual relationship.
I’m not saying this is always what’s going to happen when there’s an imbalanced power dynamic, but it’s a terrific example of how handing over personal power creates permeable boundaries and can lead to a negative situation, one in which you may feel violated in some small or not so small way.
When you consistently give your power away to a person perceived to be more knowledgeable, more expert, more in charge than you, it sets you up for some really terrifying patterns.
Like remaining in an emotionally abusive relationship because he’s the one who makes all the money and thus calls the shots (and you’re even not sure you can make it on your own).
Staying at a job because it’s the responsible/logical/practical thing to do and people in your life – parents, spouse, co-workers – think it’s right to take the sensible path (even when sensible is shattering your soul).
Diet culture thrives on permeable boundaries. It tells you that if you’re not in some kind of pain (i.e. hunger), you’re not working hard enough, that she who is the most beautiful is also the best at suffering, and it links your self worth to discomfort.
Taking the pain doesn’t make you tough; it makes you numb. You dull perception of pain until you can no longer tell what’s going on inside your skin, until you can’t even trust your own feelings.
Want to know what happens when you can’t feel your own body?
You lose your sense of self. Like, literally. This is a known neurological fact.
There was a famous case written up in a well known book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks, about a woman who had a rare neurological disorder that caused her to lose all internal sensation. She recounted that she would look at her foot, know it was hers, but not be able to feel it. It took quite a lot of focus and concentration to pick that foot up and place it on the ground in front of her.
She told her doctors that she felt as though she was losing herself, that she had lost all sense of who she was, that it was as though she was completely disappearing. There was no division between her own body and the rest of the world; she couldn’t tell what was her and what was not.
Numbing out means you lose the game. You don’t get better, you get lost, blended and muddied, undefined, undifferentiated, diluted, like a dram of strong whiskey poured in a bucket of water.
I’m not saying that life should be a walk in the park filled with sunshine and roses, that you should eat ice cream every night for dinner just because it tastes good or that you should skip leg day at the gym because it’s hard.
Challenging yourself is how you grow and get better. And yeah, as much as I hate to admit it, broccoli is pretty damn good for you.
And I’m not saying that bodywork or medical treatments shouldn’t hurt, because sometimes they just do.
But you – and you alone – are the only person responsible for knowing your line between beneficial and boundary crossing, between the discomfort of growth and healing and downright being trampled over. Because you’re the only person living inside your skin. Nobody on this planet (and probably not on any others, either) knows what it’s like to be you.
So, eat the broccoli. Lift the weights. Run the extra mile. But the next time you’re writhing in pain as someone scrapes your achilles tendon so hard you want to scream or cry or put on steel toed boots and kick the sucker, ask them to back the fuck up.