I turned my head, and immediately felt a familiar lightening bolt of white-hot pain shoot down into my fingertips.
I had been struggling with debilitating neck and spine pain for the better part of a year when my bodyworker (an angel disguised as a human whose name I will gladly pass along to anyone in need of healing bodywork in NYC) recommended a book that forever changed my life.
My doctor had diagnosed me with herniated disks, even though that didn’t technically explain my symptoms, and the muscle relaxers/physical therapy combo he prescribed didn’t help for shit.
When I started reading Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection, by John Sarno MD, something really clicked.
Dr. Sarno proposed that the rise of chronic inexplicable back pain in our culture is often actually a cover-up for repressed emotional pain. He started by pointing out that western medicine can’t really explain what’s wrong most of the time people have chronic back pain, because it’s not actually structural.
Faced with not knowing why people are in pain, doctors tend to hand out diagnoses like mine, which are vague and irrational. Plenty of people have herniated disks without pain, after all. Plus, despite my disks still being herniated now, I’m no longer in pain– so clearly the disks weren’t directly causing the pain.
Ok so maybe it’s not structural, but something is going on, right? Otherwise why would so many people be in excruciating chronic pain?? (And no, it’s definitely not all in their heads.)
In a gross oversimplification of the book, Dr. Sarno suggests that maybe our bodies create physical pain as a way of distracting from, or expressing, emotional pain.
“There’s nothing like a little physical pain to keep your mind off your emotional problems,” he says.
I had never before heard a doctor connect emotion pain to physical pain in this way, or to call our most common physical ailments distractions. It felt like the most daring, truthful, and revolutionary thing I’d ever read.
Not only did Dr. Sarno’s work help me personally, but in many ways his ideas set me down the path I walk now (pain-free, I might add) toward understanding how we relate to our bodies, and what we need in order to heal, forgive, accept, and embrace our bodies.
“It is perfectly acceptable to have a physical problem in our culture, but people tend to shy away from anything that has to do with the emotions.” –John Sarno, MD
What I’ve come to understand is that the human experience is painful, but we each need to feel valid and justified in our pain and suffering. It would be far too unbearable to suffer for a reason that makes us feel even more isolated and alone than we already do, so the brain protects us by connecting us to others in our suffering. Since our suffering is shared by many it feels perfectly valid, and it comes with the added bonus of being easily understood and sympathized with.
If you tell a co-worker “my back is killing me,” they relate to you instantly and might offer you a moment of delicious connection by sharing their own back pain story.
If, on the other hand, you tell a co-worker “I’m struggling with the existential pain of not living in alignment with my purpose,” you’re probably not gonna get much in the way of connection or understanding.
We humans are a tribal people, and connection with others is pretty much the root of all our longings. We also happen to live in a culture which categorizes mental and emotional pain as somewhere between “imaginary” and “proof of a character flaw.” This same culture glorifies tangible and scientific-sounding pain like “herniated disks.”
Growing up, we all learn which kinds of suffering are real and valid and normal, and that information helps our body make decisions about the kind of suffering we will experience.
In my coaching practice I see this play out in a slightly different way.
Our unexamined or abstract emotional pain gets projected onto areas of suffering that feel tangible and valid, right? Well for women, as you can imagine, that often means “feeling fat” and obsessing over her flaws, food, weight, and body.
Why? Because, like back pain, we as a culture have decided these topics are real, valid, and acceptable reasons for a woman to suffer.
The deep emotional stuff, like feeling unsafe, sad, angry, lonely, or disconnected are considered too personal or inappropriate. You’re supposed to get over that shit, think positive, stop complaining, and be “morally strong enough” to not feel those things.
But “feeling fat?” You can complain about that all day, and everyone will understand.
If we want a better relationship to our bodies, we need to shift the way we relate to our suffering, and recognize that body image issues are just a stand-in, a distraction, a representative of, or a cover-up for deep emotional pain– and then we need to start talking about that deep emotional pain.
Interestingly, while many men feel dissatisfied with their body or appearance, it’s not typically considered “acceptable” for them to complain about it or struggle with it. Since body insecurities are considered “feminine,” their body issues aren’t validated the way they are for women. A man saying “I’m feeling fat lately” at a party might be considered just as jarring and inappropriate as a woman sharing “I’m feeling lonely and sad lately.”
That said, it depends on your community and identity. A male ballet dancer, for example, might develop an eating disorder because the unique social messaging about the “right” kind of body for a dancer makes it normal and valid to do so, and because everyone in his community would understand and relate to his body image issues.
We want to be seen and connect, as much as we want to fit in and be normal, even (or perhaps especially) in our suffering. In order to do this, we naturally use only the topics and language that’s considered valid and acceptable by our chosen community.
A great example would be men who connect with each other by projecting their collective emotional experience onto sports, which is considered a safe and appropriate context for conventionally masculine men to be sad, angry, afraid, or joyful.
For most women, it means sharing comments that reveal our dissatisfaction with our bodies, with statements like: “those cupcakes look amazing, but I’m trying to be good,” or “I wish I could pull off a dress like that but with my hips it wouldn’t be cute.”
Is it any wonder our relationship to our bodies is so complicated? Our body becomes the scapegoat for our suffering, so that we can still get our deepest desire met– to connect with others.
I’d love to see a world in which we all validate emotional pain as much as we validate body image issues
— a world in which we can all be honest (with ourselves and each other) about what really hurts, and don’t need to concoct elaborate smokescreens for our pain.
Yours in vulnerability and truth,