Where does it hurt?

I’m feeling very anxious at the moment. The days in the run up to training, or having to do anything involving other human beings are full of stress and nerves and even panic. I feel lacking in confidence and desire, tired and overwrought. I just want to shut down, curl up in a ball, go back to bed. Even looking at the endless rent-an-argument of twitter has me rocking back and forth, or (fictional) people having (fictional) arguments on the television.

There’s a lot to be anxious about at the moment. And this reticence to engage with others is nothing new, nor pandemic specific for me. But perhaps it has different significance at the moment. With so few interactions with people, each has more power – to boost or to bulldoze my self esteem and feeling of connection.

Much is made of the importance of connection, of socialisation for our wellbeing. There is indeed much evidence of our need to be loved and accepted by our peers, the mutual benefit of a smile, hug, touch. It’s certainly vital for our early development and continued thriving. But I’d be interested in what research has been done into the impact of imperfect or negative interactions. For those of us who find it hard to communicate or get on with others, considering issues of neurodiversity, social anxiety, trauma, etc. – If interaction is largely stressful or difficult for you, is no interaction as harmful as it might be for other people who enjoy and find it easy? Or is it the situations where we find ourselves on high alert which do the damage?

Frustratingly of course a lot of researchers seek a “typical” cohort to study, and so would perhaps reject the outliers.

In any case anxiety serves a purpose – it is a signal – a sign that I feel threatened and am trying to deal with that. It is a message that there is a problem. Just like pain.

I may have written about this before, my memory is shocking. I’m thinking of when I went for physiotherapy. I get a lot of RSI type problems with my wrist, elbow, shoulder. I’ve also had problems with Plantar Fasciitis. What these things have in common is that they have caused me pain, and when they have flared up, I have tended to try and avoid that pain. To put the weight elsewhere, or use my other arm. I have rubbed, but then laid off when it was particularly tender.

Image shows hands massaging someone's back
Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Of course this pain tells us there is a problem. But sometimes, laying off is exactly the wrong thing to do. Put your weight on your right foot because your left foot is hurting – soon you have two aching feet. Stop doing movements with your arm that cause you pain, sometimes all that happens is you stiffen up and lose your range of movement. Sometimes what we need to do is walk through it. Use exercises and massages, techniques, to work into those painful spots and loosen them up so the scar tissue dissipates and we regain the movement and strength and flexibility we had before (or something close to it). Concentrating on the pain, noticing when it hurts, what aggravates it can teach us more about where it came from – and then we can think about preventing future problems too.

So – my anxiety, a pain which flares in situations where I feel vulnerable to judgement or criticism, (my primitive mind fearing rejection and the risks of destitution) – my first instinct to protect myself, to avoid those situations which make me feel this way, but that just leads me to become more and more anxious. More self conscious. More convinced that nobody likes me, that i’m stupid, that I can’t do this. And with no evidence to counteract these negative appraisals I might believe that they are true. (Though of course there is evidence to counter – should I choose to look, feedback, comments, friends)

So I must instead, when I can, to use the old cliche, feel the fear and do it anyway. Feel the stiff and swollen joint and knead gently into the pain. Sometimes in the kneading, I learn. I remember things which have made me feel this way. Situations where I have felt I must do everything right or face rejection. Times I have been rejected, and made to feel it was my fault for not doing x, y or z. Times that my opinion or expertise has been ignored or belittled because it wasn’t what someone wanted to hear, or because of the dynamics of family, age, sex, and so on. Understanding these things help me understand the pain, the fear may not be justified. But it doesn’t always make the pain disappear.

Exploring psychological trauma is hard, painful and sometimes even dangerous. We need to be in the right place, have the right support and resources on hand. Perhaps the middle of a pandemic is not the right time for you to be delving into the painful spots. Or perhaps this is giving you time and space to find clarity for yourself. There’s no shame in curling up in a ball and protecting yourself if you are not feeling up to the challenge. Just know you do deserve to be free from your pain. You do deserve support.

Sometimes our pain sends us a valuable message. While I know some of my anxiety is unjustified, there is always an element of stress when we perform in front of others, which is part of what we do as teachers and trainers. Educational performance but performance nonetheless. And where we seek evaluation for continuous development, we invite negative as well as positive responses.

Part of my discomfort, this tug I feel, is a constant questioning – am I on the right path? Do I want to be where I am, to be going where I am headed? Part of me doesn’t want to open myself to judgement which has such potential to undermine me at every turn – not in connection to my livelihood. Something isn’t quite right – and my anxiety reminds me to think about it. Work on it. Adjust my course and see if I can find a direction that allows me to float more comfortably. Creating, Sharing, Teaching what I know, learning as I go. Hoping I help along the way.

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