How to live with and live beyond the labels that get attached to us

Last time I wrote about Dr. Langer’s research into how our beliefs affect our aging and our relationship with our bodies. Her book, Counter Clockwise, has many resources to stimulate thinking around these issues.

For our purposes, the emphasis on “mindful attention” to our bodies, and our symptoms can help us live with and live beyond the labels that get attached to us.

Dr. Langer points out that labeling our disease, or a cluster of symptoms helps the medical community find a point of view. It may help us as well. Once we have a diagnosis, then everyone can accept that our illness is “real.” For anyone frustrated by a baffling array of symptoms with no name, that label can come as a great relief.

However the labeling can also imprison us in expectations and generalities. Once we have the label, any symptom or bodily experience that doesn’t “fit” can be ignored. Also, it can become easier to ignore when we feel well or symptom free. We can become the illness, and lose perspective on the minutes or hours that we feel strong, or pain free or healthy.

Dr. Langer writes, “..once a diagnosis has been made, it’s inevitable that the nature of the illness will transform into its idealized form as described by medicine, which catches and tames the disease through language. A disease’s mere label has the ability to foster an illusion of control wherein immediately the expert begins to consider the disease fixed and inert.” (p. 133).

Dr. Langer’s advice is to pay careful attention to what is, many times a day. She advises us to privilege actual experience over general labels. The tendency can be to gloss over the specifics in favor of generalities. “I have RA.” Or “I don’t feel well.” Or “I’m in pain.” Where is the pain? How much is it? What part of your body isn’t in pain? Can you pay attention to that area for a bit and focus on what is pain free? Can you locate exactly in your body where you are not feeling well, and where you feel fine? Even with an unremitting ache in your knee or hand, there are areas that are ok. Listen to them for a few minutes.

This minute inspection of your body will attune you to your own rhythms and expertise. You will experience the fluidity of your symptoms and the coming and going of your feelings. You can be the expert on your body, and in fact, you must be. There is no one else who can tell you what works to soften your pain, and what brings your body ease and joy. You learn this by slowing down and paying mindful attention.

The payoff is you begin to trust yourself. You know what works for you and what doesn’t. You become more in charge and therefore more free.

“By attending to variability and coming to know our bodies, we are in a better position to have useful information regarding our health…..If we’re our own expert, we might consider using several consultants…When we understand the limits of medical data, we can accept that receiving the same view from multiple people does not necessarily mean they are correct. It may only mean they were trained similarly. .. To help us make decisions, we take a more active role not only in considering the information we receive but also in bringing information to the discussion.” (p. 148).

Begin in this small way.

Get into a relaxed position. Lying down is probably best. Beginning with your feet, do a scan from the soles of your feet, including your toes, to your ankles and on up your legs. Notice each leg. Feel the space between them. Is there a difference in how  each leg feels? What do you notice about how you are registering each of your limbs?

Continue in the same slow and curious fashion up across your stomach and hips, and also pay attention to your buttocks and back. Continue moving your attention carefully up your body, bit by bit, noticing any differences, where you feel easy, or tense, or holding energy in, or simply relaxed. Begin to see the patterns of how your body occupies space.

This is a practice you can return to every day, noting what changes, and what remains the same. You can vary it by imagining your organs and bones and blood vessels moving through your body. Over time you will cultivate a genuine knowledge of how your body is functioning, and also a better sense of what supports you regardless of a diagnosis or label.

In this way you become your best advocate.

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