I recently went on vacation. It was an amazing adventure involving lots of hiking on slippery and uneven terrain, miles of walking, and many, many stairs. Given my bizarre obsession with packing light, I accomplished all of this footwork while wearing the one pair of shoes that I brought. These were decidedly not hiking boots and offered little traction and no stabilization. On more than one occasion I regretted my choice. While my family scurried over steep hills I had to choose my path carefully and move slowly. Even still, as the trip came to a close, I joked about becoming a spokesperson for the shoe brand given my expert skill in navigating the unexpected in their totally inappropriate-for-the-fjords-of-Finland kicks. Then, two days before our two week vacation was to end, came the completely flat sidewalk upon which I rolled my ankle. One minute I was up, in the midst of an interesting and lively conversation, and the next I was down. I looked over my shoulder to find the uneven ground, the lifted pavement, the huge hole that had, most certainly, tripped me up and saw only pristinely flat pavement. The swelling began immediately and, by the evening, my right shoe no longer fit. Not necessarily a wise sage when it comes to listening to my body, I iced and elevated only between long bouts of walking in that same pair of shoes.
Several weeks later my ankle was still swollen and painful. I was anxious to return to dance class so I headed off to see my favorite sport’s medicine physician. With a foot in each hand he wisely asked about prior injuries to the affected joint. His years of practice and expertise allowed him to quickly discern the difference in “play” between my two ankles. While I had long forgotten the ligaments I tore as a gymnast in high school, my body belied their existence. This got me thinking about how pre-existing injuries impact present capabilities.
Whenever our physical bodies experience strains, tears, breaks, infection, and the like, the entirety of our being responds. Muscles compensate, others atrophy, tissues accumulate. We build up antibodies or our systems become more vulnerable. Regardless of the specific disruption, our cells remember what has happened and, often, are impacted in long term ways. An injury accomplished 30 years ago creates a proclivity to re-injury today. Our bodies, in their wisdom and humanity, work to maintain health and stability and yet, can only do so much. If my right ankle is weak, I am more prone to rolling it, especially if I have lost conscious awareness of the need to be mindful of not doing so.
It hits me that our souls (or psyches, or spirits, or selves, or hearts...whatever word you choose to refer to as the seat of your being) are much the same. We have all suffered emotional injuries, dark nights of the soul, relational losses, and more. We do our best, after such injuries, to remedy them and/or to protect ourselves from further pain. Our efforts are most often based upon either deeply automatic or intentionally chosen coping strategies. Some people stuff the pain, ignoring it and hoping it will go away and others process it in any number of verbal or behavioral ways. Some create rituals to avoid further harm and others apply a “rehabilitation” strategy of sorts, working to understand what created the injury in an effort to curtail a repeat of it. Innumerable alternatives along this spectrum provide people with options for moving forward after suffering emotional pain.
As with physical injuries, these soul wounds leave us vulnerable in deeply personal and specific ways. Just as previously torn ligaments leave my right ankle overly flexible and prone to sprains, pre-existing emotional injuries cause similar proclivities. Further, the manner in which we addressed the initial wounds profoundly impacts the pattern by which we deal with our present day ones.
We’ve all witnessed (or been a player in) situations where a person’s reaction seems out of place in relation to the trigger. We’ve over- or under- reacted. We’ve been left before so we avoid emotional entanglements or cling to those who connect to us. We’ve been taken advantage of so we keep people at arm’s length, fear the motives of others, and are overly stingy with our resources. We’ve experienced failure so we stop taking risks or stop caring about our passions. A seemingly benign part of our daily routine stops us short and redirects our emotions; a stimulus that “should” make us feel happy prompts sadness; a smell triggers pangs of loneliness; or more. We are complex beings whose bodies and souls have created intricate systems that are stopped and started by all manner or experiences. When these patterns have gone on unexamined, when we have lost site of how our original injuries have left us vulnerable, we are particularly prone to sprains and swelling and pain of all sorts.
When I sprained my ankle it would have been best for me to stop walking, to elevate and ice it, and to stay down for a couple of days. Having done this, I could have made an intentional plan for how to strengthen the injured area and avoided the long term frustration I am experiencing today. The same is true of our emotional/relational/soul injuries. Exploring their etiology, understanding their impact, learning about the patterns they initiate within us could be like physical therapy for the soul. Rather than pushing through, acting like “it doesn’t hurt,” or developing a limp to compensate for the lack of strength, doing this difficult excavation might allow us to resolve the injury and improve our internal strength and our lives. If we don’t do this resolution work, we simply compensate.
Mister Rogers frequently reminded us that “whatever is mentionable is manageable.” This seems like a fitting mantra for the process of examining possible sprains to our souls. Rarely are these types of wounds easy or “fun” to explore. They can, however, be made manageable. The first step would be to tell yourself the truth about disruptions or experiences in your life that may have caused a pre-existing propensity for reactivity or pain. Finding a trusted person to wonder about these with might be a good next step. Not a person who is happy to tell you what you should do or think or feel but, rather, someone who has dealt with their own internal injuries or has proven to be sensitive to and qualified in responding to those of others. Writing or journaling which allows for honest exploration might be helpful and finding some good literature/resources around your particular kind of injury might help. A google search does not qualify here unless you use it as a jumping off point for finding content that is rich, grounded, and balanced. Ideas and interventions that at first make you squirm might be especially important to consider. Attending to interventions/messages that make you feel shamed or seem to “increase swelling” is probably a bad idea. For example, it was unwise for me to “intervene” by keeping walking in unstable shoes because if I didn’t I was “admitting defeat.”
Too often our own internal messages about our weaknesses and pains, and those external ones that support them, are based in all sorts of wild inaccuracies. With sprains of all sorts, recovery will be slow and will happen best if approached with wisdom. Acknowledging the real injury, receiving some wise external assessment, intervening in appropriate ways, and being patient and intentional in regaining strength will help this process along. Ignoring the incident, pushing past the pain, and clenching our teeth, on the other hand, leave us vulnerable for future injuries and compensatory behaviors of all sorts. While much more involved than simply getting by and much more complicated than holding on to our rigid pain-induced proclivities, in life, as in walking, who wants to limp when they could soar?