I have been working in and around clients in pain for much of my adult life. Over the years, I have listened to literally thousands of subjective reports, thousands of interpretations about how people feel in their bodies.
The language that people use to describe their physical sensations, their experiences, their thoughts about movement and healing is fascinating to me. I always gain so much insight into how much danger or safety a person perceives, based on how they talk about their bodies.
None of us could ever assume we know what another person is feeling. Felt sense is completely subjective. And our felt experiences can be heavily influenced by the language we use to describe our diagnoses and our sensations.
Changing our language is one of those things, that once you become aware of it, you can transform it almost immediately.
In The Four Agreements, Miguel Ruiz offers one of the agreements:
Be Impeccable With Your Word
And yet the words many of us as providers and patients use in relation to our physical bodies and conditions is so charged.
We might say “my ______ went out on me”
Did it really go out?
You might hear from a chiropractor
“Your _________ is subluxed”
Subluxation = dislocation. Dislocation causes immobility and is an emergency medical condition. It should be noted that without a fracture, the spine cannot sublux.
We might say “ so and so’s knees are destroyed” or “my doctor told me my knee is bone on bone”.
Not only are all of these phrases inaccurate and inept at describing the physiologic process that is happening, they all stimulate our sense of danger and unease in our physical bodies.
Another common phrase that I hear clients use is “inaccessible”, as in “my glute strength is inaccessible”. This implies a condition where there is none. It would be a lot more meaningful and positive for your nervous system to note instead “My glutes are not strong enough to do ____ yet”
Another notable and related language boo boo that happens, is when a PT or doctor says “you’ll never do ______ again”. I think this is highly charged and questionable language. If someone said this to me, I would ask for evidence (in the form of a research article). I cannot tell you the number of people I have encountered who are walking around with this big basket of “I’ll never do ______ agains” that aren’t even real. This supremely pisses me off, on their behalf. If you are a clinican, please make sure you know of what you speak before uttering these phrases to your clients.
We want our language to reflect the adaptability, resilience, accommodation and healing that is our natural state.
Another place to work on language with respect to the physical is around expanding your pain vocabulary.
When I was in graduate school, we studied models of pain by looking into the practice of Hypnobirthing. For those of you who aren’t familiar, hypnobirthing is a training process for labor and delivery, that uses some of these current topics in sensory science to help shape the delivery experience.
We watched, stunned, as women recorded while in labor, labored peacefully, quietly, breathing fully during their contractions and delivery.
One of the foundations of changing the felt sense of pain, was to work with different terms to express the sensations of labor. Hypnotherapy mamas used the terms like “pressure”, “tightening”, “releasing”, “pulsation”, in lieu of the old stand by “pain”.
When I work with clients in the clinic, I similarly ask that people notice other sensations, and also different terms to describe the sensation.
Here is a laundry list of vocabulary that might speak to you. See what you can come up with on your own. The more robust your descriptors, the more accurate your sensory communication.
See if the next time you experience your particular brand of pain, you can offer different and more nuanced vocabulary to describe it.
Join us next week for one of my favorites sensation transformation practices- guided visualization.
Happy cleaning it up!