Small changes in perception can lead to bigger changes

Last year, when my shoulder started hurting, I chalked it up to an over-enthusiastic workout at the gym.  My shoulder and arm hurt on and off, not really getting better even after I cut out using the machines that work the arms.  And my shoulder and arm kept on hurting right through the gardening season, until I couldn’t just ignore it any more.  At which point I decided that I probably had a dire, perhaps life-threatening disease . . . it was quite a relief to get to my doctor who sympathized with me gently before diagnosing tendonitis and referring me to a physical therapist.

I picked one at random from the list the doctor showed me, and went with high hopes for a series of 6 visits.  After a thorough poking and prodding, the therapist diagnosed something other than tendonitis—something to do with the nerve being in the wrong place—and gave me a series of exercises to do. I hurt after every visit.  At the end of the 6 visits, I’d done a fair—but not great—job of remembering to do the exercises, and my shoulder was still hurting, although perhaps not so much as before I started (perhaps just because gardening season was over?).  Since I hadn’t seen much improvement, I didn’t bother to make more appointments.

By the time the next gardening season came along, I had gotten very good at ignoring pain—but not good enough. I asked some knowledgeable friends for advice and went back to the doctor for a referral to a different therapist, Margot Malone.

Until my first appointment with Margot, I hadn’t realized that while I’d been babying my arm and shoulder, I had lost some strength and some range of motion. Margot told me to pay closer attention to which specific movements hurt, so that I could figure out how to avoid them. She had me do a few simple stretches, and when I left she said emphatically, “Our bodies can heal most things that go wrong in the shoulder if we just let it rest.”

As I followed her advice to be more attentive, I discovered that I needed to avoid reaching back behind me, or reaching over my head. Eliminating those 2 simple movements eliminated a great deal of the pain.  Somehow, the simple matter of paying closer attention led to progress—progress I hadn’t been able to make before. Or was something more going on?

I recently read about a study that monitored the actions of a group of women—hotel maids, I think it was—whose work included pretty strenuous activity: lots of bending and stretching and lifting, etc. They all said they wanted to exercise, because they were trying to lose weight.  The women did not think of what they were already doing every day as “exercise,” perhaps because it happened in the normal context of their workday. The surprise was that after learning about the physical benefit of their daily routine, the women all started to lose weight.  And there was no other discernable change—no dramatic changes in exercise or diet.

What had changed was their perception of their daily activity—they all knew that an active lifestyle is a good first step to losing weight.  When Margot told me that simply avoiding the movements that caused pain would help my arm and shoulder heal, I knew I was already making progress.

I’m interested in change, especially in some of the difficult changes.  How interesting that a little shift in perception can be such a powerful tool, a stepping stone to the change we want to create.  It says to me, let’s find our starting place in what we are doing right, right now, and we’ll build from that positive foundation.

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