What it really takes to be well is an open mind

MIDDLEBURY — Why is it so hard to go to a doctor, or change the patterns to better your health?
Why do we have the tendency to invent a rationale for why we hurt or try to explain why it’s OK that we’re feeling awful?
Perhaps because it is easier to feel strong and fight courageously through the battle than it is to admit weakness and ask for help. Denial seems to be an easier option and we think that if we can push through what we convince ourselves is a temporary strain we’ll be OK in the long run. We tend to ignore the measures that expose our vulnerabilities in exchange for those that show off the stronger qualities. Sometimes that works out, but other times it backfires.
I can’t be alone when I admit that even when at the doctor’s office, I tend to downplay the amount that something hurts, accentuate the number of times I exercise in the week and cut the average number of cookies I consume in half. It’s scary to say out loud that you’re not as healthy as you know you could be; it’s even scarier to think about what you don’t know.
So what happens is that we invent our own definitions and rules for being healthy, extending allowances for those measures that reveal our vulnerabilities.
We tell ourselves that considering how regularly we exercise it’s fine to enjoy a few too many high-fat or high-sugar foods; because we’ve never smoked a cigarette it’s reasonable to ignore the family history of lung disease.
Because it’s the easiest way to “succeed,” we tell ourselves that whatever the particular combination of things we do to stay healthy is perfect. Presto, bingo, gold star.
Even when we’re not in fact well, we blame outside influences before we’re willing to expose the weakness that enabled the sickness or injury to take hold. We mask the symptoms and try to fake it until we make it back to perfect health.
(By the way, as I’m writing this story, I am sitting with a box of tissues and a mug filled with herbal tea, nursing a cold that I haven’t been able to shake for a month. Was it the kid who coughed on me in the grocery store, or the fact that I’ve been at work for too many long days and haven’t been sleeping or exercising enough and am carrying more than a healthy amount of stress from day to day?)
Sometimes, of course, what starts as a nagging symptom gets out of our control and is no longer possible to ignore. That tipping point just past being able to cover it up with a smile or a pill is terrifying.
Devon Jersild is a clinical psychologist in Weybridge and says that it’s a very human tendency to avoid pain and suffering. “In our culture there is a lot of pressure to ‘think positively,’ but it’s often in a shallow and unrealistic manner. Denial is not a form of positive thinking,” she says.
Jersild recognizes this exaggerated and unrealistic idealized self-reliance as part of the problem in mainstream Western society. “Many people have a pretty distorted view about what self-reliance can and should be,” she says. It suggests an underlying “all-or-nothing mentality,” whereby people assume that if they concede to needing help in one area it must mean that they’re insufficient and can’t do anything.
“In fact,” Jersild says, “we all need other people and it helps to develop a healthy reliance on others rather than hold ourselves to unrealistic standards.”
The challenge, of course, is that it’s really hard to convince yourself to seek help.
I’m a crier. Anytime I’m “over the breaker” ill or injured, I’ll likely cry about it. Others get mad. They can’t understand what the injustice was that led to them being the one targeted for whatever ails them and they’re going to wrinkle their brow and clench their teeth and tell you about it.
Whatever the means of breakdown, it’s a miserable experience.
We feel like we have to drag ourselves (or be dragged) to a practitioner’s office and place our very survival in their hands, rendering us vulnerable in a way that doubles the pain of whatever brought us into the clinic. Will they tell you it’s even worse than you suspected or discover something you’ve never heard of as the root cause of the problem, spiraling the issue into the abyss of the medical system and signing you up for tests and paperwork and insurance claims and all that other stuff that exaggerates the problem? Likely not, but it’s always a possibility that doesn’t exist if you avoid going.
As Jersild says to her clients, it takes courage and strength to seek help. Recognizing one’s own limitations is a skill that requires emotional maturity and a flexible mind, Jersild explains.
“Someone with a flexible mind is able to be more present in the moment and respond to problems as they arise with a lightness that is not impeded by shame or fear of being weak. Instead, they’re able to recognize when the best option is to push through a seeming limitation and when to stop and name the issue.”  
Stephanie Powers is a local massage therapist who practices as part of the Riverside Natural Health Center in Middlebury. Powers believes massage is a practice that can encourage overall health through the relaxation of the muscles and joints of the body as well as the mind. Before beginning each session, Powers talks to the client about how they feel, whether any part of their body needs specific attention and what may be occupying the mind and causing stress or tension.
Throughout the massage, Powers works to alleviate those sticking points with a goal of helping that person walk out of the office feeling more relaxed than when they walked in. “I try to foster an environment that promotes calm,” Powers says, helping her client attend to their body rather than be caught up in the race of the mind. “We tend to over-think a lot instead of over-feel,” she continues. “Maybe if we listened to our bodies more we wouldn’t find it so difficult to give in to rest or healing.”
Powers and many other holistic health practitioners seem to have adopted an alternative framework for healing that offers a more welcoming way to talk about well-being than focusing on what could be wrong. It helps break down the wall that we build to protect ourselves from being seen as unfit or unwell. Instead, we believe we’re even better because we’re working to support our own health.
“There’s somehow a sense of shame if we can’t perform at Mach speed,” she says, “Let’s instead congratulate each other on being able to take a sick day to take care of ourselves instead of struggling to work through that terrible choice.”
Powers and many others encourage people to see health as wellness-based rather than centered around being ill or injured. Regardless of who the practitioner is or what the struggle is, if we stay focused on being well and talk to our doctors, coaches and practitioners about how we can stay strong and healthy, then perhaps it will keep us from visiting their offices in a weaker state. If they can know us when we’re in top shape, they can better advise us when something is compromised.
The trick then, comes back to the self. Our biggest challenge seems to be accepting that we can always be better and push ourselves to live healthier lives even during the moments we want to celebrate and be proud of how well we’re doing. Just like our favorite sports heroes, we have to learn how to celebrate one win, then push for the next.

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