Q: I’ve read in books and heard from holistic practitioners that our state of mind contributes to our state of health. In dealing with my own health issues, this leaves me feeling like I just can’t win. When I feel the worst physically and out of control of my body, I have to also look at what I did wrong to cause my illness. It feels like a double burden, and shaming, like a kick when I’m already down. How can this be helpful?
A: The idea that we are responsible for the state of our health and, as many teachers suggest, even the greater reality of our lives isn’t at all helpful when it’s practiced with shame and blame. Before the principle of self-responsibility can be useful, it has to be unraveled from the whole paradigm of blame and shame. The two go hand in hand, one giving rise to the other. They both have to do with finding fault, pointing a finger of judgment, and defining something or someone as “wrong.”
For those of us who’ve been taught early in life to feel shame, it’s unbearable to let go of blame because then, all the energy that had been going into blaming external forces for what’s wrong has nowhere to go except toward ourselves. So, instead of feeling out of control and victimized by something external, we shame and victimize ourselves. While the experience of being a helpless victim of circumstances is certainly not pleasant, at least from this perspective we feel innocent, and not at fault.
Unfortunately, many have applied the idea of self-responsibility to physical illness in a blaming way that assumes an ill person has done something terribly wrong to create their disease. As you’ve experienced, this becomes a crushing burden rather than a support to healing. When the notion of responsibility becomes confused with personal control, the assumption follows that if we control every act, thought and habit properly, our lives should go just as we plan. Then we blame and shame ourselves when difficult experiences happen.
The catch in this way of thinking is that “personal control” only impacts those aspects of self that are within the range of conscious awareness. Painful and unexpected challenges are often the catalysts that bring into awareness limiting beliefs and patterns that have been operating at an unconscious level.
Most of us have an assortment of conscious and unconscious–and sometimes conflicting–agendas all operating to create our experience in life. An example of an unconscious agenda conflicting with a conscious one would be a person consciously wanting to heal from an illness yet receiving so much benefit from the rest, the caring attention, and/or the enforced change in routine resulting from the illness that there’s an unconscious investment in maintaining whatever circumstances are needed (i.e. the illness) to keep these rewards coming. For example, a well-known author cited his bout with disabling back pain as being just the introspective time he needed to write a book.
When these secondary, but powerful, agendas are present, we often have the experience of spinning our wheels. Even though we direct a lot of effort toward our conscious desire, we don’t seem to make any progress. And we won’t until the less conscious agenda is somehow addressed or released. It’s often through the challenging experiences in life that we have an opportunity to recognize and change these hidden agendas so we can stop being at cross purposes with ourselves.
The perspective of personal responsibility can be very helpful in unearthing these unconscious aspects of self that keep us stuck, but only if we’re willing to toss out blame and shame first. Blame and shame are not empowering, often immobilizing, emotions that keep us unconscious and don’t motivate us to be better people.
Shifting from blame and shame to self-responsibility means looking at what you don’t like about your life, not as something you did wrong (shame), or as something done to you by circumstances beyond your control (blame), but with such questions as, “What is this illness allowing or forcing me to be, do or have that I wouldn’t otherwise experience, and how might that be serving me?” There may be many layers of answers to this question. Some may be obvious: perhaps it’s given you a much needed rest. At a more psychological level, you might realize that you’ve never felt deserving of self-care. Other “payoffs” to an illness might be profoundly spiritual: you may be learning compassion or acceptance; your creativity may be awakening, or perhaps you’re accessing an ability to heal others.
The power in self-responsibility is that once we start seeing our own contributions to our circumstances, not only are we better able to find acceptance around what is, we have more power to change it. We can choose to pursue the gain of a condition, be it the time off we felt we couldn’t spare or the career change we’ve been afraid to attempt, without waiting for the pain to force us into it.
Ultimately, if exploring the connection between state of mind and health enhances your feelings of peace, empowerment and understanding, then do so, but if it only makes a bad time worse, let it go, trust yourself, and save your energy for healing.
Lynn Woodland is the founder of Miracles of the Spirit Church.