Pushing Through Pain: aka Too Much Impulse Control

I am in yoga class and have just been silently congratulating myself on my amazing Crow pose (resting my knees on my upper arms, feet up, with just my palms touching the ground).  I’m thinking how awesome I have become at this posture and really feel secure in it… and then, I fall.  Epic failure style. My nose plants into the wood floor and blood starts spewing on my mat and the ground. I barely react, other than to take my towel and hold it to my nose until the blood flow lets up.

Neither girl practicing next to me says anything, so I think, “Oh it can’t be that bad.”  I return to my yoga practice, while little drops of blood fall onto my mat.  When I finish class, I realize that not only is my nose still bleeding, but now it’s throbbing.

Finally the girl next to me looks over and says, “Your nose looks really swollen, I think you need ice.”

I say, “Oh it’ll be fine, I only live a mile away.”

I walk out to my car and casually look at myself in the mirror… OMG, my nose is twice it’s normal size and all red.  I think it’s broken.  The doctor I go to see confirms it’s broken and I silently question why the hell didn’t I leave class when I got hurt?

From a Radcally Open DBT perspective, this is a case of too much impulse control.  For us overcontrolled (OC) leaning people, we have a biological predisposition to be able to exert superior control on our impulses and expressions.  Most OC folks spend their life controlling their reactions– facially, bodily, and emotionally.  So naturally for OCs it also makes sense to control pain expressions.

As I reflected on how this shows up for me besides the yoga room, I realized I have pain issues all over my body: TMJ pain, sciatica, and a heart condition. I’ve been pushing through pain and discomfort most of my life. This yoga incident was no different.  I’ve gotten so good at ignoring signs that something was wrong that I have made a habit out of it.

No doubt I’ve heard from many of my clients that they live through constant pain issues and function relatively normal lives.   So this concept is not new, but what is disturbing is when we have gotten so used to pain, that we don’t listen to it when it is serious.

I have a friend who popped his ACL and still managed to play a whole softball game, albeit poorly, but he finished.  And a client who dislocated a shoulder on vacation and didn’t bother going to the hospital until she returned home from her trip.  Another colleague I know got cat scratch fever and almost lost a finger because she didn’t want to seem like a wuss by going to the doctor for such a “small” injury.

The line we OC’s tell ourselves is “It’s not that bad, I can take it.”  For the most part it’s true, and so the cycle continues.  A former military client of mine once said, “I can take ten minutes of literally anything.”  We constantly push through pain issues, when we should really stop and ask ourselves, “Why?”

When we have learned that a way to cope with a pain is to act like nothing is wrong, and go about our lives as if no one knows, the only person we are hurting is ourselves.  Emotional and physical pain lets us know something need attention.  It’s important to take care of ourselves.  Many overcontrolled leaning people would never think to let another person suffer the way we let ourselves. Yet we don’t change the way we treat ourselves.

Another interesting observation about this experience is that I noticed I wanted to blame others in the class for not taking care of me.  How dare they not stop what they were doing and attend to me!!  My inner probation officer just joined the case.

It would be easy for me to say that they “should” have helped, and maybe if you were in my class you would have, but that doesn’t allow me to take responsibility for my own needs.  In the end, I am the one that is the feeler of the pain, not them. I am the one that decided I was “strong enough” to make it through. I am the one that has to live with my broken nose.

Yes we would all like to have people that take care of us, and need friends and family that do, but we have to watch our own problematic patterns that masquerade as independence and blame.  By persisting in behaviors that hurt, we make ourselves prisoners of our own pain.

About the Author: Hope Arnold, LCSW, MA

Hope Arnold is the owner of RO DBT Denver and co-developer of the RO DBT App.  She specializes in treatment of OCPD, chronic depression and anxiety and female autism.