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Who are you? The effect of pain on self


My client, let’s call him Al, is a plumber. Or was a plumber. He sees himself as a hard-working, reliable guy who takes pride in doing a job once, doing it well, and not stopping until the job is finished. He’s worked for most of his adult life in his own plumbing business, something he’s very proud of. He’s supported his partner while she’s been at home caring for their two now adolescent boys. In his spare time he goes fishing, loves the outdoors and likes to wander the hills whenever he can.

Al isn’t very happy. He’s been told that his back pain, which he’s had for six months now, is not likely to go away. He’s been having treatments from physiotherapy, had a return to work programme developed by an occupational therapist, tried medications and injections but nothing has taken his pain away. He’s slowly stopped seeing his mates, isn’t sleeping well, hasn’t been out fishing in months, and he’s even had trouble keeping from shouting at his boys.

Al doesn’t sound all that different from many of the men I’ve seen in pain management. Some people call him “unmotivated” because he’s stopped thinking about goals for the future, and does his exercises in a half-hearted sort of way. He doesn’t always attend his appointments. It’s hard to know whether he’s actually doing his home exercise programme. A far cry from the “hard-working, reliable” man who runs his own business.

What’s going on? We could say he’s depressed, and maybe he is. But more importantly, why is he depressed? He doesn’t describe his pain as anything more than a 5/10 where 10 is the most extreme pain he can imagine. He’s still getting an income from his worker’s compensation, he’s still in a loving relationship and in their own home. But he’s not a happy man.

We’ve all met an Al, I’m sure. Superficially he looks fine, but a throwaway comment nails it: “I’m just not myself any more, I want things to be normal”.

Self-concept

All of us have an idea of who we are. A self-concept is a set of representations about who we are, what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. We all have several self-concepts – the “actual” self, the “ideal” self (who we would like to be), the “ought” self (the person others think we should be), the “feared” self (the person we really don’t want to be) and so on (Higgins, 1999; Markus & Nurius, 1986). Our sense of self is based on a collection of memories, a pattern of behaviours that we’ve developed and continue to develop as we aim to be the person we want to be.  Our sense of self guides our choices and the way we do things.

What happens when we can’t do things the way we think we “should”, or the way our sense of self would guide us to? Let’s think about this for a minute.

Al is used to getting up early in the morning, usually about 6.00, so he can get out to the site he’s working on that day and begin work by about 7.30. He prides himself on being at work, ready to go, before his apprentice gets there. He’s always organised, got his gear ready and in the truck with a cup of tea all sorted so he can plan his day.

Since he developed his back pain, Al’s had trouble getting out of bed before 8.00. He’s always tired. He’s not sleeping. He’s the last one in the house to get up, and he can’t even get to the work site until 9.00 because his body is sore and he can’t seem to wake up. He’s getting picked up by his apprentice who keeps giving him grief over not having his gear ready in time. He’s not the man he used to be, in fact, he’s become the man he swore he’d never be, a compensation bludger. He doesn’t like who he’s become. He feels lazy and useless.

Achieving self-coherence by re-occupying self

One of the neglected aspects of pain management is how to help someone deal with the changes to his or her sense of self. Life becomes chaotic when assumptions we make about the world no longer apply. The main concern of someone who is learning to deal with chronic pain is how to make life and self make sense again, to regain some coherence.  When they successfully solve this problem, it’s like all the various aspects of “self” have been reassembled. This is usually a new “self”, one that incorporates pain and the things that need to be done to accommodate pain while still expressing important aspects of “who” he or she is.

The process of learning to live comfortably with a new self is, I believe, a process of re-occupying self. Making a new self that feels recognisably “me”, doing the things that make “me” feel like myself, including some of “my” usual standards and attitudes and interests.

Yet what do we so often do when we doing pain management? We tell people like Al to “relax” and “pace” (Al learned as a child that you don’t stop until the job is done). We tell him he needs to move in certain ways (as a plumber? under buildings, in roof cavities, hauling gear out of the truck, carrying it over building sites). We suggest he needs to not do some things (work for the whole day without a break), but ask him to do other things (carry out a set of exercises three times a day). We say he needs to be back at work, but he doesn’t feel he’s pulling his weight.

What can we do?

I think we need to take some time to understand Al and what’s important to him. Not just the occupations (activities) but also the way he does them, and why he does them. How do they contribute to his sense of self? And then we need to work with him to give himself “permission” to do things differently – for a while. It’s like putting on a temporary “self”, a “rehabilitation” self. We can revisit this “rehabilitation” self as time goes on, and help him identify important values and occupations so he can begin to feel more like himself. Perhaps help him develop a new self that lets go of the old “normal” but includes some of the most important values expressed differently. I call this flexibly persisting – as Antony Robbins says, “staying committed to your decisions, but staying flexible in your approach”.

BTW – if you’d like to help me share this concept, you can! The idea of re-occupying self emerged from my PhD studies, and I want to present this at the Pain Science in Motion Colloquium in Brussels at the end of March. If you’d like to help me raise the airfare to get there (and back!), go to Give a Little and my page “Live well with pain”. Every little bit counts! I’ve had some wonderful people help me get almost half the money I need – will you help me get the rest? Thank you!!

 

Beekman, Claire E., Axtell, Lois, Noland, Kathy S., & West, Jaime Y. (1985). Self-concept: An outcome of a program for spinal pain. Pain, 22(1), 59-66. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0304-3959%2885%2990148-4

Charmaz, K. (2002). The self as habit: The reconstruction of self in chronic illness. Occupational Therapy Journal of Research, 22(Suppl1), 31S-41S. doi: dx.doi.org/10.1177/15394492020220S105

Hellstrom, Christina. (2001). Temporal dimensions of the self-concept: Entrapped and possible selves in chronic pain. Psychology & Health, 16(1), 111-124. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08870440108405493

Higgins, E. Tory. (1999). Self-discrepency: A theory relating self and affect The self in social psychology (pp. 150-181). New York, NY: Psychology Press; US.

Markus, Hazel, & Nurius, Paula. (1986). Possible Selves. American Psychologist, 41(9), 954-969. doi: dx.doi.org/10.1037//0003-066X.41.9.954

5 comments

  1. Hi Bronwyn,
    Just a quick note to let you know I mentioned your post in one of my posts today.
    Please let me know if you’d rather not be linked on other blogs – happy to remove the link, no offence taken🙂

    Cheers,

    VSL

  2. Hi Bronnie , I am interested in this concept of self and your thoughts on the ‘rehab self’ . When I was reading a lot for my humanities in medicine course I remember Dan Dennets idea of the self as a centre of narrative gravity . The stable storyline we have been living and creating for ourselves sometimes radically alters in times of difficulty . I like the concept of rehab as re- inhabiting , sometimes to adopt former roles or perhaps re narrate (esp if our attiudes and behaviour tended to push our system over the edge) .Again, I think people like Havi Carel and her concept of living well with illness (her brilliant book Illness covers this well) is worth thinking about . I have always thought trying to instill flexibility is a better approach than pacing . As you quite rightly say a self employed plumber is never really going to get to grips with breaking tasks up into artificial parts or spacing them out …This is just not how things work in the real world. Making sense of this change in a person and how life has shifted is the role of therapy/pain management in many situations . Its not that common however as its time consuming and requires a lot of flexibility (this doesnt fit well in clinics that favour ‘pain blocks’ or courses of acupuncture for example …my experience of some pain clinics). Thanks for the article .

    1. Unfortunately, your experience with pain clinics is all too common! Yes I read Havi Carel and also Eric Cassel both of whom have interesting things to say about living with, and BEING a person rather than inevitably suffering or somehow sectioning off this part of self that is affected by who and what is going on in our bodies.
      I really think it’s important to understand that behind the strategies we try to recommend to people is an individual who wants life to be understandable and to feel like him/herself. And of course the self is constantly evolving as life goes on – which is why I’m so keen that people are given the news that their pain won’t go (if it’s chronic) so they have a chance to let go of the parts of the old self that can’t be sustained, releasing energy to begin developing and integrating new aspects of self.
      I am really pleased with the term “re-occupying” self – because it’s about feeling comfortable living in, settling in, and doing/becoming a new self. And new things always take a little time to feel comfortable, but if they never get discussed or explored they’ll never feel this way.
      So many people describe “post-traumatic growth” after developing chronic pain and re-occupying self. Perhaps this is part of a narrative to turn a negative into a positive, but perhaps it really does mean energy is transferred and repurposed into new aspects of self that couldn’t have emerged before.

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