Life Lessons I Learned from My Physical Therapist

The physical therapy session began with a brief diagnostic consultation and then Connor’s trademark declaration, said with just a hint of a Boston accent.

“Stella, ya not injuhed.”

This was in response to my description of the pain I was experiencing, rattled off nervously: I had been trying to deal with it unsuccessfully for a minimum of several weeks and I embarrassingly admitted that I had not come in sooner because I was waiting for it to go away because that’s how things usually work – right? – and I was really, really afraid that this time I had done something bad and would not be able to work out anymore.

“Ya not injuhed,” was great news.

At some point Connor would continue the exam by testing mobility on muscles and joints around the painful area, because, after all, everything is connected, right?

This time it was my shoulders. First right, then left. Then right again, then left.

Finally, “Ya gauhding ya left shoulder.”

Guarding my left shoulder? Huh. Ok. Well, I explained, that shoulder had been the subject of multiple injuries over the years, so why wouldn’t I be protective?

“I can’t help you with that. Maybe another kind of therapist.”

Wait, what? Was I hearing correctly? Did he just say that I needed to see a therapist for my shoulder-guarding issue? That it was all in my head? That couldn’t be right.

“Sorry?” I asked politely.

He repeated, “Ya guahding ya left shoulder. It’s ok.”

I sat up, and he patted my shoulder firmly.

“It’s a good shoulder.”

It’s as if he wasn’t even speaking to me anymore. Clearly all I could offer were past excuses for this over-protectiveness, so he had to speak directly to my shoulder. To let it know, even if I wasn’t aware, that it was a good shoulder. A validation of sorts, but just for my shoulder.

I’ve thought about that PT visit many times since. Eventually, a couple of visits did help my physical issue (which, by the way, was not my shoulder).

But what I got from that session carried over into many other areas of my life. I couldn’t help but think there were some bigger lessons to be learned here, apart from some PT exercises.

Lesson #1: Yah Not Injuhed

Pain, as it turns out, is information. Feedback. Input. It’s the body’s way of sending a message. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you injured something or that you have to limit what you do. Sometimes, you just need to do things differently.

I would always go the PT assuming I was “broken.” And when pain presented itself, I went to that “broken” mentality.

Guess what? You are stronger than you think, even while overcoming the pain of a non-injury.

Here’s a helpful example I came across during a recent workout. I like to call it the Case of the Mystery Deadlift…

During this particular training session, in carefully trying to avoid pain, I let my mind dictate a sensible amount to deadlift. I loaded up the hexbar with what I considered to be a light amount of weight. It was easy to lift, so I decided to add 10 lbs. I was being cautious.

I walked away and came back to the hexbar and, when I went to lift, it seemed heavier than I imagined it would be with the extra 10 lbs. But it was only 10 lbs. (sensible) so I adjusted my stance, and breezed through a set of 10.

After I finished the last deadlift, I looked over at another hexbar set up near me, then looked at where I was at now. I had accidentally taken over someone else’s set up, and lifted the additional 30 pounds with no problem, and zero pain.

Here was actual proof that I wasn’t actually listening to my body, but to what I imagined I should be able to lift. #mindfuck

The moral of the story? When you’re not injured, and you’re not broken… don’t treat yourself like you are! Listen to what your body is saying. Sometimes, you may be recovering and still be strong AF.

Lesson #2: Talk Nice

“You’re a good shoulder,” … said me to myself never.

I would get angry with my body, even resentful sometimes, when I felt pain. Full disclosure: I may have, more than once, said something like, “Stupid shoulder!”

There is actual science behind the connection between attitude and healing. Specifically, people with a more positive outlook tend to get better faster and heal more completely. Their attitude helps them to heal.

When was the last time you thanked your body for helping you run a marathon, or bench press a new PR? Or for healing an injury or illness?

Those messages get through. Our brain is connected to everything. Listening to your body when it is using pain to tell you something is a more collaborative effort that leads to a more successful outcome.

Maybe take just a moment every day to feel gratitude for what we make our body put up with.

I take our minute of meditation at the end of the classes at MFF to thank my body for letting me complete this workout.

After I lift, I take one moment as I am putting on my shoes to take a deep breath and say thank you to my body for taking me through my workout. It makes a difference.

Your body may not have told you this, but talking nice to it matters.

Lesson #3: Let Your Guard Down

This whole “guarding” my left shoulder had me thinking.

I started by paying more attention to it at the gym. I found I definitely favor my left side sometimes. I don’t push through with the same strength on my left side, especially with my arm and shoulder.

And it isn’t that I can’t. It’s something that I must have started doing in response to an injury, and it simply became a bad habit.

Offering equal opportunity to all parts of my body has been a game changer in my workouts. Using that “guarded” strength has not only made me able to lift more, it also has me concentrating on what I can do, rather than what I think I can’t do.

What about you? Is there something you are protecting or guarding? When you notice asymmetry in strength at the gym, are you favoring a side you perceive as weaker?

When you let your guard down, and let go of over-protecting, this opens up space for more strength, more success.

Advanced Thinking

But if how we do one thing is how we do everything, what could this mean?

If I am guarding my left side, what else am I guarding? My right brain? Could letting my guard down on my left side help with creativity?

And I’m left-handed – does this mean I am guarding who I really am? (I know. I went there. But it’s something to think about.)

Ask yourself, is the way you handle physical pain the way you handle everything? Do you listen to your body’s pain messages to you in the same way you listen to your partner or your child or your co-worker? (You wouldn’t ignore them if they were talking to you, right?)

I’ve taken away many good exercises from physical therapy. But it wasn’t until I learned to include my brain in the mix (it’s connected – I Googled it) that I learned how much my thoughts and attitude make a difference.

Our conscious thoughts make their way into the subconscious, and what we tell ourselves makes a physical difference in our body’s ability to heal and to be strong.

So tell your body something awesome.

Worth Mentioning

Always pay attention to your body. Listen to your body when it is well enough to be strong. That also means if you have pain that is more than just being sore after a good workout, or seems in any way unusual to you, call your doctor or physical therapist.

Here’s a great tip: Treat your body like it is someone’s body who is important to you. Would you tell your aging grandmother not to try to be stronger? Would you tell your child to forget all about that pain in her knee? Your body deserves the same respect.


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Stella Kaufman is an OG Ninja from before there was even a Mark Fisher Fitness Clubhouse. She is the editor for the MFF blog and runs the Tasty Ninja recipes page on Facebook. She loves to share what she’s learned along the way, especially with her fellow unicorns and Ninjas.

  • LOVE this so much!! Thank you, Stella!

    • Stella Kaufman

      I’m glad you liked it, Tamara! Thanks for reading!

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