You couldn’t get pregnant easily, and needed fertility treatments. You had a miscarriage. Or several. You developed complications during your pregnancy. You delivered your baby preterm.
Every single one of Parijat Deshpande’s clients feels like their bodies have betrayed them because of the above reasons. Deshpande, MS, is a perinatal mind-body wellness counselor and high-risk pregnancy expert, who helps women navigate stress so they can manage pregnancy complications and give their baby a strong start to life.
Psychologist Julie Bindeman, PsyD, works with women struggling with reproductive challenges, depression, anxiety and body image. She hears statements from her clients like: “I can’t give my husband the baby that I should be able to,” or “I hate my body because it’s not doing what it was built to do.”
Because our society doesn’t normalize infertility, loss and complications the same way it does birth stories, women are left feeling “other” and “deficient,” she said. “They feel broken because they don’t see or hear a lot of stories like the ones they are living.”
Many of Daniela Paolone’s clients who have chronic pain or chronic illness also feel that their bodies have betrayed them. They, too, feel broken. They feel devastated that they’re not able to do the things they used to, said Paolone, LMFT, a holistic psychotherapist who specializes in working with people with chronic illness, pain and anxiety, and lives with a rare illness herself.
“They may try to push through the pain or discomfort, which can further fuel their anger and frustration because their body is faltering with the demands of the day.” They may worry that they can’t trust their own bodies. Ever again.
Often Paolone’s clients keep these emotions to themselves, and retreat inward, further and further, blaming themselves and fearing the unknown.
Deshpande’s clients also worry that they can’t trust their bodies. They feel this way because they feel responsible: “They feel it’s their fault that they couldn’t get pregnant easily or stay pregnant easily or stay pregnant until term, and they take that burden on their shoulders.”
This emotional distrust leads to physical disconnection. For instance, Deshpande’s clients feel dissociated from their bodies, so much so that they don’t notice or pay attention to physical sensations, such as how clothes, soap, or warm water feel on their bodies.
Thankfully, there are ways you can reconnect to your body, even when you feel deeply betrayed by it. Below are six tips to try.
Honor your feelings. “Don’t minimize what you’ve been through,” said Deshpande, author of the new book Pregnancy Brain: A Mind-Body Approach to Stress Management During a High-Risk Pregnancy and host of the Delivering Miracles® podcast. Instead, name it, own it, and show yourself compassion for what you’ve been through and are going through, she said. “Acknowledge that you did the best that you could, even if you wished your body could have done better or differently.”
Paolone also underscored the importance of feeling all our emotions, and having outlets to channel those feelings so they don’t stay pent up inside our bodies. For instance, you might process your strong feelings by talking to a friend, working with a therapist, creating a collage and journaling.
Slightly shift your perspective. Bindeman, co-director of Integrative Therapy of Greater Washington, also noted that whatever you’re feeling is legitimate. She suggested making a tweak to your statements that speaks to the present. That is, add the phrase “for now” or “right now,” she said.
For instance, you’d change “My body sucks. I’ll never have a baby” to “Right now, I feel like my body sucks. That doesn’t mean that I’ll never have a baby. But for now, I don’t have one.”
Ease into reconnecting with your body. At the root of her work, Deshpande teaches clients to rebuild safety and trust within their bodies. To reconnect, she suggested starting with a body part you feel safe with that isn’t triggering to you, such as your arm or shoulder. Next touch it with your hand, and allow yourself to feel this touch. As you get more comfortable, try more sensitive parts of your body, such as your stomach or pelvic region. Deshpande stressed the importance of taking this exercise very slowly.
Create a different physical experience. “Is there a way to give [yourself] a different experience in your body?” Bindeman said. For instance, maybe you find yourself feeling especially strong while practicing yoga or tai chi. Consider engaging in activities that help you feel empowered (and the way you’d like to feel).
Paolone suggested engaging in relaxing activities, such as taking a bath, drawing, coloring or reading your favorite book. These activities may help to calm your body and your mind.
Bring attention to how your body has been there. Paolone noted that this may help you combat feelings of betrayal, and the intensity of your negative feelings may lessen with time. For instance, her clients have made statements like: “[E]ven though this neck pain is persistent, I am appreciative that my body had enough energy today so that I could get some work done”; “I am grateful that my body was well rested enough to give me the stamina and strength to help out at my friend’s party instead of sitting the whole time.”
Acknowledging your pain or uncomfortable feelings, and adding in an element of hope can help to support your body.
Work through your grief. Deshpande noted that her clients’ beliefs that their bodies are broken and to blame for their medical complications are symptoms of guilt and grief. “That guilt and grief, when left unresolved, creates havoc health-wise by impacting the endocrine, immune and nervous systems in the body, from increased aches and pains, insomnia, digestive trouble to more serious health issues like hypertension or even pregnancy complications.”
Deshpande helps her clients identify where their guilt and grief reside in their bodies. This is why she encourages them to notice the physiological patterns they experience when these emotions arise.
For instance, she worked with a client whose grief sat in her lower back. Her client assumed this was due to a medical issue such as sciatica or a herniated disc, but her doctors couldn’t find a cause. After some reflection, her client realized that the pain would flare up every time she was grieving a loss, whether it was someone’s passing or her loss of fertility. “It was extremely illuminating for her to realize that her aches and pains had patterns related to her emotional experience, even when she thought she was emotionally ‘fine.’”
She and Deshpande worked to release her grief from her body using techniques such as massage, therapeutic breathing, physical compression (e.g., sleeping between pillows), and visualization. Consequently, “her pain diminished significantly and for the duration of her pregnancy (and from what I know postpartum) there has been no pain since.”
Many of us feel betrayed by our bodies, whether we struggle with chronic pain or infertility. It’s a deep, stubborn feeling that’s hard to shake. Sometimes, we can process these feelings on our own. And sometimes seeing a therapist can help. Either way, you don’t have to live hating, berating and blaming such a big part of yourself.
Know that you can feel better and reconnect to your body. Give yourself the space and resources to do precisely that.