The Power of Words

A while ago I got a comment on an Instagram post — my post was about feet but a follower commented something to the effect of “oh wow, do you have problems with your right knee?” In all likelihood it was a legitimate question and they didn’t mean anything by it, but words are powerful and can change the way you think and even the way you behave.

I tried to brush the comment off with a “never thanks!” and a laughing emoji but the damage was done. That comment niggled at me, worming its way in to my brain and taking over my thoughts. When I went for a walk later that day, my mind went immediately to my right knee — critically assessing the amount of flexion and rotation at every stage of each step, I started noticing that there seemed to be a lot of bend, a lot of rotation. My knee felt very loose and unorganised. It didn’t feel stable. I wondered if there was too much flexion at this point or that in my gait. There were even a few times I felt a flinching pain which seemed to confirm my suspicions that the knee had a growing problem. I became obsessive over my right knee after only a day.

I started wondering if this was the start of something that I could possibly head off, but how? Concerted strengthening work? Different exercises? Would I have to restructure my whole movement plan? Take up running? How would I know what is appropriate and what could make it worse? Should I see a specialist of some kind? Who?!?

Is it possible that like my aunt and my grandmother before me, I might need a knee replacement one day? What if the knee wasn’t the problem at all, but a victim of hip dysfunction? Cue switch from obsessing over right knee to right hip. Would I need a hip replacement too? Cue noticing weird sensations in my hip.

Sticks and stones can break our bones…but words are harmless right? Of course words are powerful. Ask any person of any kind of minority how they feel when someone uses a derogatory term towards them, or any child who is told repeatedly they are not good enough. I try very hard not to plant any seeds in a client’s fertile imagination that might lead to a similar worry or concern. Even if we are well intentioned and acting out of concern, words can have a strong negative effect.The power of suggestion (what one of my teachers calls “leading the witness”) can lead to a change in behaviour if the person thinks something might be vulnerable to injury.

That well intended person could be a doctor telling you that your sore knee/hip/whatever is normal for someone your age and is probably arthritic, or that you could cause arthritis with wear and tear, essentially setting you up to believe that it is unavoidable, suggesting that issues you may not even be experiencing now are inevitable in the future. Maybe it’s a trainer who in an effort to press their services on you tell you that your (x) is dysfunctional but lucky for you they can fix it (in 10 sessions at $150 each).

So what did I do to break the curse and release the spell that had been cast upon my right knee? Simple. I started obsessing over my left knee. When I went walking, and immediately started in on the right knee and how bad it was, I told myself to focus on the left knee with the same level of intensity. Notice when it bent during the gait cycle and how much, when it rotated and how much, did it swing straight through or arc? And every few seconds my mind would wander back to the right knee, like a meditator finding themselves making a shopping list before refocussing on the breath. So whenever I realised this, I would go back to the left knee, until I could walk a block without ever thinking about my right knee. And I noticed something interesting. The left knee bent just as much at the same time as the right. It rotated just as much and at the same time, and it landed the same way — in fact, there was a remarkable symmetry to my knees that I had never noticed before. There is nothing wrong with my left knee, and my brain had never had reason to obsess over it, so I realised that all my parts are able to do what they need to do without my constant oversight.

When nothing is wrong, you don’t have any reason to be vigilant. You can go about your business and assume your body will respond appropriately to your intentions, even if those intentions are as simple as walking down the street. Only when a body part is “on your radar” do you constantly worry about it. If you’ve ever had an injury you will know that for a long time you are hyper aware of that part of your body and in fact, it’s when you realise you just went an hour or two without thinking about it that you know the healing process is under way. I essentially retrained my brain to not notice a part of me, and to just trust that it would carry on without my guidance.

This all took place over a few days. So if you’ve been living with a belief about your body or a part of it for a long time, it will probably take longer to retrain your brain to be less vigilant. I know that there are real reasons to be aware of a body part and to take care of it, to give it more attention than other parts due to pain, injury or permanent damage. However, if you have a belief about yourself that some trainer, therapist or medical professional bestowed upon you and you’ve been carrying that belief around with you like a burden, consider trying this and see what happens.

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