We have seen that stress is the result of an interaction between a stressor and a processing system. That processing apparatus is the human nervous system, operating under the influence of the brain’s emotional centres.
The biology of belief inculcated in that processing apparatus early in life crucially influences our stress responses throughout our lives. Do we recognize stressors? Do we magnify or minimize potential threats to our well-being? Do we perceive ourselves as alone? As helpless? As never needing help? As never deserving help? As being loved? As having to work to deserve love? As hopelessly unlovable? These are unconscious beliefs, embedded at the cellular level.They “control” our behaviours no matter what we may think on the conscious level.They keep us in shut-down defensive modes or allow us to open to growth and to health.We look now at some of these viscerally held perceptions more closely.
Myth 1: I have to be strong
As an artist and avid reader, Iris is highly intellectual. About ten years ago, at the age of forty-two, she was diagnosed with SLE (lupus). Iris grew up in Europe, immigrating with her family to the United States in her early twenties. Her father was tyrannical and unpredictable, and her mother, she reports, “did not exist separately from my father.”
“I’ve thought about this theory of the body saying no when your mind can’t,” Iris says. “I’ve heard it before, and I have agreed with the principle before. I just don’t like thinking of it in terms of me.”
“Why not?” I ask her.
“It means you aren’t strong enough . . . you’re not capable of doing whatever it was to be strong enough.”These words brought to mind an ovarian cancer patient who disliked my theory because, she said, it made her look like a “wimp.”
“What if one truly isn’t ‘strong enough’?” I say. “If I tried to lift a ten-thousand-pound weight and somebody said, ‘You’re not strong enough for that,’ I’d agree.”
“Under those circumstances, I’d say,‘What are you, an idiot?’”
“That’s the whole point. Sometimes the problem is not that we lack strength but that the demands we make on ourselves are impossible. So what’s wrong with not being strong enough?”
The core belief in having to be strong enough, characteristic of many people who develop chronic illness, is a defence.The child who perceives that her parents cannot support her emotionally had better develop an attitude of “I can handle everything myself.” Otherwise, she may feel rejected. One way not to feel rejected is never to ask for help, never to admit “weakness”—to believe that I am strong enough to withstand all my vicissitudes alone.
Iris quickly conceded that when her friends call her with their problems, she does not judge them or accuse them of being weak.They are comfortable relying on her and see her as empathic and supportive. It was clear that her double standard—higher expectations of herself than of others—had nothing to do with strength. It had to do with a lack of power, as experienced by the child. A child can be stronger than he should have to be, because he doesn’t have power.
Myth #2: It’s not right for me to be angry
Shizuko is forty-nine, the mother of two grown children. She was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at twenty-one, shortly after arriving in Canada as a foreign student. Her birth mother died when she was four, after which her father married her aunt, her mother’s sister. “My stepmother liked business more than she liked children,” she says. Her father indulged all her material needs and desires but he was most often away from home.
Shizuko divorced her emotionally distant husband five years ago. “My marriage was terrible.When I was living with my husband, I was tired all the time, raising the kids. [Fatigue is a common symptom in the rheumatic diseases.] Before 3:00 p.m. I would lie on the couch, and my husband always complained, ‘You did nothing, nothing.’ He said I was using him to be a free meal ticket.”
“Did you ever feel angry?”
“Yes, I was angry at him all the time.”
“Did you express the anger?”
“No . . .The way my stepmother raised me, I think I am not supposed to be angry.”
Myth #3: If I’m angry, I will not be lovable.
Alan, with cancer of the esophagus, has been unhappy in his marriage. The reader may recall his perception that his wife was unable to be “romantic, intimate and all the things that I need.”
“How would you express your dissatisfaction? Do you ever get angry about it? Do you ever feel angry about it?”
“It’s hard to relate because now I get angry all the time.We talk about it a lot more now.”
“What happened to the anger before you were diagnosed with cancer?”
“I don’t know. I see what you’re getting at, and it’s probably true.”
“Where did you learn to repress anger?”
“That’s a good one—I don’t think I’ve analyzed this quite enough. I think it comes from a desire to be liked. If you’re angry, people don’t like you.”
Myth #4: I’m responsible for the whole world
Leslie, a fifty-five-year-old social worker, also attributes his illness—in his case, ulcerative colitis—to the stresses of a relationship. “It began during my first marriage.There was a lot of stress, and that’s when it was the worst. It hasn’t been bad in a long time. Now I sometimes have some bleeding, but it is very limited.My relationship with my first wife was always up and down. I think she didn’t want to be involved. It was never a partnership. I had to think for her. It got real crazy making, because I would have to think about what we could do together. She would never tell me what she wanted to do. I would have to come up with a movie that I thought we both would like, one we both could go, and be happy with.”
“Didn’t it upset you to play that role?”
“What did you do with that anger?”
“Swallowed it—no question. I couldn’t fight because then she would say, ‘ You see, this is a bad marriage.’ Conflict with her was considered an indicator that the relationship was bad.I had to be very, very careful.When I started going out with Eva, who is now my wife, and we would have a fight, I would start smiling. I told her I was enjoying that we could actually fight and be different, and she was not going to go away. I definitely had fears of people leaving, of abandonment.”
It took Leslie several months after the initial onset of his symptoms to seek medical help.“I wasn’t ready to accept my vulnerability in having problems. It had a lot to do with my perfectionism, wanting to be perfectly all right, to have nothing wrong with me.”
When Leslie was nine years old, his father died suddenly of a heart attack, and two years later he witnessed the sudden death of his brother from a brain aneurysm.“After that, I had an obsessive ritual every night, a routine to make sure people would not die.‘Don’t die, don’t die . . . ’ It was my way of controlling people not dying in my life. One day, I was talking with my psychiatrist. I said, ‘I gave up that ritual and I don’t know where it went.’ It was like an ‘aha’ experience— all of a sudden it came to me:‘I know where it went. I became a social worker, and now I’m trying to save the world!’ It caused me a lot of stress when I was trying to save the world and wasn’t succeeding. I was on stress leave two or three years ago. I finally recognized that I can’t save the world. I even have a mantra that the psychiatrist and I came up with: ‘I should be a guide, not a God.’ It works for me.”
“So you thought this entire unholy mess of a world out there was your fault?”
“At one point I believed that whether or not it was my fault, I was going to be the one to fix it.”
"How did that manifest itself in your work?”
“Well, if my parents, I mean clients, were not doing well, I felt I didn’t have enough knowledge. I needed to know more and have better skills. I needed to find the right solution, work harder, read more, go to workshops.”
One did not have to search far for the meaning of Leslie’s Freudian substitution of parents for clients. Not only did he become his mother’s chief companion and solace after the deaths of his father and older brother, but it also turns out that he had been in that role from birth.
“My mom did want me to be happy. She was always concerned that I should be happy.That was something that I was always trying to do. I tried to be happy in my childhood. I didn’t know what depression was; I didn’t even know what sad feelings were. My mom used say I was such a good-natured child, which my brother wasn’t. I was such a good-natured baby that she could wake me up in the middle of the night, play with me for a while and put me back, and I’d go back to sleep."
“Why on earth would she do that?”
“I guess she was lonely or needing some attention.”
“So you had to work . . . from infancy.”
“My mom’s marriage with my father was terrible.They’d fight—it was bad before he died. It was my job to make her happy.”