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It Depends on How You Say It

It Depends on How You Say It

Mountain Creek

by Kathryn Britton, co-author of Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance

A little more than a month ago, I was walking with my husband on a trail in the woods behind my house. I was looking forward to a creek that we had to cross on stones, trying to pick out the best way across. In an instant, the toe of my boot caught on a rock in the path, and I fell forward like a tree, landing on both hands and my chin. Since then, I’ve heard that such falls are called FOOSHes by occupational therapists: fall on outsstretched hands. One doctor described the effect as having a lightning bolt go up your arm. After a brief faint, my husband was able to pick me up, and I made it home on my own steam. But, oh, my arms!

To make what has been a long story to me short, I broke bones in both elbows and injured my left wrist. The prescribed treatment was wearing a removable brace and sling on my left arm to protect it so that the break stayed put. The bone looked to be where it needed to be to heal. For my right arm, I wore one of those basketball elastic sleeves to reduce swelling. I could use it as much as I found comfortable, which wasn’t much at first. It took several days before I could lift a coffee cup to my mouth. I’m only just getting so I can lift the coffee pot to fill it.

All this is to create the background for two conversations I had that affected me very differently.

Scolding doesn't encourage behavioral changeI had the first conversation twice, once with the physician’s assistant that I saw initially and once with the orthopedic specialist that I saw to evaluate my wrist. Both told me that my bones were thin, and that I very likely have osteoporosis. I already knew I had many of the risk factors: I’m relatively thin, fair, female, above 50, and I have other medical conditions that increase my risk. My mother has shrunk by 4 inches from her mid-adult height. But I’ve been trying to do something about it. I lift free weights to strengthen my arms 3 or 4 times a week. In particular, I’ve done wrist curls with weights because I can see that I have thin wrists. The main thing I have going for me is that I haven’t started to shrink yet myself.

So the statements from the PA and doctor didn’t surprise me, but I did find them a little discouraging. All that effort to no avail.

So I brought it up with the occupational therapist who has been helping me regain range of motion and strength. All that exercise, and I still broke bones.

She answered, “How do you know what would have happened if you hadn’t done all that exercising? I see many people in here that had to have their elbows operated on, pins and plates put in to hold things in place. Maybe your exercise reduced the damage of your falls, keeping your bones in place so that all you have to do is baby them for a few weeks.”

Support is a better health promotion strategy

I have no idea whether she is right or not, but it doesn’t matter. My whole feeling made a 180 turn. Two lightning bolts up my arms that are recovering with nothing more than a removable brace that I could take off to enjoy the extreme pleasure of soaking my arms in warm water. Even that, I stopped needing after 3 weeks.

With the focus on osteoporosis, I felt like a failure. But the OT gave me a different interpretation consistent with the facts that makes me see a benefit from all my exercise. It makes me feel competent. I can certainly say that feeling that I failed was leading to “Why bother!” thinking. Feeling that I may have protected myself from much worse makes me eager to get enough strength back to lift again.

How we feel really does depend on how we say things. How do you help your clients think about the times when they fall short?

  • Margaret

    What a beautiful story! You would have loved Harvard professor Dr. John Ratey’s talk @Penn on Saturday. It’s all about our mindset & those in the healing professions who can have a profound positive or negative influence.

    • Wish I had heard it, Margaret! Sounds right up my alley! Would love to hear what was your biggest take-away when you get a chance! 😉

  • Elena

    Thank you for sharing, Katherine! Sending you hugs.

  • Shannon Polly

    What a great post. Reframing has a huge impact. John Ratey said that people who don’t have cancer anymore who consider themselves ‘cured’ do better than those who consider themselves ‘in remission’. Kudos to your exercise! And happy healing.

    • Great tidbit to know, Shannon! Thanks for informing us!
      … and thanks for being here!

  • Senia

    Great message, Kathryn! Especially comparing what happened to what you don’t know could have happened (that could have been even worse!). Reminds me of a very wise point #5 in an article I read years ago… (and which I reference with coaching clients and with friends often!) … may look familiar to you: http://positivepsychologynews.com/news/kathryn-britton/20070907387

    • Wow, Senia, great memory! This is an article from over 6 years ago! Very fun!

      • Senia

        Marie-Jo, I seriously refer friends and clients to it so often!

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MJ Shaar – in 20 seconds


MJ is one of the most sought-after experts blending positive psychology and health promotion. She spent over 15 years coaching, teaching, speaking, researching and testing smart health habits. Marie-Josée Shaar received her undergrad at McGill University in Organizational Behavior, followed by a Master of Applied Positive Psychology at University of Pennsylvania. She's certified as a Wellness Culture Coach, a Personal Trainer, and a Nutrition and Wellness Consultant.

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