This post was written by my late wife, Sandra Michaelson, a psychotherapist and author. Her digital and paperback books on relationships and codependency are available at this website.
Many studies have shown that stress can cause disease and that suppressed anger or fear can make us sick. Negative thoughts and emotions depress us and affect our immune system.
So pain and illness can be seen as a manifestation of an embedded emotional conflict. We can use illness either to mobilize us for further psychological growth and enhanced physical health or to mire us more deeply in disease and a victim position.
Health problems often are an indication of a needed change in how we feel about ourselves and our lives. Illness can be a physical representation of forces in all of us that oppose our wholeness, victimize us, stop our progress, and render us powerless.
For example, the genital disease herpes can be a manifestation of a part of us that’s entrenched in feeling defective, contaminated, unwanted, unlovable, and rejected. This disease often represents an expression of unconscious sexual conflicts and feelings of shame and self-rejection pertaining to our sexual conduct and our sexual identity.
All of us in varying degrees have an unconscious resistance to growth. Emotionally, growth can even feel like loss of our old self rather than the gain of a new sense of self. We can feel that if we become healthy we’ll have nothing left for which to struggle. Many of us are addicted to struggle or to feeling drained, pressured, or overwhelmed. I knew a lawyer who would always manage to become ill just before an important trial. His courtroom appearance was turned into a major inner trial that was suffused with the prospect of looking bad and being seen as ineffective.
Problems with our physical health can stem from a buried conviction that we really don’t deserve health, success, or happiness. Health and happiness feel foreign to us because they don’t correspond with our expectations or with our sense of who we are. Loss, deprivation, and feelings of neglect are more familiar to us than prosperity or feeling loved. Even the good in our lives causes anxiety in some of us because we expect it to be lost or taken away. Failing to succeed helps us to avoid the expectation of a painful loss.
Sickness can be a byproduct of the depth and magnitude of our self-hatred and self-negation. It can also be a manifestation of our guilt, regret, shame, and bitterness toward others. Here are eight ways our unresolved negative emotions can be influencing our health:
1) Disease as a way to connect with others. The major attention I received from my mother came in the form of discussions about my problems, particularly my physical problems. I realized that getting sick as a child was a way to get my parents’ attention. We can feel closer to others when we get sick. For some, being healthy brings up emotional associations with feeling alone and abandoned.
2) As a way to get back at a parent or spouse. I had a client who exhausted herself to the point of serious illness by overworking and striving for accomplishment in her field. We discovered she was acting out anger towards her husband and her mother. Her motivation was fueled by this hidden feeling: “Okay mother, you insist that I work hard and succeed. I’ll do what you want, but I’ll kill myself in the process and then you’ll see what you’ve done.” Her sickness was an attempt to induce guilt in her mother and husband for how she felt controlled by them. But, in effect her illness became a way to maintain the feeling of being victimized and enslaved by her mother’s and husband’s control.
3) As a way to be a victim of neglectful people. Some people, especially codependents or who I call emotional caterers, go out of their way, to the detriment of their own health, to satisfy the needs of others. In turn, they intensify the feeling of being neglected or not supported when they get sick themselves. Their unconscious protest is: “You see how far I go to help you. I’m willing to sacrifice myself, even my health, to show you how much I care. If only you gave me one-tenth of the support I give you!” Illness makes them even more a victim of uncaring people.
They use sickness as a way to feel let down and disappointed when others do not cater to them or take care of them according to expectations. Through illness, they try to put the other person in the role of neglectful parent, recreating their childhood experience of feeling hurt when others (parents) did not respond with sufficient support and acknowledgement.
4) As retaliation against someone close to you. If you feel neglected or hurt by a spouse or partner, you can retaliate by becoming sick and thus unavailable to them. This is particularly common among partners of alcoholics or drug addicts. Getting sick is a common response to feelings of powerlessness against the disagreeable behaviors or attitudes of some family members.
5) As a way to resist the control of others. The person who is sick is able to reverse a situation in which he or she feels controlled or helpless. Now it feels as if the sickness controls the situation. This unconscious maneuver places others at the mercy of the conditions or requirements of the sick person. Developing food disorders is one example.
6) As a way to express dependency. Here individuals shift responsibility for themselves on to others. Such individuals include chronic “dependees” who often rely on guilt to get others to do things for them. Through their illness, they set others up to be caretakers or pseudo-parents.
7) As an expression of one’s identity. Some people become emotionally invested in their disease as the primary way in which they know and experience themselves. One of my clients had a mother who was perpetually sick. The mother told her, “Nobody knows what it feels like to be sick like I am.” She was invested in having the greatest pain and being the sickest person around, which gave her an unhealthy form of comfort and validation.
8) As a way to avoid commitment. How many of us have used sickness to get out of doing something we really don’t want to do? If we’re incapacitated in some way, others won’t expect anything much from us. Some people even feel that if they become healthy or successful, others will make more demands on them. We can feel that, if we’re healthy, we have more obligations to fulfill and more people to take care of. So illness can be a passive, self-defeating way of saying no or a way of isolating.
When we become conscious of these ulterior motives for becoming sick or remaining sick, we can more easily recover our health and move on happily with our life.