I’ll start by saying that I was prepared to hate the Barbie movie. I thought it would be a giant advertisement for a toy that perpetuates the objectification of women and impossible, Eurocentric beauty standards while trying to re-brand the doll as a symbol of liberation… and watching the movie didn’t change my mind about that.
But it also made me cry… and as a vehicle for getting in touch with my emotions, it helped me step out of an intensity spiral 🌀 that had been brewing in me for a few days — the kind of spiral that, if left unchecked, can often result in a headache for me.
Here’s a step-by-step of how I was reluctantly healed by Barbie 😅. Regardless of what you think of the doll or the movie, you might relate to parts of this story…
It started with stress… and escalated into the stress cycle
When we experience a flare-up of anxiety or any of the physical symptoms that can come with it (like pain), we often want to trace the steps back to how and why the flare-up started. “What caused it? What could I have done to avoid it?” We’re often looking for one singular thing that we did “wrong” so that we can course-correct for the future.
But most of the time, it’s not one singular thing. Stress is cumulative. And in my case on this particular occasion, I’d recently heard several heavy stories of sad news, I was (and still am) undertaking a number of home improvement projects with my partner, and a week I’d taken off for vacation wound up being subsumed in to-do’s.
These normal, everyday stresses that come with life then kicked my stress cycle into gear. For me, it looks like this: I start fixating on stress-induced thoughts. Thoughts like, “I’m not doing enough. My partner is working harder than me, so I should be doing more. I shouldn’t relax because he’s not relaxing…”
These thoughts, of course, perpetuate more stress. It becomes a cycle that escalates.
I recognized the symptoms of the stress cycle starting to brew
In the old days, I used to think self-critical thoughts were true. And I thought that I just needed to do more and be better in order to quiet those thoughts down. I still get caught up in that kind of thinking… when I’m stressed.
What I recognize now is that those thoughts themselves are a symptom of stress. And they seem very true when I’m stressed! It’s an act of will to notice them and name them as a stress symptom so that I can start making choices that will help me unwind from the stress cycle.
Another stress symptom I noticed was that it was getting harder to concentrate on work. I felt like I was pushing myself instead of feeling led by inspiration or energy. Work started to feel like a drag and I began to feel resentment towards it.
In the days before I ever experienced a migraine, I would ignore these signals that are telling me to slow down. And I still do, sometimes. But what my recovery from chronic pain has taught me is that ignoring the signals can have very unpleasant consequences — and that as hard as it is to step off the stress merry-go-round, there are immeasurable benefits to doing so before my nervous system pulls the emergency break in the form of a pain flare-up.
I didn’t do it “perfectly”
Yes, I’ve gotten much better at listening to my nervous system’s signals. But I’m not “perfect” at it! I don’t always catch the stress before it manifests in physical pain. And I did wake up with a mild headache before fully tending to the stress.
The headache — along with increasing levels of feeling jittery throughout the morning — were my nervous system’s way of sending a louder signal. One that I decided to heed.
I’d planned to spend most of the day working on my podcast. But I made an executive decision to step away from my desk, play hooky for the rest of the day… and go see the Barbie movie. I figured two hours of sparkly pink Hollywood entertainment would get my mind out of productivity overdrive and overwhelm.
Then came the guilt!
I tiptoed out of the house, feeling tremendously guilty that my husband was still glued to endless Zoom meetings for work.
I debated whether to even tell him that I was going to the movies.
I finally sent a text message to let him know… and then sat with the waves of guilt mixed with waves of relief all the way to the theater.
Lights, camera, tears
The lights went down in the movie theater, and just as I’d hoped, the magic of Hollywood glitter took my preoccupied mind into another dimension. But much to my surprise, it wasn’t just a trip to the land of distraction and fluff.
Despite my misgivings about Barbie… that dang movie got to me. And I cried! I literally wept in the theater. Funny enough, the movie touches into a lot of the themes that we talk about in chronic pain recovery: Breaking out of numbness and feeling your full range of emotions, taking off the mask of perfectionism and revealing your authentic self…
I was reluctant to be swept up in the story — but it was exactly the emotional release that I needed. And my whole mind and body felt like they were re-set and re-energized by the time the lights came up again.
Laughter and perspective
By the time I got home, all the feelings of guilt that my stress-cycle churned up had subsided. My partner was still working away when I turned the key in the door, and when he got up to greet me he said, “Where’d you go? I didn’t know you were out!”
I had to laugh at all the angst and worry I put myself through debating whether it was okay to take time for myself while he was working.
It felt good to give him a hug and tell him about my movie escapade — and I could tell he enjoyed seeing me in such a good mood.
My takeaways from this vignette? While I might not have time to run away to the movies every day, feeling guilty about slowing down to unwind is always a signal that… it’s time to slow down and unwind. In whatever way, shape or form is available to you. Even if it starts off as a guilty pleasure, making time for pleasure will guide you back home.