What are the solutions? Obviously, “get help”.
But that’s kind of a cop-out. It’s not like therapists have a magic wand, and then, Healioso Instantantum!!, and Poof, you’re all better. Therapy isn’t magic. It’s hard work. A therapist is like a catalyst; they catalyze your own self-healing. But they can’t do it for you.
So the question becomes, what can a person do in order to catalyze their own healing process? What practical steps CAN a person take in order to begin or advance their own healing journey?
The most common advice you will hear is probably “just begin, just take that first step forward.” There are likely many different domains of your life that you have neglected as a result of your struggles. So start there. Start with opening your mail and paying your bills. Or opening your email and tackling the backlog of messages. Or getting regular exercise. Or reaching out to your friends. Or eating healthier food. Or taking vitamins. Or keeping your house cleaner. Or starting a spiritual practice. Or watching THIS Ted talk, reading THIS book, going to THIS seminar that somebody swears “changed their life”. Clean your room! Sort yourself out!
But honestly, as sensible as all this may be, I don’t think these are the right solutions to emphasize. In fact, they can be downright harmful, because too easily, this can turn into a “fix yourself” mentality. So off you go, and set goals and create vision boards and all that stuff we hear is good for motivating yourself. But…..how is that different from how you’ve already lived? Feeling that you aren’t good enough as you are, that you have to work on yourself. “Straighten your shoulders! Stand up straight! Put some elbow grease into it!” Yeah, you’ve heard this before…..and how DOES it make you feel?
I believe that healing starts with feeling.
Feeling the truth of your pain. Feeling the ache of loneliness that seems to open into infinite blackness in your heart. Feeling the guilt that eats away at you for the ways you know, deep down inside, that you have failed people, or yourself. Feeling your awfulness. Your grief. Your desperation. Your failures. If you don’t first stop and FEEL the soft, suffering animal that you are, then you will spend your life trying to hammer yourself into shape. This won’t make you stronger; it will just make you bruised and broken and exhausted. The “road to self-improvement” will become more like a hamster wheel, a treadmill that takes you nowhere.
We have to be careful here. “Feeling your pain and sorrow” is not the same as wallowing in misery, ruminating about what’s wrong with you, obsessing about your shitty life, feeling sorry for yourself, adopting a ‘victim mentality’. That’s what the “straighten up!” people will tell you though; that “feeling sorry for yourself” is just being a cry-baby, a snowflake, a victim, and instead, you have to soldier on. But this is just plain wrong. Feeling your pain and sorrow is profoundly healing. You need to feel your pain in order to feel compassion for yourself, to accept the truth of your circumstances, to face your darkness and flaws, and eventually, to rediscover your joy. If you skip this first step and just hurry along on your self-improvement project, then you may make some progress, but you are that foolish person who builds their house on sand.
“Feeling your pain and sorrow” is also NOT about courageously confronting the full catastrophe of yourself. The PROCESS by which one does this is subtle. It takes gentleness, time. It takes support and wisdom. It is very helpful to have a guide, a counsellor, a friend, who can be there for you through this process, to catch you when you fall. Because you very likely will. (NOTE: This is a topic I will explore in a future post…..)
Eventually, this will lead you back into the light. You can only sit, openly, vulnerably with your shittiness for so long until you start to feel….compassion. You start to yearn to feel differently. You become less scared of change because you know just how bad not-changing is. After telling your tale of woe for long enough, you will start to almost bore yourself; your desire to stop telling THIS fucking story starts to become stronger than the desire to elicit sympathy, blame others or make excuses for the way your life has gone.
Sitting with the truth of your pain is necessary to FEEL who you really are. The soft, vulnerable animal that IS you. That child that you once were who reached out for love and who was hurt so deeply. When you reconnect with your honest vulnerability, you will find your heart, the wellspring of joy and love and what-makes-life-worth-living. As you face the truth of your suffering, you develop courage and authenticity. And as you share this with others, you start to feel accepted for who you really are, warts and all. This leads to the balancing of Freedom and Responsibility that IS a meaningful life.
Healing starts with feeling. It starts with self-compassion, which leads to self-acceptance. And THEN, you can start taking those small steps forward, building those positive habits, striving for those goals, and instead of the hamster wheel of “self-improvement”, you will find yourself on the road to genuine fulfillment.
— “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.” — Brené Brown