The Healing Journey: A Process Oriented Approach to Recovery
Shelby Clark, LCSW, LSCSW, RYT-200
The children’s book “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” follows five children searching for a bear who meet a variety of environmental challenges along the way. As the children meet obstacles like forests, rivers, mountains and deep, dark caves the story repeats, “We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it…We’ve got to go through it!” As we live our lives, we too go on many types of metaphorical bear hunts including embarking on the journey towards emotional healing. In our healing journeys, we may come across a variety of barriers and hurdles. Some may be smaller and less threatening than others like the tall, wavy grass the children in the story walk through. Others may feel incredibly lonely, isolating, and as dark as a cold cave. Regardless of what the experience is, the only way through it is through it. No matter how hard we may try, we simply can’t go over, under or around things like grief, anxiety, or trauma. The way to emotional healing is walking through the murky, muddy, and messy life experiences that challenge us to our cores and sometimes even bring us to our knees.
Our journeys towards emotional healing and well-being are not linear and they are rarely fast. We take steps backwards, forwards, and sideways. Sometimes we dance through our journeys and other times it may take all of the energy we have to simply stop and sit. Regardless of which direction you are going in the moment, if you are able to take a step back and observe the general trajectory of your journey, all steps in all directions can be seen as a part of your healing journey. There isn’t one right way to heal and there is certainly not one path; we may embark on many different paths towards healing and they can all work together for our benefit. Engaging in the bear hunt of emotional healing requires us to get outside of our comfort zones, to feel and potentially do things that may feel daunting at best and possibly even threatening.
There are few universal, human experiences but one that we can all count on is that from time to time life is just plain hard. We all suffer. And though our hardships and difficulties may look differently, each and every one of us can bank on experiencing them at some point in time. We pick up pain a long our paths in a variety of ways; sometimes in childhood, adolescence, or at various point in adulthood. For some pain is characterized by anxiety, depression, or a past trauma. For others it is the pain of addiction, grief, or difficulty adjusting to a significant life change. And still others experience chronic or serious illnesses that are accompanied by emotional pain, as well. The faces of pain are infinite.
Going through the journey of emotional healing and embracing the process can be difficult, overwhelming, and scary. Most of us have tried and true ways of avoiding, numbing, or attempting to escape from challenging emotions. Why? Because for many of us it is frightening to look inward at the most vulnerable pieces of who we are; the pieces of us that have been hurt or that are home to memories of past mistakes. The pieces of our histories and selves that we have been told, either directly or implicitly, to keep hidden; tucked away where they cannot inconvenience someone else or be under fire of harsh criticism. Just like the children who go on the bear hunt we may need to gather our gumption, walk into these dark spaces and repeat to ourselves, “We’re not scared!” Or maybe we say, “You know what, I am scared. But I am going to acknowledge my fear and dive in anyway.” Here are some ways we can face our pain and work towards emotional healing.
Sitting with Discomfort: Choosing Emotional Presence Over Avoiding, Numbing, and Escaping
While we may worry about what’s waiting for us in the dark crevices of our hearts and minds, we know that acknowledging them is the first step to healing them. As Father Richard Rohr taught, “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it—usually to those closest to us: our family, our neighbors, our co-workers, and, invariably, the most vulnerable, our children.” Avoiding, escaping or numbing inevitably short circuits our healing process. We all have our pet ways of avoiding, escaping or numbing. Whether its substances, food, exercise, or busyness; The ways to avoid pain are as innumerable as the ways we experience pain. However, the things we attempt to ignore or run from will always be waiting for us. And, generally speaking, the more we avoid them the more control they have over us. If we use emotional avoidance rather than emotional presence to manage our pain, ultimately, we make it pretty difficult to learn and grow.
Carl Rogers explained, “The curious paradox is when I accept myself just as I am then I can change.” Emotional presence and acceptance create the inner environment necessary for healing. It certainly does seem paradoxical that acceptance could lead to transformation. Wouldn’t accepting things lead to more of the same things? One would think so. However, spaces of acceptance are generally spaces where we feel seen, heard, understood and loved. These are all shared ingredients in recipes for emotional healing and well-being.
What does emotional presence look like? It means observing and noticing our emotions as they arise without any judgment; without deeming them good or bad. I like the phrase sitting with discomfort to describe one aspect of emotional presence. Susan David explained that “discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.” Sitting with discomfort means choosing curiosity when we have strong or painful reactions. Asking ourselves questions like, “How does this emotion feel in my body?” or “What was the catalyst to this response?” If we can learn to see our emotions as data points rather than fixed experiences, they can begin to provide us with information that can be used to understand ourselves and the world around.
Finding Supportive Relationships
Healing is not a journey we can successfully go through in isolation. In fact, social isolation and loneliness are associated with many negative health outcomes and even shortened life expectancy. Healing occurs within the context of connection. If you get a cut or break a bone, your body immediately begins to knit cells together to create a clot. This is the first step in physical healing. Emotional wounds are the same; the first steps to healing them begin with connection.
Brene Brown explained, “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need... We are biologically, cognitively, physically and spiritually wired to love, to be loved and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others.” In short, love is the seed that grows joy, connection, and well-being. Love heals. It is important to note that the trademark of loving relationships is not that they are free of conflict. However, in order for our loving relationships to heal Brene Brown explained “shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of love…” should be “acknowledged, healed, and rare.”
Becoming Process Oriented Rather than Destination Driven
Sometimes clients ask me, “How will I know when this is better?” I like to flip this question back to them and generally say something like, “I’m not totally sure, how do you think you will know when it’s better?” Certainly, there are things to look for like a reduction in symptoms, more consistent use of coping skills, or the achievement of treatment goals. But when you strip away the clinical benchmarks and simply reflect on the experience of getting better, we find that the “better” is so much more of a process than it is a destination. It’s less of a one stop shop we hope to one day achieve, and more of an ongoing, continual, process we work and rework throughout our lives.
Sometimes we make progress only to uncover another layer of the wound we didn’t know was there. We may begin to see things from a new perspective; observing things we hadn’t noticed before. We might also pick up new hurt along the way that creates more opportunities for growth. As Danielle Doby wrote, “The heaviness is here to teach you how to rise again.” The healing journey is a long game. That may seem daunting, but if you can begin to see each step in the long game as an opportunity for a rich, meaningful life you will begin to rise up from the heaviness of the pain you have carried. As we rise again… and again, and again, and again… We will develop emotional strength and resilience to help us meet the next challenge. We will refine and transform ourselves. And we will begin to willingly, compassionately, and perhaps even peacefully, go on the bear hunt.