Tag Archives: healing

Healing is not just a personal issue

I caught myself thinking recently ‘oh, it’s just period pain, it doesn’t matter.’ I’m so used to feeling that I have to push through pain – especially if it’s just regular body pain and there’s no threat of taking physical damage by ignoring it. I’m in the habit of thinking that being in pain is something to ignore or minimise and that I should expect to do as much as a person who was not in pain might do. This being an imaginary person who gets a great deal of stuff done all day, every day.

I live in a culture that doesn’t take womb-pain seriously and tends to treat people who suffer with painful periods as though they are just making a fuss. Collectively, we aren’t good at showing compassion and respect for people who are limited by pain or other disabling problems. Resting, pacing and other kinds of gentleness are all too easily treated like laziness. That all creates anxiety.

Pain takes a toll, physically and emotionally. Pushing through it to get stuff done requires a lot of mental effort. That’s a cost I’m not in the habit of thinking about when I just default to slogging on. I’m in a situation at the moment where I can afford to be a bit more gentle with myself around pain. I’m also aware that this is not an option everyone has, and that poverty and insecurity around both work and housing are major factors contributing to people not being able to move gently in response to their own distress. The longer you have to do that for, the more distress it causes and the mental health damage can be huge – and that’s not a pain everyone can afford to take seriously either.

Healing is a social justice issue. We tend to focus on it as an individual issue, but that’s not enough. What scope we have to rest, heal and recover is framed by capitalism, by poverty, by unsympathetic workplaces and unaffordable homes. No one should have to choose between trying to recover from pain or illness, and being able to afford to eat.

It should not be normal to have to ignore pain.


Soothing the troubled mind

Person A: I feel terrible about myself.

Person B: I think you are an excellent person.

Person A: Thank you. I still feel terrible about myself.

Person B: Why do I even bother?

The thing to remember about hurt and wounded people, is that it was seldom one event. People who are depressed, anxious, who have no self esteem and who feel grim about life tend to have gone through a process. However much we want to fix and heal each other, saying one nice thing once won’t restore the brain of someone who has spent years under attack.

Helping someone rebuild themselves means being in it for the long haul. One complement isn’t going to change everything. Over-complimenting can feel weird and uncomfortable. 

The best thing you can do for a person is be affirming. That includes affirming that their responses to their own historical issues are valid and reasonable. Affirm that it’s ok if things are difficult now because of what happened before and be patient while they work on things. Affirm that their choices and decisions are good, whenever you can. Give positive feedback whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Saying things like ‘I understand why it might seem that way to you’ or ‘your response makes sense to me’ can be a good opener if you need to explain that they’re wrong. People can get trapped in perceptions of the world that really harm them and need help getting out of that.

“I can see why this is making you feel bad about yourself, but it was an honest mistake and we all do that.”

“I can see why this makes you uneasy, but this isn’t going to play out the way that other thing did.”

Affirming the other person’s validity as a person, affirming their feelings and reactions can go alongside gently challenging all of that baggage. When we feel valid and safe it’s a lot easier to do the work of healing and moving on from past woundings.


Contemplating forgiveness

Where forgiveness is truly sought, my heartfelt response is to want to offer it. However, I’ve spent time dealing with people who apologise when they don’t mean it in order to have further opportunities to cause harm. Forgiveness isn’t owed, it has to be earned.

There are a lot of people who say that you have to forgive to heal. I don’t believe this at all. You have to work through your feelings, process your pain and anger, and figure out how to make peace with it for yourself. Whether that includes forgiving a person who harmed you, is really your call to make. 

It is possible to forgive someone without also giving them a second chance. Forgiveness can be part of a letting go process. No one is owed a second chance by someone they’ve hurt.

Forgiving someone is not a kindness or a virtuous act if you’re just enabling them to do harm, to you, to themselves or to others. Standards and boundaries also matter.

We all mess up. We’re all flawed, complicated life forms, and even when we’re doing our best, we don’t know everything. We can make mistakes in all innocence, trying our best and falling short or just not knowing enough to make a good call. Sometimes there are no good options anyway. It’s important to be able to forgive yourself for these, and to forgive anyone else you encounter who meant well but messed up. Expecting perfection is a form of cruelty.

It’s ok to be finished with someone. Not because they were unforgivable and did terrible things, but just because not everything works. Some things run their course. That I can forgive people for being flawed, foolish or wearying is one thing, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to go another round with them. I am at my least compassionate when I’m bored with someone else’s behaviour, tired of seeing the same mistakes over and over, tired of the dramas that seem small to me. I’m not good when I’m bored. It does not bring out the best in me.

I’m not going to forgive where that requires me to be smaller. I’ve had enough of cutting myself down to make other people comfortable. I’m not going to seek forgiveness from people who just find me too difficult – better for all of us if we move on. I don’t need to be forgiven for being myself. I don’t want to deal with people who have been so offended by me being myself that forgiving me seems relevant to them. It’s taken me a long time to get to this point.


The spiral nature of humans

We tend to think of cause and effect as linear. A thing happens (or fails to happen) and this has consequences, which in turn can create other consequences. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking doesn’t help much when it comes to human minds and bodies.

A lot of what goes on with us has a spiral quality to it. Many of our body systems – perhaps all of them, I’m no expert – involve feedback loops. The more I read about hormones and body chemistry, the more I appreciate not only that those loops exist, but that we don’t really know enough about them. Have a look at serotonin in the body if you want to poke about in a good example of this.

It means that looking for a root cause doesn’t always make sense. We ask what causes mental health problems, or diabetes, or obesity, as though we could deal with the cause and that would sort things out. Bodies get into habits – we have habitual pathways in our brain, and habitual responses to stimuli. Hypervigilance is what happens when your body is in the habit of being afraid all the time. It may have been caused by a specific experience, but you can’t uncause it in a simple way. Being stressed because of hyper-vigilance will keep you locked into the stress that is fueling the hyper-vigilance.

When things are cyclical, that can mean that changing any point in the cycle will change the cycle as a whole. So sometimes it’s not about finding the root cause, but finding the point in the process that you can do something about. This in turn means getting to know the system, the cycle, the feedback loops because if you don’t know what’s going on, you won’t find a place you can change things.

I’m tired all the time, my body is sore and stiff. If all I do is rest – which is all I want to do, I lose further muscle strength and stamina. If I move too much I will become even more exhausted, sore and stiff which maintains the problems, not solving them. To change things I have to spot the points where I can take small actions that won’t simply create bigger problems. I’ve found that tackling problems in my thinking, trying to change my emotional landscape, and dealing with other health issues all works in roughly the same way. There aren’t any simple answers that break the cycles without potentially causing other problems. It’s a delicate process, but sometimes there are options. Those options aren’t always obvious, and are less so if you’re taking a linear cause and effect approach to looking for them.


Nature, culture and healing

What makes you feel like yourself? What do you do that gives you a sense of being fully present, alive and acting from a place of authenticity? Conversely, how much time do you spend in spaces where you have to pretend to be other than you are? What do you do that robs you of identity and leaves you numb, disengaged and dysfunctional?

One of the truly great things about being outside and alone is that you don’t have to perform. The elements do not require you to be other than you are. If your sense of self has been crushed by pressures and expectations, this time alone might be your best hope of healing and finding yourself. We don’t lose ourselves anything like as much as we have our identities taken from us.

We can end up feeling that we are the roles we are obliged to perform. If our work, our usefulness, our family identity is the only thing anyone else sees and interacts with, the result can be lonely and demoralising. We all need the room to be more than the utility we provide to others.

Running off into the wilderness can be a tempting antidote to this. But, humans put a lot of pressure on what wild nature remains. It might be more productive to stop looking to nature to heal us and start looking to human culture not to ravage us in the first place. A better work-life balance would do a lot to restore many people to themselves. A kinder, more inclusive, supportive and spacious society would really help too.


When you can’t reboot

Healing – whether we’re talking about the body or the mind – is often framed as getting back to how things were before. This assumes that there was a before, and that you can return to it. There can be a lot of ableism tied up in the idea of getting people back to how they were. Where experience has been impactful, it’s often a lot more useful to embrace the change and focus on how to move forward to best effect.

A return to normal as a proposed goal can distract you from coming to terms with things as they now are. Even if your body can be put back pretty much as it was, a dramatic experience of injury or illness will change you. I think it’s really unhealthy not to give people room to be changed by that. How you feel and what you want to do with your life may be very different after the event, and it may have you questioning you previous ‘normal’ choices and priorities.

You can’t un-know trauma. You can’t re-wind and re-set to become the person who did not have that experience. Traumatic experiences change your perspective. You become more aware of the dangers, of the potential for loss. You can’t have that innocence back. You will need to form a new relationship with the world that includes what the trauma showed you, but holds it in a way that allows you to function.

There may be nowhere to go back to. If the damage – bodily or psychological – happened early, you will have no memories of what other people think of as normal. If you’ve never felt safe you don’t have the knowledge to draw on to overcome your difficulties. A lot of the available support material depends on the assumption that you can reconnect with your pre-trauma self and use that as at least a point of reference for a reboot. Not everyone has a pre-trauma self.

This means that for some of us, healing cannot be a reboot, because there’s nothing to reboot from. Healing means building from scratch things that other people take for granted. Trust. Self esteem. Confidence in the world, in people, in your right not to be hurt… these are hard things to develop later in life if you’ve grown up in an unsafe or inadequate environment. If you’ve never felt good enough or worthy of love, it’s a hard thing to grow that from scratch. Running into self help material around this can feel a lot like having it suggested that you’d be fine if you just grew a tail. And it doesn’t matter how obvious it is to anyone else that growing a tail should be easy and simple, if you’ve never had a tail, it’s intimidating and may well seem impossible.


Inside the comfort zone

The edge of the comfort zone is reputed to be the most productive place. It doesn’t mean you could, or should aspire to live there. And yes, pushing your limits can be good and exciting, but if you have to do it all the time it turns out to be relentless and exhausting. There should be no shame in seeking comfort and in wanting to be comfortable.

It is worth asking what comfort means. For me, these are the experiences that give something to us, gently. Comfort is nourishment, it soothes and affirms us. Our bodies need time to rest and recover. Learning requires downtime for us to digest and process. We actually grow more, improve more if we have downtime to consolidate that. None of us do our best anything when we are out at the edges all the time.

Comfort is highly personal and depends a lot on needs. For one person, comfort might be an afternoon of baking. For another person, it might be the ready meal that means you get to eat when you are otherwise barely coping. 

Comforts may take the form of things that look trivial to other people. We should be less judgemental about this. I note that the kinds of things women find comforting – romance novels and soap operas for example – tend to be treated as trashy. Taking comfort in watching sport and drinking alcohol is assumed to be manly and often gets treated with a lot more respect. The pleasures of the wealthy tend to be treated with more respect and admiration – yachts, horse racing etc than the pleasures of the poor – beer, cigarettes TV, etc. We’re far quicker to defend the rights of the wealthy to their planet-killing leisure activities than we are to defend the rights of poor people not to work themselves to death.

We all need time to be lazy. We need time to heal, reflect, regroup, recharge. People whose comfort choices seem problematic from the outside are often people who are suffering from a lot of pressures and a lack of resources. Exhaustion and poverty are going to impact on what you can do to comfort yourself. 

Rather than judging people for their lifestyle ‘choices’ I’d like to see a greater move towards considering what shared resources we have, and improving that. Green spaces, sports facilities, libraries, and cultural spaces can all offer comfort and opportunity, where we invest in that for the benefit of all. We need to recognise that poverty is stressful and that there are consequences. We need to stop treating hard work as virtuous and wealth as a measure of whether you should be working hard.

Everyone needs comfort. Everyone needs rest. I wonder what would happen if we started discussing comfort redistribution, and health redistribution, rather than focusing on money. Perhaps that way there would be more collective understanding of the implications of wealth and poverty.


Giving each other permission

I talk a fair bit about the idea of healing needing to be a community project. Often this is because of things that are systemic – so much suffering is caused by poverty, racism, sexism, ableism, lack of resources and the places where these things collide. Tackling that in small groups isn’t much easier than tackling it alone.

One of the things we can do for each other, is to give each other permission. Here are some examples…

Whatever you feel is valid. It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else and you don’t owe anyone an explanation.

Being different does not make you wrong. The failure of systems to accommodate your difference is their fault not yours.

It is ok not to feel ok. You do not have to pretend to feel ok to make me feel more comfortable.

We can give each other permission to rest, and to take care of ourselves. We can remind each other that being productive isn’t always the most important thing. We can remind each other that it makes sense to do what we can do and try not to worry about what isn’t possible right now. We can give each other permission to go back to bed and try to get some more sleep.

Being held to other people’s standards can be impossible and damaging. It can be something that is done to people as a deliberate project to control and demoralise them. Emotional punishment for feeling how you feel teaches us that our most fundamental selves aren’t valid or welcome. We can counter that for each other by being overtly accepting of difficultly.

Perhaps the most generous thing you can do for someone you care about is give them permission to make it all about them, sometimes. Tell them that they are allowed to put themselves first in whatever way they need to. Tell them that you do not expect them to out you first all the time. There will be people who have never heard this from anyone before. It’s a powerful, pain easing, comforting, empowering thing to do.


Listening to your body

The idea of listening to your body comes up a lot around health work. However, I think it’s really important to ask why we might not be doing that in the first place. This won’t be an exhaustive list, do please add more in the comments if you see an obvious absence. Or an unobvious one.

You can’t listen to your body if your body is exhausted but you have to work. Poverty can make it impossible to take needful time off for rest or for recovery from illness.

Your body may require better food, more food, more protein, more fresh fruit and veg. If you cannot afford a better diet, you can’t afford to listen to your body. The same is true for being too cold, too hot, or in a situation of light or sound pollution you can’t do anything about.

You may have been told that you make a fuss, have a low pain threshold, overreact, exaggerate, lie, or that you just want to get out of doing things. You may have been taught to mistrust or disbelieve what your body seems to be telling you. This isn’t easy to unpick.

You may have listened to your body, consulted with doctors and discovered that there isn’t much that can be done to help you. This happens a lot around chronic illness, and you may be choosing to ignore things as being the best way to deal with them. If you’re not listening to your body as a way to stay sane and functional, that’s an entirely valid choice.

There are times when ignoring your body is vital. Dealing with addiction, or trying to break out of it requires you to ignore what your body is telling you. Changing your eating habits can mean ignoring what your body says. Overcoming anxieties can mean pushing back against the messages your body gives you. Some of the ways in which we are broken mean that we cannot trust our bodies to guide us. It’s hard work having to fight your own body, but sometimes that’s necessary for healing and recovery.

How we relate to our bodies isn’t just a personal matter. It’s held by a social context that can put all kinds of pressures on us. How many people are unable to eat properly because of the social pressure they feel to be thin? Not being able to rest, and not getting enough sleep are issues framed by working lives, social lives and often a technology-driven anxiety that makes us feel we have to be available to people all of the time.

It is good, often, to listen to your body. Sometimes it is essential to ignore your body. It helps to know what you’re doing and why. Some of these issues simply can’t be handled at the individual level and require cultural change, so it’s also really important not to blame or shame anyone who might be trapped by circumstance, and by what capitalism does to people. Not everyone can break out on their own.


Stories to Light the Night – a review

Susan Perrow is a well established international expert in the field of healing stories. I heartily recommend this book for anyone interested in exploring stories (or for that matter any other creative writing) as a healing tool. For anyone following the bard path, this could be a vital part of your tool kit. While this book is focused on creating stories to help children process grief, there are wider implications and the content will certainly benefit older readers/listeners as well.

Stories to Light The Night lays out what it takes to write a healing story. This is invaluable information for anyone considering such work. The majority of the book is taken up with stories. The book is themed around healing from grief, and the topics covered are – the loss of a loved one, the loss of a family connection, the loss of a pet, the loss of health and wellbeing, the loss of place, environmental grief and loss, cycles of life and change, and a chapter that covers an array of other losses.

The stories themselves are mostly written by Susan Perrow, but a fair few come from other therapeutic authors working in different contexts around the world. As a consequence, there’s a diversity of perspective and experience, which I found really helpful and interesting.

All of the stories are presented with a piece about the context in which they were written. Most of them fall into one of two categories – either that they were written by someone as a way of working with their own grief and then offered to others to help, or they were written for a specific family, child, or community. It means that with most stories, there is also a story about what had happened. Many of them were heartbreaking. I cried over pretty much every story in the loss of a loved one section. They are poignant and not easy, even though these stories are short and accessible. They help you face up to grief and to better understand it.

If you have unprocessed grief, this book is going to do things to you. The work of dealing with grief is important, but make sure you don’t get caught off-guard by this. If you are looking for help with your own grief, this book might aid you, but give yourself plenty of time to digest, process and whimper. I did not realise how much unprocessed grief I was carrying when I started reading, and I was caught out by that. Which is fine – books do that sometimes.

The stories here could be used directly by reading them to people who might be helped by them. If you’re interested in using stories as a therapeutic tool in a healing context, this book is a really interesting introduction to the subject. If you are interested in how to bring healing work into your own writing and storytelling, this book has a great deal to offer.

Find out more about the book here – https://www.hawthornpress.com/books/family/bereavement/stories-to-light-the-night/