Tag Archives: healing

Expressing difficult emotions

Recently on the blog comments I was treated to a little lecture about how harmful it is to wallow in misery. It struck me that this would be a good topic to explore. It’s not an unusual thing to hear if you’re a depressed person dealing with people who apparently have decent mental health. Of course the primary function of this is often to make the depressed person shut up so that they do not make the comfortable person uncomfortable. Or perhaps it’s about not requiring the person who is in denial to think too much.

It is essential to be able to talk about how you are feeling in whatever ways makes sense to you. Anyone who denies you that space is someone to avoid – they may have their own issues, and sometimes stepping away from each other is the best choice. Working through your feelings is essential for getting on top of them, locking it away will only make it worse.

There are a lot of productive ways of expressing emotions. Pouring it into music, art or poetry can be a really good ideas, as can venting it through physical expression. I’ve found dance exceedingly helpful for processing things I couldn’t think my way out of. Difficult emotions can take time and effort to process – significant injuries, traumas, profound losses – we don’t automatically integrate these things or know what to do with them. Coming to terms with anything of this ilk takes time and most of us do better when we can engage consciously with those feelings.

Accusations of wallowing, or loving your own misery or simply making a fuss for attention is one that most depressed people are familiar with. It adds to the burden of distress. Having it thrust at you as an attempt at help, or for your own good just adds to the unpleasantness. So let me be clear that this is never about the good of a person who is suffering. Needing to spend time with difficult things you are feeling is not a moral failing or some kind of character flaw. It’s doing the necessary work that moves you, inch by inch, towards healing.

When we are accepting of each other’s emotions, we lend support to that healing process. When we listen, show care, and make space for whatever anyone else is struggling with, we help each other. I’m constantly grateful to the people in my life who share their own experiences –  l learn from all of that, and I know that in turn what I share of my own journey is at least occasionally useful to others.

I’m not sure what to do with people who respond to distress with unpleasantness. While I’m deeply invested in the idea of community resilience and mutual support, I think we’re all entitled to have and hold boundaries. There’s a very strong likelihood that the people who want to shut down others for expressing distress are speaking from places of having their own hurt, and unmet need. Perhaps they find some comfort or sense of self worth in hurting people who dare to express hurt. I don’t know and thinking about it taxes the limits of my empathy, I’m finding. 

The question of how best, as communities, to take care of the people who have little or no ability to participate well in community is something that impacts on all of us. How do we respond to people who come intent on causing hurt? Even if we’re confident they do so from a place of distress? I don’t have any decent answers to this right now, and I think I’ll need to be better resourced in myself before I can explore this in any significant way.


Why I’m not fixing people

I find the idea that one person can ‘fix’ another person implausible at best. There’s a lot wrong with it as a concept. To want to fix someone, you have to first perceive them as broken, and unable to fix themselves. There are exceptions, particularly for medics fixing broken bodies and others acting to save the lives of people who have little or no scope for agency. But mostly, it’s a really bad idea.

Fixing people can often be a cover for taking power and agency away from them. Casting yourself in the saviour role can make you feel powerful, at the expense of making the other person feel incompetent, useless or really annoyed. Telling people you are fixing them and doing things for their own good can be controlling and manipulative, undermining a person’s feelings that they can make good judgements for themselves, and limiting or removing their choices.

When we set out to fix someone else, we’re doing that on our own terms. It starts with our assessment of their brokenness – a case in point would be the way some neurotypical people want to ‘cure’ autistic people rather than recognising that as valid difference. What we fix someone into is also about our agenda not their needs – fixing autistic people to help them pass as neurotypical people does not do autistic people any good and can cause considerable harm. The expressed intention to fix someone is all too often a cover for the desire to make them more like us. Torturing queer folk with conversion therapy is an example.

Helping people is an entirely different issue. Being genuinely helpful means supporting, empowering and uplifting others. We might do that by sharing knowledge, skills, stories and ideas. We might talk about what worked for us. We might offer to step up in any way the person being helped would find useful. We centre them and follow their lead, we do not try and make them do the things we think would help.

When someone is growing, learning, healing or otherwise overcoming their problems, it is vital they have ownership of that process. If we don’t feel we own our processes, then they won’t really embed, for a start. We won’t be able to trust the progress we have made, and we may feel problematically dependent on the person who did this for us. If we’re made to feel like our achievements belong to someone who ‘helped’ us then we’re in a vulnerable and unhealthy sort of situation.

We’re all flawed, messy and complicated. We all have the scope to help and support each other in many different ways. No one needs fixing. We just need space and opportunity to take care of ourselves.


Gratitude for the second chances

Like most people, my life has been messy and thus far has not gone as I hoped or intended. I muddle along, as we all do. There was a younger version of me who was alive with plans, hopes, dreams and the will to try and make them real. I’ve had varying degrees of success.

I’ve been through things that broke me down and damaged me. I’ve lost parts of myself to those experiences. I’ve knowingly cut bits off myself and tried to be smaller on numerous occasions, in the hopes of being safer, or being left alone at least. There have been people in my life who hurt me by accident because they too were lost and scared and flailing. That’s always forgivable, even if I don’t always choose to stay around for more of it. There have been people who did the best they could, but where that wasn’t actually much or enough, and that’s forgivable too. We all have people like that, and sooner or later we are also people like that.

I’ve had a few years now where the best I could give in any aspect of my life wasn’t really enough. It’s been hard all round. I am hugely grateful for the time and space to recover from what’s afflicted me, and the opportunities I am given to try and do better.

What’s done me the most damage were the individuals who set out deliberately to harm me. I recognise that I’m not good at holding boundaries, but I’m also not into victim blaming. I have a lot of anxiety around not being good or useful enough and that’s an easy thing to exploit, which in no way excuses the people who saw those weak points and exploited them.

I have learned some lessons. I’m getting better at not appeasing people, and not being instantly persuaded that I am wrong and everything is my fault. I have some considered responses to conflict now. For the people I am really close to, I will get in and try to explain and work things through no matter what we’ve run into. If I commit, I commit hard. For most people, I’ll try and go at least a few rounds sorting things out if there is difficulty. I’ll check for miscommunication, I’ll try to understand their perspective better and so forth. If I can make headway, I’ll stay in. Decline to meet me half way with that, and I’m gone.

There are now a lot of things I don’t give people second chances over unless they genuinely matter to me. I just move away. I don’t want the drama or stress of people who want to fight and don’t want to listen. I do not stay if I’m just going to be a punchbag or scapegoat.

Alongside this I’m increasingly aware of having been given some amazing second chances recently. These aren’t second chances with other people, although I would not have got to this point on my own. This week I wrote a story that felt like the kind of thing I was writing in my early twenties. It gave me back a part of myself and I feel more whole and functional for that experience. I’m also becoming able to reclaim other parts of my previous self, especially how I used to think and feel.

I feel like I’m getting a second chance to be myself. I can’t unknow what I’ve experienced, and I remain affected by what’s happened in the last twenty years or so, but I feel like I’m back on the trajectory I had as a much younger person. I can carry all of what’s happened, and reclaim my whole self, and carry on from here as the version of myself I wanted to be, back before pain and shame taught me to think that person was not ok.

That person was ok. I am ok. I am not someone who deserves to be knocked down and humiliated. I’ve got to a place where I can get on with doing what I’m called to do and being the person I am. 


The Path to Healing is a Spiral

This is an incredibly grounded book, full of humour, compassion and wisdom. Anna McKerrow explores various approaches to healing while steadfastly resisting ableism and toxic positivity. It’s a powerful read with a great deal to offer anyone who needs to take better care of themself.

I was not having a good week when I read this book back in May. (I had the book well ahead of release for blurbing, and I cunningly stashed a review!) The week in question started with a massive triggering event, and a huge meltdown, then Idabbled in sleep deprivation and then crashed into a period while flirting yet again with anaemia. Health had become a matter of firefighting and trying to keep going. It’s been a tough year on that score with far too many rounds of similar things. I read this book while in a place of urgently needing to heal, and feeling lost and powerless. It was a good book to read in that context.

Anna talks about an array of emotional healing experiences she’s had, and about the kinds of horrible, but not that unusual experiences that meant she needed that. As she points out, most of us will be wounded, repeatedly along the way. Healing is something we need to do. She also writes about the kinds of things a womb can do to your body and more people need to know this stuff, regardless of womb-status.

If you’re curious about alternative healing approaches, there’s a lot to learn here. We get a mix of Anna’s experiences alongside interviews from practitioners, which I found really interesting. This isn’t a how-to book, it won’t tell you how to heal, but it does explore the idea that you could. Some things aren’t fixable, but mitigation, better support and more coping mechanisms are always worth having. It’s a wise and encouraging book in that way.

I think it is people in similar situations to me who will benefit most from this book. It’s for those of us who could do with taking the time to ask what could be made better, rather than just being in a perpetual running battle with the health issues. For those of us with mental illness, it’s a helpful invitation to think about what kind of support we might even need while being offered examples to consider. If your womb has chosen violence, this is definitely for you.

More on the author’s website – https://www.annamckerrow.com/the-path-to-healing-is-a-spiral.html


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.