What Does Emotional Healing Mean?

'Brazo mecánico' photo (c) 2008, Daniel Lobo - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Monday’s post was a difficult piece to write. I worked through some of my self-doubt/self-hatred while writing my essay for What a Woman is Worth and I was grateful for another opportunity to attack another layer. It’s painful work, but rewarding, because with each lie that is confronted, I become more whole.

As I was writing that piece, I thought about a conversation that I had a few weeks ago. We were talking about being healed from past wounds. They were concerned that because I write about some past events, I am still not healed from them. I appreciate this concern, because I know that it comes from a place of care about me and my emotional well-being, but I don’t know that I ever answered the question, because I’m not entirely sure how to answer it.

In the Church (and outside the Church as well), we talk about emotional healing, but I don’t think that we’re very good at defining it. For a long time, I believed that emotional healing was kind of like what happened when I broke my arm the summer of 1984. For six weeks, I had to wear a big, ugly, plaster cast that went from my wrist up to my armpit. I had to wear a huge garbage bag if I wanted to take a bath. I couldn’t go in the pool all summer. It was itchy and hot and uncomfortable. But when I finally got the cast off, it was over. My arm was kind of shriveled up and weird-looking for a few weeks, but that was it. That injury has never caused me any additional pain, there are no visible scars, the arm that had the break has never been weaker or less functional. It’s basically like it never happened.

And this was what I thought happened when you experienced emotional healing. That painful experience no longer caused any kind of pain. So there wouldn’t be sadness or anger or hurt when you were healed. You wouldn’t talk about the event; memories would fade. It would be like it never happened.

As I was writing my love letter to my body, I realized that I’m not sure that it works that way. At least not all the time.

Some emotional wounds from my past are like that. Arguments, unkind words, moments of being slighted – many of these are over and I don’t think about them. They happened, they hurt, they’re gone. I put in my emotional six weeks and everything turns out just like it was before.

But sometimes it doesn’t work like that. I think of my friend Janet Oberholtzer. She was in an accident that nearly killed her and it left her with noticeable scars and the potential for pain for the rest of her life. At this point, she’s healed. She doesn’t need casts or therapy or canes to walk. Her leg isn’t a mass of bloody wounds or exposed nerves or raw tissue. She has run a full marathon. She wrote a book, she speaks, she encourages. But she still experiences pain from her injury. It took a long time for physical healing to occur. And every day that she sees her leg, she’s reminded of what happened to her.

Sometimes I think emotional healing is a lot more like that. There are some experiences that leave us changed. Who we are now is a result of that pain. It shapes us into someone we wouldn’t be, absent that event.

Healing in those cases is not the same. We may be reminded of those experiences more often than we’d like, and we may still feel pain when we think about them. And that might lead us to believe that we’re not as healed as we should be.

But healing won’t always be identical. Sometimes it can leave us with no pain at all and sometimes there will still be residual hurt. Sometimes it will have no meaningful impact on our lives and sometimes it will change everything. Sometimes it can be overcome in a brief amount of time and sometimes it will take years, even a lifetime.

'This is what happens when your toddler finds your yarn. #tangled #crochet' photo (c) 2012, feli* - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/For me, emotional healing begins to occur when I admit that I’m hurt. Writing about body image issues reminds me that there are some events in my past that hurt me more than I ever want to admit. They might not seem very traumatic to many, but for me, they have informed how I’ve seen myself for a long time, and they have shaped me (literally) into the person that I am now. Writing about some of those hurts allows me to examine them closely so that I’m able to separate out the truth from the lies. I’ve found that there are some ugly messes that are a result of wounding, and sorting through the rubble can be an excruciatingly slow process.

And I’ve discovered that it’s not always a straight line toward healing. Often it’s like a tangled pile of yarn. I may be able to separate out some skeins easily, but others may be knotted together more tightly. Just because I’ve figured out one part of the gnarled mess doesn’t mean that there aren’t other areas that need to be addressed. And as long as those still exist, pain can still be a part of the process.

But as I separate out the threads that are true and those that are false, I begin to get better. I begin to see things more clearly. I can make choices that are healthier for me. I can help someone find their way through the fiber that I’ve untangled, and they can help me with the one that they’ve discovered.

Emotional healing will look different for each person and in each situation. Let’s each approach it with honesty and grace, both for ourselves and for one another.

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Do you have any areas where you have questioned whether or not you’ve really been healed from a past pain? How do you know when you’ve experience emotional healing?

  • http://jenniferluitwieler.com/ Jennifer Luitwieler

    Yes. Emotional healing is hard. It’s not like you can literally forget the words that wounded or the events that happened. And just when we think we’re over it, some little thing, a smell or a taste, reminds us of our hurt.

    I don’t know what it looks like to BE HEALED emotionally, but I do know what it feels like to walk on a path toward that healing. And maybe that’s just as important.

    • http://www.alise-write.com Alise Wright

      Exactly. I don’t think it’s quite as cut & dried as we’re sometimes led to believe. Or at least, as *I* was led to believe. 

  • Jo

    Good piece.  Like.  Interesting that you compare emotional healing to a physical injury.  I think that might work if one understands there are different levels of injury.  My leg was crushed in an auto accident in 1977.  It healed after many surgeries, and with therapy I could walk.  Run, maybe not so much.  I am considered “healed”, but will never, ever be like I was before the accident.  There are scars, visible evidence of wounds.  Walk with a slight limp, the kind where people who don’t know sometimes ask if I have hurt my foot.  I can’t get down on my hands and knees.  Most of the time I don’t think about the leg or the pain.  I live with it, work within limitations of it.  But  there are places both on my leg and in my mind that the slightest touch causes extreme pain.  Those places are always, will always, be there.  It’s only when pressed that I remember.  I still fear traffic, or other people driving.  But I am far better, more removed from that day than I was.  So I think it is with emotional wounds and healing.  Those tender places are there.  When touched, we hurt, we recoil.  Three steps forward, one step back.  Yet I am still whole.  The state of my emotions, like the state of my house, does not reflect the state of my faith or my soul.

    • http://www.alise-write.com Alise Wright

      Absolutely. I think I always thought about healing as a one and done kind of thing that never hurt. If I still experienced pain, I wasn’t REALLY healed. But there are physical wounds that still cause pain even when healed, and I think that can still happen with emotional wounds as well. And when we approach it that way, I think we give people more freedom to heal more thoroughly.

  • http://www.spiritualglasses.me/ Jennifer Upton

    If I waited for every tear to dry and every trigger to no longer violently erupt to say that I am healed, I would never know healing. I know I am healed by the peace I feel in the midst of emotion. My emotions are no longer some sign of un-belief or acceptance of grace. To know this has been to be set free. Two weeks ago I shared a meal with the woman the world tells me to hate and my christian friends warn to only love from a distance. Had I not been healed I could not have sat with her hand in mine as she shared her story of the one I know so intimately. It is a process but one I accept….as a woman healed.

    • http://www.alise-write.com Alise Wright

      This is beautiful. Thank you for sharing your healing process with us. 

  • http://www.quietanthem.com/ Renee Ronika Klug

    This is so timely, Alise. Emotional healing is evident as being necessary, for me, when I realize I am reacting involuntarily to a situation. I want to do better, but some sort of wound inside is dictating that I act differently. I’ll weep, I’ll verbally sting, I’ll curse unnecessarily. 

    Yesterday, as I was driving to a family member’s house, I asked the Lord to help me NOT to react as usual over what was essentially nothing; but, somehow, over the past few years, when I’m around this person, I get all riled up. 

    The Lord reminded me of a time when this person used a mistake I made to bring the Lord’s judgment; ever since, I’ve been afraid of her. I didn’t realize this. I’ve just been fighting back and reacting to her. I literally felt the sting and weight of her words/judgment lift from me. Afterward this happened, she and I hung out last night and I was not offended once. I was at peace. This, to me, was an emotional–and dare I add, spiritual–healing. 

    • http://www.alise-write.com Alise Wright

      There is something powerful about not NEEDING to react. I’ve seen that in my life as well. Also, for me, I see healing when I can go into situations that may be painful, but participate anyway. Music was a place of deep hurt for me. I think if I weren’t healed to some degree, I couldn’t participate at all, let alone joyfully. I’m still sensitive to some things in a way that maybe others aren’t, but I don’t think that indicates that I haven’t received healing.

  • http://rawfaithrealworld.wordpress.com/ RawFaith

    Emotional healing is a process. It’s also messy. It’s so true that sometimes it is like those tangled pieces of yarn. I’ve come a long way in so many areas, but new things always pop up when I least expect it. Writing a letter to our bodies resonated with me for so many reasons. I still might do it. For me that will dig up a can of worms too. I’m not sure I’m up to it this week with a dog that’s dying and Ken’s current cancer struggle.  I’m thankful though that God is so tender with us. He gently leads me to those things that he wants me to deal with in His time when I’m ready.  I wish that we could be as tender and patient with each other as God is.

    A few years ago there was an “inner healing” craze (that’s still around) that swept through a lot of more charismatic churches. Part of it involved visualizing going back to the trauma you experienced and seeing Jesus in the middle of it changing it. I took exception to that because to me in minimizes a persons pain that they really experienced.   I do believe that God was there with me during the abuse I suffered as a kid… but he didn’t make it not happen. I think God weeps at eden gone to seed.  Next week I’m spending the week at a camp for abused foster kids… seeing those young children,… knowing what they’ve lived through, and remembering that I was little like them when I first experienced abuse, is a powerful reminder of the healing that has taken place in my life so far. I am who I am partially because of the pain I’ve suffered. I’m more compassionate, more loving, and certainly stronger. It’s easier to trust now that the healing will continue now that I’m farther down the road.  

    • http://www.alise-write.com Alise Wright

      Yeah, I remember Theophostics. 

      And I agree – the pain isn’t good, but I also know that I can use it in ways that are helpful. I don’t think I could do that if I weren’t healed at least in some capacity.

      I think I’ve always thought of it as linear, but I’m abandoning that thought more and more.

    • http://www.carisadel.com/ Caris Adel

      My MIL is big into theophostic prayer.  (I tell you I hit the emotional jackpot with my mom and my MIL)  I went through a little of it, until I realized how dysfunctional it was to be doing it with my MIL.  I thought some of it was helpful, but…yeah it just kind of goes off into crazyland after awhile.  And then it was making me paranoid that every little thing I did to my kids was going to cause them to grow up with massive issues that traced back to the one time I told them no, or something.  So…yeah, I think it’s more unhealthy than healthy, even though the intent is good.

  • freebread4life.com

    I think many times that because people try to mask their emotions rather than actually work through them – they don’t heal. We quote axioms like “I just have to keep moving on” or “Everything happens for a reson” - that may be true – but all the while our  emotions are stuck in a sort of “Quicksand of the Past”.

    True healing can only take place if the source of hurt – pain – what have you is actually addressed and treated. No different than a broken limb in the physical sense!

    • http://www.carisadel.com/ Caris Adel

      Everything happens for a reason – YES!  I think that is a huge cop-out and is totally used to avoid analyzing a situation and the emotions attached to it.

  • http://www.carisadel.com/ Caris Adel

    Wow, I really liked this post.  You described the process so well. It’s been a long process for me, just to come to terms with the fact that there was pain, and that I wasn’t just overreacting or being too sensitive or whatever…all those terms people use to dismiss the pain.  
    I think the tangled pile of yarn is such a good picture, but we so easily forget it when we’re with people in pain.  I think the standard has been set, that if you are a christian, you have to be living the perfectly godly life, and so we fake it, instead of saying, hey I’m in the middle of a tangle here, and I’m doing my best.

    And it’s hard because I don’t think we’re taught how to handle it – with our own pain, and with others.  If someone came up to me, and told me my own story, I wouldn’t know how to handle it.  

    I think it’s just really awkward being in process, in the midst of trying to live a normal life  - even though, we’re all always in process anyway, but it feels like, yeah, the cast is off, I don’t live with my mom anymore, so of course I should be happy-go-lucky all of the time.

    Admitting it takes years to understand and deal with things that formed your identity, and in that process you might choose unhealthy things, would be an enormous grace for the church to offer.  

    Gosh this is a long comment – struck a chord, haha.  I know for me, admitting it, and getting some form of validation that the pain happened was important to me.  I had to use my brother and husband to confirm my experiences – even though I know you don’t always get validation and you might have to heal in spite of it.   But that helped to get me to really jump start my healing process.

    How do I know when I’ve been healed from past pain?  I don’t know.  I think there are stages of it……..one of the biggest results for me was a serious lack of confidence.  It’s only been the last couple of years, as I’ve understood more about my personality, and equality, that I have gained confidence as a person, and I would say that has been a big jump forward in healing.  I don’t know if complete healing ever comes – especially when the person is still in your life, still offering cutting, controlling remarks.   I guess I could pinpoint a couple of healing stages – one was 4 or 5 years ago when I told her that I wasn’t going to listen to her emotionally abuse me any more.  That took guts, I think.  And then when I got to the point where her comments didn’t make me cry or doubt myself anymore.  When I realized that the problem was her, and not me, was another big step in healing.

    And also, the realization that the people doing the harming, have their own pile of yarn that they are working through; having that kind of understanding is healthy, too.

    I guess this was my free counseling session for the day, haha.

  • http://kathyharter.blogspot.com/ Kathy Harter

    It is kind of like an onion to me…you know with the layers….i experience some healing in a particular area and as i growand when i am able to see it, the next layer presents itself and the process starts again but looks a bot different. For me, I have some serious wounds regarding my femininityand sexuality…it has been a hard road but healing has begun and it is totally worth it

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