Have you thought about the finish line of your healing process? What would it take to declare yourself healed? What conscious and subconscious standards do you set for self-approval and time to rest in the present?
Do you compare your insides to other people’s outsides? It is easy to believe that we have to keep our living space perfectly clean or never get triggered to consider ourselves healed. A common belief is that no one will violate our boundaries when we are healed enough.
Life is messier than that. Most people clean house just before someone comes over, so we all think everyone else’s home is neater than ours. People do their best to conceal when they get triggered as well, so we believe we get triggered a lot more often than everyone else.
It is a toxic myth that if our boundaries are clear and strong enough, no one will violate them or hurt us. People’s hurtful behavior is their choice. If we believe we are causing it somehow, we can change our behavior and see if their behavior changes in response. You do not have to be perfect to be treated with respect.
Rhythm of effort and rest
Healing is a long term process with times of effort and times of rest. There are frustrating plateaus where ongoing struggle yields little progress, then sudden breakthroughs to a new level. There are times of calm, joy, and harmony which we tend to attribute to our new skills and insights. There are times of catastrophe, loss, and defeat, which we tend to attribute to our brokenness.
Life has a rhythm of change and consolidation for everyone, including times of feeling stuck without movement. Sometimes, breakthroughs to a new level are accompanied by the loss of everything that no longer fits.
Flexibility in the present
Past trauma weaves through these patterns and affects them, but does not cause them. Being healed does not mean we have perfect control over our perfect circumstances. Healing is a process where gradually less of ourselves is frozen in the past, giving us more presence and flexibility to respond to our changing lives.
A lot of healing is about allowing ourselves to remember and coming to accept uncomfortable truths. It can be scary to be involved in a healing process with unclear signs of progress toward urgently wanted goals. When everything feels like an emergency, it is hard to be gentle with ourselves.
Measure effort, not results
Keep track of efforts, not results, when you need to measure your progress. Results are outside our control most of the time. Set kind, achievable metrics, starting where you are. “This is what I can do today.” At times, you’ll do the work of finding frozen places inside, listening to their stories, and allowing them closer to the present.
At times, simply staying alive is an overwhelming effort. Still here the next morning? Good, you are doing everything you can do.
At times, we are navigating uncertain terrain through a transition. It takes effort to sit with uncertainty and listen for internal and external signals about what comes next.
At times, we are exhausted. Unrelenting effort has not resolved the current difficulties. Give yourself permission to rest, even though nothing is resolved. Sometimes taking the pressure off is exactly what needs to happen, especially if the problem is not in us at all, but in our environment and the people around us.
We are not to blame for our pain. Sometimes we have to stop digging at a wound to let it heal. We might be internally repeating self-hating behavior learned from abusive treatment as a child. Taking a break can help interrupt those patterns.
Listen to internal warnings
It is useful to learn to manage and work with triggers, and it is also useful to get away from situations that continue to trigger distress. Not all distress is from the past. When our finely tuned warning systems tell us something is wrong, we can accept that as valid and turn toward ourselves to listen. The more we make room for our truth, the more we can connect with the present.
Past vs. present
We can find a middle way between discounting all hypervigilance and anxiety as PTSD symptoms, and believing that all our responses are only about the present. Everyone’s reactions are influenced strongly by the past, with or without trauma.
We might believe that healing includes a way to tell immediately whether an internal response applies to the past or the present. Instead, healing gives us more tools to handle our responses, and more practice discerning patterns.
Some responses out of the past might become familiar, old friends back for a visit. Some responses to present-time manipulation or boundary violations might also become familiar, clear warning signals. Some responses might be hard to untangle no matter how much experience we have, confusing mixes of past and present.
Incorporated, not erased
Healing does not have an endpoint, a time when everything is smoothed over perfectly as if the trauma never happened. Healed trauma is incorporated, not erased.
In my practice, clients often come in expecting to work hard and experience painful emotions. Sometimes, what the body needs is a relaxing massage. Experiencing rest and safety in the present is deeply healing.
How do you want to feel?
Imagine how you want to feel when you are healed, or how someone else healed from trauma would feel. Make choices that help you feel that way. Someday, you will look around and notice that you feel that way a lot of the time. If traumatic material comes up, you will have the skills and experience to quickly return to balance. Taking breaks and moving slowly are intrinsic parts of the process.
Robyn Posin reminds us, “If it feels like “too much work” it’s probably not what you need to be engaged with right now. The struggles that are truly enlivening never feel like “too much work” even when they’re intense, persistent and exhausting!”