Everybody has periods of suffering in life. In our personal lives, sometimes that suffering is very great, and sometimes it’s less. In humanity’s collective life, we only have to turn on the news to witness how much suffering there is in the world.
As a result of this, mostly everyone carries some kind of deep psychological pain. Indeed, in my guidance and coaching work with people I have come to understand that this is often where some of the richest fuel for the fire of people’s growth and actualisation is found, if it can we worked with in a way that brings genuine healing.
Something that I have witnessed in my work with people though, is that very often people don’t find their way into a process of genuine healing. Many people spend their lives carrying wounds of suffering and pain frozen into their emotions and bodies that are never fully resolved (at least not in this lifetime).
For years, I carried intense suffering and pain within myself. Even after I had found my way onto a path of conscious growth and self-development, at times I still found myself floored by situations in which my trauma would rise to the surface to consume by body and mind. In the beginning, often with a strong sense of doubt, I wondered whether psychological healing is actually possible. After some time I started to meet people who had healed from deep psychological wounds, and so I saw that in their cases, it was. But then I wondered if it still could be possible for me, in my particular case. If so, I wondered how. How does a person move from being consumed by pain that seems to hold them so fully, to healing, integrating and actualising their full and healthy self, and able to live a happy life?
As a result of my own path, and my guidance and coaching work with individuals, I now believe everybody can experience significant shifts in psychological healing that can deeply enhance their well being.
Specifically, what I have come to learn is that when it comes to psychological healing, the deepest forms of change require an integrative approach. That is, we need to consider each of the different levels of our personality – the mind, emotions and body. Fulfilling relationships, a sense of purpose in the world, regular exercise and spending time in nature are also things that can be deeply supportive of healing. In this blog though, I’m going to focus on the role of the mind, emotions and body.
Psychological wounding can produce disruptions to one or more of these different levels, each in their own unique ways, and there are already well-established approaches to psychotherapy that focus on each of them. At the level of the mind we have cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), for instance. At the level of the emotions we have psychoanalysis, depth psychology and the psychoanalytical approach. And at the level of the body we have body-based approaches (e.g. Somatic Experiencing).
As long as the issues people experience are only playing out at one of the different levels of their personality, these approaches can be very helpful. What I have come to learn though, is that often because these different layers of our being are so deeply interconnected (what I think affects how I feel and what happens in my body, and what happens in my body affects how I feel and think), psychological wounding plays itself out in interconnected bundles of painful processes in all of these different levels of our being simultaneously. When that is the case, what is needed is an integrative approach that includes them all. At the current time, these are still relatively rare.
Psychological wounding at the level of the mind expresses in distorted and unhealthy ways that people identify themselves, others and the world. This involves negative and painful assumptions and thoughts that often become patterns of relating to life. Examples of these could include: “I am always abandoned”, or “I can never trust anyone”, or “The world is a cruel and nasty place”, for instance.
Psychological wounding at the level of the emotions expresses in unresolved emotional conflicts. This is where people continue to carry within themselves spaces of emotional pain that just plain hurt to go there. The conflict and pain are unresolved and remain unresolved. If someone starts to speak or think about it, the painful feelings and bodily contraction rise quickly and suddenly they are locked back into it again.
Psychological wounding at the level of the body expresses in a dis-regulated nervous system (the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system to be exact). This means that perhaps someone finds themselves either locked chronic over-activation that expresses in high stress, panic or anxiety and an inability to relax and rest. Or it could be chronic under-activation that expresses in deep depression, with the joy and life-force of their being in a state of sad, hopeless inertia.
What I came to learn in myself and witness in others is that for psychological healing to really happen, it needs to happen at each of these levels, or at least as many as the wounding is expressing itself on in someone’s experience.
At the level of the mind, there needs to be a deep process of really looking at the negative and painful patterns of thought that one has developed about oneself, others or the world, and whether these are actually true. There needs to be a willingness to recognise that our thoughts are always only projections and representations of reality, not reality itself. Even if things did unfold in a painful way in the past, that doesn’t mean they will again, and it certainly doesn’t mean one should entwine oneself in painful self-judgements, or painful projections onto others and the world.
Thoughts are just thoughts, and we can actually learn to be creative, self-caring, compassionate and empowering in the way we think. This doesn’t mean we become ungrounded, deluded or out of touch with how things “really are”. Rather, we recognise the deeper truth that thoughts have no true reality apart from that we attach to them, and we listen to our hearts and bodies to feel their response when we start to think in ways that are life-affirming rather than life-denying. We learn to adopt patterns of thinking that support and care for ourselves, others and the world. And when we do, we notice how much more whole and aligned with the innate intelligence of life and our own being we feel. This naturally fosters joy, insight and a pleasurable sense of connection to ourselves. Increasingly we feel connected to the intelligence of life itself, and this becomes an inner compass for when we know we are living in a way that is aligned with that intelligence, and when we are not.
At the level of the emotions, we can learn to steward unresolved emotional conflicts to their completion. This requires us to recognise that we are all on a path of growth, and that often life seems to work through pain to foster the greatest possibility of transformational growth in our lives.
I once heard the spiritual teacher Thomas Hubl use the analogy of what it takes to bend a metal spoon for this process. Consider that each of us is like a metal spoon, each one unique and detailed with all the little markings, contours, dents and shining parts that represent the life we have lived so far. Now, however we feel about the spoon as it is, if life wants to change or adapt its shape in any big way, it’s much easier to do so in the right conditions: the spoon has to be hot. It has to be heated up, because when it is provided with conditions of that level of intensity, it becomes soft and easily able to be moulded and reshaped into a new form. Correspondingly, in and from situations of great pain and intensity, we are never more able to grow and transform into something new.
When we learn to bring unresolved emotional conflicts to completion, we still recognise that something very painful happened, but we are able to hold it within the larger context of our growth in life. We don’t deny the reality of the pain, but as long as we respond to it by choosing to open rather than to close and contract, we welcome the transformational energies of growth it brought and can bring to us. Generally when people are able to do this, the emotional conflicts start to resolve themselves, and the emotional charge related to the pain becomes more settled over time.
At the level of the body, what needs to happen is for a dis-regulated and chronically over- or under-activated nervous system to find steady, rested, stable and peaceful balance. For this, somatic mindfulness, where we bring consciousness and presence to the uncomfortable feelings of tension, anxiety or emptiness in the body instead of reacting against them in emotionally charged behaviours, is very helpful. This helps to discharge or reintegrate the tension in the body. We learn to listen to our bodies, and open to the intelligence and insight that can rise from them when we tune in. Conscious movement can also be very helpful. Here again, instead of attempting to avoid the uncomfortable feelings in the body people give them conscious expression in a manner that stewards their reintegration into a sense of wholeness.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, in addition to considering how healing happens through the mind, emotions and body, it’s also important to recognise that a person’s sphere of relationships can play a big role, regular exercise, diet, their sense of purpose in the world and time in nature. All of these can be profoundly healing.
In my experience of supporting individuals on a path of psychological healing, the process can actually happen quite quickly when all these different aspects are included and integrated. Unfortunately, often that is not how people are guided in their process of healing, and long-term pain and suffering become normal parts of life. Something I came to accept in my own journey of healing is that humanity is actually just now in the process of coming to understand how psychological healing actually happens. Thankfully that process is now emerging with an increasingly integrated understanding of the human being. As time goes on, I hope we will see more of this. May psychological pain honoured for the impetus it brings to our growth. And yet also, may it be able to be released at the right time and in the right way, leaving us available to the most authentic and free path our lives seek to take.