When you put your hand on a hot stove, what makes you pull it away? Pain. Physical pain is your body’s way of telling you that you need to take action and change the situation before you do yourself serious harm.
When it comes to your emotional wellbeing, we feel emotional pain for the same reason it’s our body’s way of telling us we need to take action, we need to change the situation to avoid further harm.
Been through a traumatic life event such as divorce, bereavement, physical trauma, bankruptcy, redundancy, miscarriage, family dispute or something else?
In the early stages, it’s that acute, unbearable mental pain that makes you say: I can’t go on like this. I have to find a way to make this stop. That’s good.
… But what happens when the worst of the pain subsides? When you get to the point where it still hurts, but you can live with it?
This is the danger zone. You haven’t fully healed, but you aren’t driven to get better by a pain you can’t bear. This is the point where many people stall in their recovery – and that’s why, if this is where you are in your healing, it’s crucial that you find another way to keep up the momentum and keep pushing yourself to get back to peak performance.
The good news is, this motivator is no longer pain. Instead of running away from something, you’ve reached the point where you’re running too something: a positive goal that you can work towards, rather than a negative to escape from.
The unfortunate reality is that most people never complete their healing process fully because as soon as the pain disappears they think their healing is complete. It isn’t.
The important thing here is to focus on a positive goal that’s within your power to achieve.
If you’re healing from a horrible life event such as a breakup for example, it’s not helpful to set yourself a goal like, “I want to be married by the time I’m 35” or “I’m going to have a new girlfriend by this time next month”. These are things that depend on other people and their desires, putting them outside of your control. Instead, you need to focus on your own behaviour.
Imagine the kind of person you want to be, and set that ideal as your role model. How would this ideal version of yourself relate to others? Manage their relationships? Handle stressful situations? Communicate with others? Set boundaries? Show kindness?
Once you’ve visualised this behaviour, and pictured yourself doing it, emulate it in real life – and keep doing this until you’ve made it second nature.
In order to truly heal, you have to like yourself. You have to believe that, whatever mistakes you’ve made, you are a worthwhile human being with the potential to do things better.
The very worst thing you can do in this situation is to say to yourself: “I am this way, so I’ll never be able to be a better person, or have a loving relationship”. Or: “I’m a horrible or unlovable etc person because I did XYZ”.
These thoughts will not allow you to heal. Instead, you need to separate action from essence.
Sometimes you’ll do shitty or self-destructive things. We all do! That doesn’t mean you let these things slide or shrug them off as inevitable; rather, you should address these things, admitting that you’re in the wrong, apologise for what you’ve done (whether to others or to yourself), and endeavour not to repeat the same mistake again. In other words, you need to recognise the thing was bad, take responsibility for it, and try your best to learn from the situation to avoid repeating it.
What you absolutely should not do is take this as proof that you’re a bad person, as opposed to a person who did a bad thing. I can’t state enough how important this is for your healing. If you let yourself believe that you are just “the kind of person who does things like that”, not only will you hate yourself, but you’ll never change your behaviour, either.
Healing doesn’t happen overnight.
In all areas of life, expecting results too quickly is a serious motivation-killer.
Instead, to keep up the momentum, you need to keep in mind that you’re working towards getting healthy, re-learning the way you manage relationships, and putting an end to self-destructive spirals of behaviour. It’s a process, not an either/or situation – and having the odd bad day doesn’t mean that you’ve failed.
When you find yourself starting to question your progress, take the time to reflect on how far you’ve come and remind yourself what your goals are, visualising your role-model-self again for inspiration.
I can’t state strongly enough that setbacks don’t spell the end, nor are they a good reason to throw your hands up in the air and stop trying. The key is to keep heading in the right direction overall, even if you take a few detours or wrong turns along the way.
It sounds cheesy, but keeping track of the good things that happen to you seriously helps to challenge your perceptions when things seem bleak.
If you feel yourself losing momentum or getting sucked into a black hole, force yourself to step back and take stock of the positives. For example, note down all the things you have to be grateful for that day, and be specific.
It could be a small, random act of kindness from a stranger. It could be the phone call you got from your best friend checking in to see how you are.
The point is, when you’re feeling down, it’s very easy to overlook ways in which others are looking out for you, trying to be supportive, or just making an effort to brighten up your day. Being more conscious of these things can really change your perspective and give you the strength you need to push ahead with your healing.
No matter how strong you are, there will always be times when you need other people to lean on, confide in, talk to about how you’re doing.
But remember: not all friendships however strong are a source of wise advice despite their best intentions. It’s tempting to rely on that drama-loving friend who sympathises and eggs you on with your anger, vengeful thoughts but they may not serve you.
The thing is, these friends don’t have the wisdom, experience or position to advise and guide you properly.
It’s much better to seek out people who are motivated to see you succeed in overcoming your trauma whatever it takes, rather than someone that may sympathise and join you wallowing in the pain of it all.
If you really want to keep up momentum, look for support from people who understand and care what you are trying to do – and reach out to them regularly for motivation.