“In essence, healing is a highly subversive act in our culture ... It’s about challenging the idea that someone’s value is dependent on how well they fit into an abnormal, unhealthy culture. Ideally, as healers in the broadest sense, that’s what we should be doing.”

-- Gabor Mate, physician, speaker, and bestselling author.

Attaining the life you want can be accomplished in a number of ways: You might find your own path, or you might try carrying out the usual prescription (education, career, family, etc.) But regardless of your choices, life can be difficult. As a result, finding happiness and managing one’s own behavior can be challenging or virtually impossible without healing from those difficulties as a step toward progress. To cope, you can:

  1. Meditate, pray, seek professional help, or rely on your social network and family.
  2. Insulate yourself (alcohol, drugs, overeating) or project your pain onto others. Or you might become a workaholic or even have your life cut short by stress-related physical maladies. None of these are helpful ways of coping!

Then, where does one begin? Actually, anywhere you like, but it certainly makes more sense to choose one of the options listed in A as opposed to polluting or distracting yourself as described in B. After all, do you want to say “Yes” to life, “No” to life, or struggle somewhere in the middle?

Assuming you decide on one or more of the A options, you will likely find yourself grasping for fulfillment – trying old or even new strategies, and that may help. But are those choices sustainable? An acquaintance of mine once said of a friend, “He has made a number of changes, but he’ll likely find his way back to his own private hell.” Not very optimistic, but it is a common example of how recurring patterns can sabotage progress. In order to make these choices work for you, you must first begin to heal from the difficulties that brought you to the moment of change.

Your Relationship with Yourself

I would like to offer some wisdom on the matter, wisdom that I have learned on my own and from others: To improve your coping abilities AND your relationships with others, focus on healing the relationship you have with yourself.

Have you met people who are not particularly handsome or beautiful, but are liked by everybody and at the same time seem happy and relatable? What is it that they have? It could be charisma, but typically it is a good relationship with themselves. In our culture we are often advised that to have friends and attract a mate we need to be more glamorous, have more money, possessions, or power. In short, we need to be different than we are. Our culture is often inauthentic, and as a result we become inauthentic. Let’s face it, many people are attracted to glamour, money, possessions, and power. And that is fine. But those things alone do not create a quality human being. The true measure of quality is one’s relationship with oneself.

You have heard sayings such as, “You can’t love another until you love yourself.” That’s good advice, but not altogether true. A better way of saying it might be, “You can’t feel the freedom to fully love another unless you love yourself.

Pain and Progress

So how do you learn to love yourself? You begin by recognizing that you can’t love yourself fully if you have (in the past) shut down your feelings. Why? As Mayra Mendez, licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center, puts it:

While emotional numbing blocks or shuts down negative feelings and experiences, it also shuts down the ability to experience pleasure, engage in positive interactions and social activities, and interferes with openness for intimacy, social interests, and problem-solving skills. Then how do we heal ourselves? How do we become the people we want to be? By realizing the best first step is to reduce that emotional numbing that virtually everyone employs. That is, we need to relate to our pain frankly and honestly – and not continue to avoid it with shut-down feelings.

Learning how to relate to pain is covered on here: Connecting With Your Deeper Feelings. Relating or connecting is central to the first step toward healing.

Gabor Mate describes four steps of healing in his book Scattered Minds (author’s text is in italics below):

  • Compassionate inquiry for insight into your true self. This involves asking yourself, or being asked, about why you have behaviors that are not working for you. What happened that should not have happened? What did not happen that should have happened? Developing a new view toward oneself is no easy task for it goes against the grain of a lifetime of conditioning. It is not a matter of so-called positive thinking or the naive affirmations exemplified by vows like, “Today I will be kinder to myself.” It requires the shedding, gradually, of defenses constructed long ago out of sheer necessity.
  • Self-acceptance – tolerating guilt and anxiety. Self-acceptance does not mean self-admiration or even self-liking at every moment of our lives, but tolerance for all our emotions, including those that make us feel uncomfortable.
  • You don’t punish yourself for where you find yourself. Here is a good rule: If you want to heal, you HAVE to stop blaming yourself for where you find yourself today. This bears repeating. Do you want to heal? Then you HAVE to stop with the blame. You need to show and feel kindness and compassion for the person you are right now. I have no reason to see myself as a victim, but I did not choose the circumstances that shaped my neurophysiology or my personality, which are one and the same thing. One can make choices when one becomes awake, not before.
  • Choosing a guide. Pain cannot be killed; it needs to be listened to. It has a story to tell and lessons to teach. In the project of self-parenting, this is one essential service the adult cannot, without the greatest difficulty, provide for himself ... The purpose of psychotherapy and counseling is not that the therapist either heals the “patient” or advises him what to do with his life. The goal is to mature and to individuate, to become a self-respecting person in his own right. In other words, the goal is not to be “cured” but to develop. The role of the therapist is, in part, that of a talking mirror in which the individual can see himself more clearly reflected, helping him to reflect on himself. Until he acquires the necessary skills, without a mirror he can no more see his psyche than his own eyes.

Taking these steps undoubtedly will lead you to a better life. You will feel more energy when your brain no longer has to suppress painful emotions. You will likely experience a feeling of power when you face your pain and create a cooperative relationship with it. British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Anthony Storr sums it up by saying:

When a person is encouraged to get in touch with and express his deepest feelings, in the secure knowledge that he will not be rejected, criticized, nor expected to be different, some kind of rearrangement or sorting-out process often occurs within the mind which brings with it a sense of peace; a sense that the depths of the well of truth have really been reached.

But give yourself some time. Remember Gabor Mate’s words:

It requires the shedding, gradually, of defenses constructed long ago out of sheer necessity.

Healing is not like a light switch. Instead it is like stepping out into bright daylight after living in a cave. At first you can make out just what is close to you. But after some time you adjust and see your immediate surroundings. Later on, you realize you can make out the mountains in the distance and even the trees that cover them. Throughout this process you will begin to feel a sense of peace, as you gain a deeper understanding of how you fit in to the natural world around you.

Trauma, Healing and The Brain: Community Learning Event by Dr. Gabor Mate

The Body's Most Fascinating Organ: the Brain by Bruce Perry