Improving Your Mental Health Takes More Than Reading Quotes
There’s a long list of platitudes swirling around. You know what I’m talking about, the trite words of wisdom people repeatedly share on social media in an attempt to ease the pain of those who are suffering.
They’re so popular, they’re repeatedly posted in the comments under the status of someone hurting. We share and speak them often enough people believe and hold them as truth.
I’m not sure how they started or why they’re so memorable and widely accepted. I wonder if people know what a barrier they create to healing following grief, loss, trauma and hurt.
As a counsellor, I regularly see how platitudes interfere with the healing of my clients. Many of them point to some well meaning quote as fact. I guess if things are shared over and over again, people believe it must be true. Heck, I believed many of the niceties shared all over Facebook and Pinterest without ever challenging the statements. I remember a time in my life when I’d repin or share such quotes without questioning whether it was helpful.
I cringe when I reflect on those days. Not because it made me a bad person but because it halted my healing. I didn’t know it at the time but I used those quotes and platitudes as a guide to my healing and they were taking me WAY off track. Some of them even became an anchor weighing me down and preventing me from finding peace and closure.
I’m a Self-Proclaimed Platitude Hater
Are you shocked I’m a platitude hater? Well, hate might be a strong word. I’ve got a strong dislike for them, let’s just put it that way. No matter how well intentioned, the one that gets my hackles up is, “Time Heals All Wounds.”
Why? ‘Cause it’s not true.
There, I said it. Time doesn’t heal.
In my private practice, when I ask my clients what they need to heal, many of them will say, “Time.”
You might even be thinking to yourself, “That makes sense,” and you wouldn’t be alone. This is a pervasive belief held by many. For most, they don’t know why time heals. They don’t question it and, instead, take it to heart and try to wait their pain out. Even after years when no change has occurred or when no healing has happened, they simply think the answer is more time.
Oddly enough, when healing does occur, people will point to the time it took. Giving time ALL the credit, as if it’s what did the healing.
Let me ask you a few questions. How do you know time heals? What about time makes it such a great healer? Think on your answers for a minute.
Challenge Your Beliefs
Let’s imagine you’ve experienced a loss (something you held as significant is no longer present in your world). It was ripped away from you. As a result, you experience pain from the loss, whether it’s sadness, anger, emptiness or a variety of other negative or unwanted feelings. Now imagine you do nothing with the pain and two years pass. Does the pain go away?
Many people will argue the pain lessens and the intensity diminishes. I’ll concede this could happen. To cope, we might engage in a variety of strategies to dull the ache the pain presents in our life. We might bury it, avoid it or engage in some kind of behaviour to numb the pain, such as drinking, substance use, overeating, gambling, becoming a workaholic, etc.
Although we’re not experiencing the pain as intensely, it’s still there. We’re just doing a good job burying, avoiding or numbing it BUT time has not healed it. Time has not taken it away. We’re only using strategies to deal with what time was unable to fix.
Living with Emotional Pain is Hard Work
Exhausting even. Suppression and avoidance take an emotional, mental and physical toll on us. Typically, when we experience another loss, trauma or deep hurt, we become less resilient and the pain we’ve been working so hard to keep under wraps, rears its ugly head.
If you’ve ever said, “Why can’t I cope with such a small problem?” or “I’ve been through worse, why is this such a big deal?” you’re likely living with some unresolved pain time has done a poor job at eliminating.
The reason is, all the pain we’ve let time take care of, builds up and reduces our ability to be resilient. Pain from the past starts to seep out. No matter how hard we try, we can’t keep it behind the dam or wall we’ve created. It spills out when we least want or expect it to. Making things even more frustrating is our inability to push it back into a manageable place. Once the pain from our past leaks out, it won’t be buried or avoided as easily as before.
Plus, all those coping strategies we used to numb the pain become maladaptive. The extra drink turns to six. The food we consume to soften the pain turns to 40 pounds. Time has passed, the pain remains and now we’ve got a secondary problem impacting our health, happiness, relationships and productivity.
Truth Bomb Time
Time ≠ Healing
If time doesn’t heal, how do we find the healing we desperately desire and need?
For anyone who has taken my free online mini training, Impact of Grief, you already know the answer. For everyone else, don’t fret, it’s not some secret or complex answer. In fact, it couldn’t be more simple.
Time is part of the equation it’s just not the whole answer.
Yep, that’s it.
Action Over Time Equals Healing
Time cannot be the thing doing the work, we’re the ones who need to do the doing. To find healing, the person experiencing the pain is responsible for taking action. Time does play a part because rarely are the actions completed overnight. We need time to take action but it’s the actions that lead to healing.
What you’ll notice is the equation is simple but nowhere did I say it was easy.
Easy couldn’t be further from truth. Maybe that’s why we hope time will do all the healing and why we bury, avoid and numb the pain.
The actions we need to heal are difficult. They might even require us to experience the pain in an intense and real way. Maybe you don’t feel equipped to take action. Maybe you don’t know what type of steps you need to take.
The great thing is, you don’t need to do it all at once or even right away.
Healing following grief, trauma and hurt is a process and there are skilled and empathetic people in this world to accompany you along the journey.
You don’t have to go it alone.
If you’ve been trying to wait out your pain in hopes the healing will occur on its own, you can put the exhaustion, frustration and overwhelm to the side and engage in active healing.
The action needed for healing looks different to everyone. We all experience pain in our own way. One form of action will be beneficial for one person and useless to the next. Our definitions of healing are equally as unique.
That’s why I think blanket statements such as, “Time Heals All Wounds,” are a load of hooey.
Let me give you a few suggestions to get started.
The 7 Steps to Healing Following Grief, Trauma and Hurt
1. Accept the Idea of Time Being Variable
What I mean by this, is time will vary for each person. I might take two years to find healing following loss and you might take six months for the same loss. That’s okay. It doesn’t mean either of us did something wrong. Nor does it mean we loved the thing or person we lost more or less than the other.
Grief, Trauma and Hurt are not a competition, so don’t use time as an evaluation tool.
Further to this, variation in time may differ within the same person. You might experience trauma and find healing in two weeks. Shortly after, you might experience a similar trauma which takes you three months to find healing. Each experience of loss, trauma or hurt is different, even within the same individual. There’s no need to punish or chastise yourself for doing something slower than you anticipated, hoped or predicted.
Time shouldn’t be used as a badge of honour in any way.
2. Identify Your Pain
What is your pain? Is it sadness, anger, fear, repetitive vivid imagery, negative self talk or something else?
Identify it and give it a name.
3. Define Healing for Yourself
The idea of healing is a construct which means it’s subjective. We all have different ideas of what healing will look and feel like. We set the finish line at different points and it means something different to each of us.
Take the time to define what healing means to you. How does it feel? How will you know when you’ve arrived?
Be realistic though. Don’t expect perfection. Strive for satisfaction. A finish line doesn’t mean never feeling the pain again.
Ex: Would you be satisfied with _______?
4. Brainstorm Action Steps
You’ve accepted your healing will take time, you’ve named your pain and you’ve set a finish line, now it’s time to outline the steps to get there.
Grab a stack of sticky notes, a pen and a timer. Sit down and set your timer for five minutes. Write down as many actionable things as you can in the timeframe provided. Each sticky note should have one idea on it. Don’t worry about whether they ideas are realistic or not. Be creative!
At this point, all ideas are good ideas.
You might get inspiration from things that’ve worked in the past. Maybe you draw on things others have tried. Whatever comes to mind, jot it down. If you’re still writing at the five minute mark, keep going.
If you can’t come up with more than one or two ideas, don’t worry. Take a few minutes to consult a friend or family member. Still stuck? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
5. Group and Refine
Go back through your sticky notes and group ideas with similar options. Discard anything repetitive. Alter ideas you think are impossible or those you’re unwilling to do so they’re more realistic.
6. Take Action
Do one of the things on your list within 24 hours. Over time, try other things too.
7. Reflect, Reevaluate and Repeat
After you’ve tried a new action, reflect on how it went and evaluate whether you see yourself doing it again. Once you’ve tried something a few times, reevaluate how it’s going.
Length of time and perceived easiness shouldn't be used as a ruler for measuring the worthiness of an action.
Ask yourself, did it help? Are others noticing a difference? Am I moving closer to my definition of healing? Does the pain seem less of a barrier in my life? Am I using healthy coping mechanisms?
Repeat the actions you’ve determined to be helpful.
I know you must be thinking….
This seems like a LOT of work. It’s work that’ll pay off though. Besides, who wants to live a life feeling broken, empty or numb?
Where to Go Next
The journey to healing takes action and time but it’s worthwhile. Worthwhile enough that I spent a year creating a course called Living with Loss for those who’ve experienced any kind of loss. I did it to heal my own hurt following grief and learned how effective it was when I shared it with my Kamloops counselling clients in private practice. I take the guesswork out of the process and lay it all out there.
I also created a free mini training called the Impact of Grief for those who want to get their toes wet first. Both course options dive into other misconceptions relating to healing following grief, trauma and hurt.
If you found this article helpful, I invite you delve a bit deeper and try out the free mini training. Maybe the Impact of Grief is an action step you can take to move closer to your self-defined finish line! Jot it down on one of your sticky notes.
Whether you’re using a quote or platitude as the goal post for your healing or waiting for time to fix your pain, you’re likely burying, avoiding or numbing the pain. No matter how hard you try, the pain will present itself at some point and likely when you least expect it.
Surviving pain is exhausting and overwhelming. To heal following grief, trauma and hurt we need to take action. To start you can follow the 7 Simple Steps I explained above. For quick review they are:
Accept the Idea of Time Being Variable
Identify Your Pain
Define Healing for Yourself
Brainstorm Action Steps
Group and Refine
Reflect, Reevaluate and Repeat
If you’re struggling with the pain following grief, trauma or a hurtful event but you’re hesitating to take action, what are you waiting for?