Two Major Challenges in Mental Health Healing

Here are two big ones that make people feel discouraged after they’ve already started addressing their mental health issues:

Progress isn’t linear

When they start working on their mental health, people often expect (or hope) to experience steady progress. Whether they’re finding ways to manage anxiety or confront the effects of sustained abuse, they hope for a clear, stable path to success.

The reality is more messy, and the messiness can be discouraging.

You deal with difficult situations, the fragility of new habits, and the persistence of long-established patterns of thought and behavior. Just when you think you’re doing fine, new problems crop up. Long-buried emotions demand attention.

That’s not to say that you aren’t making any progress at all. It’s just that healing can be uneven and patchy. It often involves backsliding and reversion. Some areas of your life may improve dramatically and within a relatively short amount of time. In other areas, you may still feel shaky, like you’re fumbling in the dark.

A while ago, I came across an interesting, hopeful quote about how healing is more like a spiral than a straight path:

“We swing around again and again to the same old issues, but at different turns of the spiral. Each time we confront a similar feeling or reaction we have yet another opportunity to learn and to heal. Each time, we bring with us whatever new understanding we have gained since the last time we cycled through this particular difficulty.”

– Nancy J. Napier, Getting Through the Day

It helps to not see healing as the attainment of a perfect state. Healing gives you more strength and resources to deal with the inevitable messiness of life. It also opens up new possibilities for what you can do with your life and what you can experience.

regrets are powerful

Healing often brings with it greater self-awareness. In many ways, this is beautiful. You’re in a better position to make good choices. If you’re more aware of your emotions, you can also be more open to joy, excitement, and love.

But awareness can also bring with it pain. You realize that certain relationships in your life are damaging. You become acutely aware of things you’ve missed out on. Even as you grow stronger mentally and emotionally, regret may blindside you. Grieving what’s lost and coming to terms with regret become part of your healing.

There are different ways of dealing with regret – like focusing more on the future, focusing on what you’re doing with your life now, and changing the story you tell about your life, so that it’s more about what you’re overcoming and what you’re working towards, and less about wasted time and loss. Still, regret is undeniably difficult to deal with.

Healthy Anger as Part of Healing from Emotional Abuse

A while ago I wrote a post called “If you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship…” It describes many aspects of emotional abuse and what victims typically experience.

Reading it again, I realize that I wrapped up the post in a somewhat tentative way. I wrote how one of the first steps towards healing is to understand the abuse and its dynamics – to maintain distance and recognize what’s going on. And that’s true. You need to do that to experience some healing. But of course it isn’t enough.

What else can you do? What’s a key part of the process of finding yourself again, waking up, and gaining strength?

Healthy Anger

Anger is a natural reaction to abuse. However, when you’re living in the midst of abuse, your anger may have no healthy outlet.

For example, a child in a dysfunctional home often gets punished for showing normal emotions, including anger. What happens then? The anger turns inward. It rips into the psyche and digs into the body. It helps create depression and self-loathing, and possibly gastrointestinal complaints and other health problems.

The anger may leap outwards at various targets. The victim may also take up addictive behaviors, like drinking or eating too much, to help cope with these overpowering but buried feelings.

Often, victims of abuse aren’t aware of just how angry they are. They don’t always connect their ravaged psyche or destructive behaviors with their suppressed emotions.

That’s why expressing anger is such a critical part of healing. When you’re healing from abuse, you need to let out the anger and understand it.

Letting out anger doesn’t mean destroying other people or harming yourself. The anger may come out in sessions with a therapist, hopefully a space that’s safe for you. It may involve screaming in a room. While remaining in the present, you might confront the past, naming the abuse out loud and explicitly placing the responsibility for it on the perpetrator. It can mean just letting yourself feel the anger – knowing what it is and where it comes from and riding it out as it pours out of you. Maybe you can find additional outlets for it in vigorous exercise or artistic expression.

I don’t think our culture deals with anger in a healthy way (where I live, in the U.S.). More often, what I see is a pressure on abuse victims to quickly forgive. In the name of being virtuous, in the name of “moving on,” victims are urged to resolve everything with speed and minimal fuss and then act as if it never happened. But that isn’t how people heal. You can’t force people to forgive their abusers. If forgiveness comes, it must be natural. (I also don’t think forgiveness will look the same for different situations and offenses.)

People are afraid even of healthy anger, because it isn’t tidy and neat. It doesn’t lead to simple resolutions and to problems getting swept away and blissfully ignored. Even as it heals you, it’s harrowing. It’s painful and potentially overwhelming. It doesn’t come out all at once. Maybe it never fully leaves you. But it can be put to good use. It can motivate you, remind you of your mental, spiritual, and emotional needs, and help you assert your boundaries and defend your dignity.

As a victim of emotional abuse, you may never have learned to understand, feel, or express anger in a healthy way. In recognizing it and finding a way to express it that doesn’t destroy yourself or others, you may find yourself experiencing other effects: less guilt and self-loathing, a more vivid inner life, a painful but necessary awakening, a need to change the way you live. It can generate an urge to locate yourself when you think the abuse has weakened or demolished you. You’re finding yourself in the rubble and pushing your way out.