Childhood is a dangerous hood. It’s where most of the world’s pain and suffering come from.
There are many maladaptive ways to survive a shitty childhood (becoming invisible, perfectionism, attention-seeking, addictions). Some of these coping mechanisms can be abandoned when we reach adulthood. But many of them stay lodged in our psyche as trauma-induced, default settings, literally stored in our physiology.
It’s difficult to escape the prison of past conditioning and compulsive behavior. And damn near impossible to help someone else escape while they’re still in its grips.
Control vs. Healing
I’ve worked with people who simply cannot surrender the false pretense of control over their deteriorating lives. Usually, they’re highly educated — doctors, engineers, and academics. “Smart” clients can be a royal pain in the ass.
Even when their relationships are dog shit and the facade of normalcy is scarcely held together with duct tape and bubblegum, they still desperately want to be in charge of the healing process. They want me to help them their way. It’s a curious phenomenon.
On the surface, it makes no damn sense — like trying to do surgery on yourself.
Although, on a deeper level, it makes perfect sense. Trust and control issues are pathological responses to deep childhood wounds — unyielding attempts to create the illusion of safety in the hostile world they were born into.
Adaptation for Survival
Unstable childhood conditions create anxiety and distrust. Many people respond to this with excessive self-reliance, control, and isolation.
Think about it. If asking dad for help on your homework led to physical abuse, if telling mom your feelings led to invalidation and control, if expressing your needs fell on deaf ears, you learned at a young age that people suck, they can’t be trusted, and relying on them is dangerous. So controlling the shit out of everything is your best bet for self-preservation and getting your needs met.
Unfortunately, control is a life-hack that kinda sorta works. But not without hurting yourself and others. But it’ll get you through the day.
Fear of Change
These people need a new solution — a new way to live that isn’t harmful. But they cannot receive it until they get rid of that dusty old dysfunctional life-preserver they’ve been clinging to since childhood.
You ever see a kid learning how to swim in a pool too deep to touch bottom? Ask her to let go of her floaty. She’ll either 1) Refuse to loosen her white-knuckle death grip, or 2) Let go temporarily and flail violently in sheer terror for 1.8 seconds before latching back onto her safety apparatus.
This is what it’s like when wounded people try to learn emotionally mature behaviors. It’s horrifying.
Fear of change is paralyzing in a very physiological fight, flight, or freeze kind of way. This is why it is so crucial to have a coach, therapist, or mentor, and a healing tribe of some sort. People to teach you, support you, encourage you, and hold you accountable — people who can love you until you learn how to love yourself.
Trying to figure it all out by yourself is the worst fucking strategy you could possibly come up with.
I’ve been in that hole, and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. And once your eyes adjust to the darkness, it doesn’t seem to matter anymore. That’s when self-medicating becomes a way of life.
Stages of the Healing Journey
In my experience, people tend to fall into the following four categories. These are not comprehensive descriptions, but characterizations that should roughly illustrate stages of personal development.
People who don’t know they need help – adapting, coping, surviving, doing their best, getting by, maybe self-medicating, acting out in dysfunctional ways, oblivious to the consequences of their actions, perfectionists, narcissists, workaholics, codependents, etc.
These people usually think they’re doing a decent job at life, although they may feel deep down that something is off — perhaps a little imposter syndrome, or not feeling good enough. But they keep on keeping on. No need to ask for help. They wouldn’t even know who or what to ask.
2. Refusing Help
People who know they need help but are unable to receive it – armored, walled-off, avoidant, distrustful, self-sufficient, isolated, counter-dependent, sometimes overly dependent, maybe nihilistic, defeatist, cynical, self-destructive, and delusional.
They can be the same people from the first category, but with a sliver of awareness about their condition. Often they don’t ask for help, they refuse assistance when it’s offered, or they ask for help and then do everything in their power to sabotage the process. It’s as if these people are hell-bent on proving how unsalvageable they are by pretending to get help, then burning it all to the ground. Many perpetual victims occupy this stage.
3. Accepting Help
People who know they need help and are able to receive it – honest, vulnerable, open-minded, humble, hopeful, willing, determined. These people can surrender and trust in the healing process. They admit that their very best thinking could not solve the problem — that they cannot climb on top of their own shoulders to get out of this hole.
They ask for help, seek guidance, take direction, and follow through. These people work to cut out toxic people, places, and things from their lives and replace them with good influences. When they stumble, they get back up. While making progress, these people glow. They are inspirational and a joy to be around.
People who don’t need help – healthy, mature, emotionally attuned, functional adults. There’s actually no such thing as someone who doesn’t need help, but these people don’t live in a constant, dysfunctional state of needing help. They have problems from time to time, but they also have a set of tools for meeting those challenges — one of which is asking the appropriate person for assistance when necessary.
These folks are skilled at self-appraisal and are aware of their strengths and deficiencies. They’re not perfect, by any means, but they’re free from self-destructive habits and beliefs. They are not just surviving but truly living.
The million-dollar question is, how do I move from one stage to the next? There are many answers to that question. Here are a few:
To move out of the oblivion of stage 1 (ignorance), simply consider the possibility that you’re not in stage 4 (healed). Get curious. Read some books. Take inventory of your relationships. Talk about your challenges, insecurities, and secrets with a trustworthy person who has done some healing work themselves.
People who willingly move out of stage 1 often go to stage 3 (accepting help). Those who are dragged out of stage 1 kicking and screaming tend to advance to stage 2 (refusing help), by default.
Moving out of the obstinate death-trap of stage 2 seems to be the most challenging maneuver. It’s the bane of my profession as a relationship coach. Heart-wrenching agony, pain, suffering, and desperation can bludgeon people into a state of willingness required to enter stage 3, but not always. Sometimes pain can have the opposite effect.
Some who are stuck in stage 2 may have some deep, unprocessed trauma stored in their bodies. These folks won’t leave stage 2 after watching a few episodes of Dr. Phil. They need to spend serious time with a licensed trauma therapist (EMDR, SE, RTT, etc.) to get their brains out of survival mode and move to stage 3.
Many stage 2 residents have had their help-receptors blocked by shame, a soul-eating emotion, as Carl Jung described it. They can investigate the healing of shame (through books, therapy, coaching) to move onto the next stage.
It’s possible to coach someone out of a stage 2 poopy diaper, but it takes finesse, dedication, and the patience of a saint. It’s truly the work of saving lives — not for the faint of heart.
Moving from stage 3 to the final stage of healing is all about doing your healing work. Consistently. Now, everyone’s healing work is different, so this article isn’t going to list all the things YOU need to do to heal your soul and transform your life. But it should give you an idea of where you stand.
For more information on the healing journey, subscribe to my blog below, download my eBook, follow me on Instagram, take a relationship quiz, and book a free consultation. I’d be delighted to help you along your journey in any way that I can.
2 thoughts on “Stages of Emotional Healing”
Such a great post Adam. So relatable on many levels.
Thank you Tiffany! I was inspired to write this from a very recent struggle I was (am) having. It seemed like a profound existential concept, and I wasn’t sure if I could articulate it in a way that was relatable (not too clinical or philosophical). So happy to know that it made any sense, haha.