When people start counselling in the initial session I sometimes compare what might happen to picking at a scab. It isn’t a pleasant image, but then neither are some of the feelings that therapy can bring up. It is important people understand this, and the BACP has emphasized that we must be honest about the impact, not making false promises of overnight improvement or magical healing that will take place if you just “think positive” hard enough.
Healing can, and does take place of course, if it did not I would not do this job. Seeing someone move from their own valleys of darkness, into the sunlit uplands is the most rewarding experience I can imagine. Even as people recognize the progress however they can stumble and often the hurdle is around not being “finished” or “better” yet. These hurdles can perhaps be summed up as – healing cannot tell the time, the subject of our CSAQT chat this week. There are three common themes which come up when exploring this.
A slip is not a fall
Humans are wonderful in our messy imperfection, if we were not imperfect I do not think we would be so wonderful. However when we are healing from our pasts, be it trauma, poor relationships, abuse or other harmful and negative events we can convince ourselves that if we reach perfection everything will be OK. This is often the case for survivors of child abuse. Children can convince themselves that if only they find the magic formula which works then the abuse can stop. This is a vital defence mechanism for a child, it gives them some belief in having power and agency (even if this is a false belief) which allows them to grow and develop. Very often the magical thinking revolves around being perfect – if I get 100% – if my room is tidy – if I keep my siblings perfectly clean and silent – then nothing bad will happen. Bargains made which can never be kept, because it is the abusers choice to abuse, not your failure to be perfect (victims and survivors of domestic abuse can make similar bargains in their heads).
This perfectionism can mean that any slip on the road to recovery and wholeness is very hard for a survivor to accept. Sometimes its because in the past they were “punished” for being less than perfect. I use the quotation marks there because actually it was usually a faux punishment, those who abuse do not need an excuse, they just like to have one, to pretend their behavior is normal. We all slip, fall off the wagon, have a day when it feels like we have stumbled back down the hill and towards the valley of darkness. Learning to accept that is OK, that it does not mean that the work was meaningless, is vitally important. In fact once we accept our own imperfection we discover the slips are shorter, climbing back up is easier, retreading the path takes fewer of our resources.
A season for everything
Imagine that things are going OK, you have wobbles, but you are working on the belief you need to be perfect to be safe, accepting the imperfection. Then you realise that Fathers Day is approaching, you hate Fathers Day, your mood sinks, perhaps you fall into old habits you thought you had left behind. Guilt and shame start creeping back and you wonder what’s gone wrong.
Nothing, absolutely nothing has gone wrong. You are simply human, and healing cannot tell the time, but it is very good at noticing significant times and dates. Recognizing our triggers, developing our self care routines and being aware of why certain dates or times of year all help, but most helpful of all is not punishing yourself for not being perfect.
Are we there yet?
It is a standing trope of family sit-coms to have a child in the back seat of a car demanding to know “are we there yet” before the car has even left the drive. It can be hard, especially in our world of instant gratification to accept that healing takes time and is a constant and ongoing process. This is made much more difficult if those around us are not accepting of the fact it will take time. Sometimes through ignorance, sometimes with the intent to hurt, you may have been told you should be “over it”. Other people will ask what’s taking so long, or hurtfully compare you to someone else who is apparently sorted after reading a self help book or taking a few days off work. These unfeeling comments can be incredibly hurtful. Some tips for dealing with them are;
- It takes as long as it takes – there is no one size fits all rule for healing and recovery, and anyone who claims there is simply shows their ignorance
- We all have to walk our own paths. It is great if someone else is fine after a traumatic event, but they are not you (and see the next point)
- People rarely show when they aren’t fine, that example of perfection you are being cited probably has as many slips and stumbles as you do
- Lastly if a counsellor suggests you should be getting better more quickly, then remember the ethics guidelines I linked to at the top. You should never be shamed by your therapist into believing you are not healing quickly enough.
Healing can’t tell the time, and that can be hard. Just as it’s OK to not be OK, we need to remember it is OK to be OK, and then not OK. We also need to remind ourselves that healing is a marathon, not a sprint, and often if we try to go too fast, then we only end up hurting ourselves.