Recovery cannot be done alone because the experience of sharing our inner selves with others in a safe way is what we have been missing all our lives.
– John & Linda Friel, Adult Children: The Secrets of Dysfunctional Families
“How do I heal myself?” This is what we most want to know, isn’t it? What can I do to help myself, to recover, to become more whole and more real, more robustly alive, and more able, effective, and true with my gifts? How can I get to the place where I stop dragging my wounds around or letting them drag me, and really begin to live freely and responsibly as myself? How can I get help getting to where I want to go, when my resources are limited?
To begin with, I’ve learned that it is harder to heal a teenager than a child, and harder to heal an adult than a teenager. I have had hundreds of opportunities to help heal adult human beings, not the least of whom has been my most difficult, persistently pernicious and stubborn patient—myself. Re-parenting and healing adults, particularly oneself, is grueling, tiring, and often heartbreaking work. But among the most blessed experiences of a healer’s life is when the wounded one can finally launch from therapy—or from whatever healing partnership was established—and embark on that grand quest of Individuation.
Practically speaking, what all this means to the adult seeking healing is that the longer you lived in a toxic, shame-based, hurtful environment, the longer your healing will take. More damage requires more repair. Less damage requires less repair. And “damage” is measured by its real and actual cost to the person in terms of her relationship to herself and others, not by what anyone says it should be. As a general rule of thumb, it can take as long to heal developmental wounds as it would have taken to progress through them in a healthy childhood.
That’s a long time.
We Heal Best with Help
The first answer to, “How do I heal myself?” is that we generally don’t heal outside relationships. I know you knew that, but let’s talk about it anyway. We need truth and light to show us what happened and where our growth was stunted and twisted or stopped, and for that we often need healing partners: A mentor, a Mother, a Father, a Wise Grandmother, Wise Grandfather. Certainly, we can help, heal, and eventually analyze ourselves by looking into our dreams, reading and working through books, etc. But we do need healers in our lives, especially during the first decade of healing. Healing years one through five are absolutely critical times for needing the help of others. People hurt us and separated us from our true selves, and we seem to need people to help re-unite us with our true selves. We’re social, relational creatures, and this is true in healing work just as it is true in any other human undertaking.
We need healers. But we don’t necessarily need therapists. The healing partner we are given may be a caring, patient friend who is able to listen, or she may be the author of the book we’re reading. The healer may be our pastor, priest, or rabbi, or the spiritual community to which we attach ourselves. It may be a 12-Step group or a support group or a therapist, or the combination of many sources of help. But until we have completed every single developmental task of the human being from birth to launch in a loved, supported, and life-giving relational way, we’re not grownups. We need help re-raising ourselves.
Trying to do it alone is one of the primary symptoms of our dysfunction. This has a lot to do with the core shame from our childhoods. We don’t want others to know what is going on inside of us because we are afraid that they will be shocked, will reject or abandon us, or shame us further. It also has to do with our need to be in control in unhealthy ways. It has to do with the arrogance and moral superiority that is such a strong part of co-dependency.
– John & Linda Friel, Adult Children: The Secrets of Dysfunctional Families
We don’t heal ourselves in isolation because our wounds erupted when the people who were supposed to love, nurture, guide, train, and protect us failed somehow. We needed benevolent others to do these things for and with us, and they didn’t. After they failed, we were alone and tasked with a burden we weren’t naturally prepared to carry: the task of re-raising ourselves. We can’t do that. We need our baby, toddler, child, tween, adolescent, and young adult selves to be parented somehow, and we are the worst equipped to do that when we first realize with a start that we need healing. We don’t have the tools for healing; we don’t know what health looks like or how it walks and talks or sits in a room. We don’t have healthy relationships because we’re not healthy people; and if we do happen to have a close relationship, it’s inevitably one of the blind leading the blind. Jesus predicted “they will both fall into a pit.” So true.
So let me emphasize that it is essential to get a healing partner who is not inner-visionally impaired.
For the first 20 years of our lives, we needed others to give us all the tools necessary to stand on our own two feet, and they didn’t. We needed them to show us what tools look like, what they do, how they function, and how we can find, make, or improvise our own tools. Sometimes they did. But sometimes they didn’t. And so we came to be standing at the threshold of adulthood. Though we looked like adults and acted like adults and could drive a car and vote and buy alcohol, we were not adults in some place inwardly. Some or many parts were lost, hidden, broken off, driven away, kidnapped, buried alive, entombed, mummified. Without those parts of ourselves, even if the broken off parts were developmental bits and pieces of learning such as knowing how to have a celebration, how to change a flat tire, how to get rid of someone who has overstayed their welcome, or how to make good gravy, we’re not fully adult. We know it, and feel vaguely or sharply anxious much or most or all of the time. We’re anxious because we don’t want to see, and we don’t want anyone else to see, just how maimed we really are and what a farce our so-called adult lives are.
But see, we must. We must uncover the truth. In People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck writes that “all good psychotherapy [combats] lies.” Good self-help books, good support groups, good pastors, and good friends combat lies, too. They hear or see your version of reality and they lovingly doubt it, even if it means telling you what you don’t want to hear. Even when you resist listening and flail against the truth. Even then, all good helpers combats lies.
We heal ourselves in the early stages by looking for healing others, and we can’t do that until we know what to look for. How do we know what we need, where to start? How can we set realistic, healthy goals for healing when we’re not even sure what reality or health look like sometimes?
My favorite books for knowing what to look for and how to begin are Adult Children: The Secrets of Dysfunctional Families and An Adult Child’s Guide to What’s “Normal,” both by John and Linda Friel. An inquisitive person who reads both books will come away with a good, basic understanding of how functional and dysfunctional families work in their particulars.
Certainly, wounded people need more than particulars and facts. Facts are a good place to begin, but facts never healed anybody. For healing, people also need to see, feel, and hear how their own particular losses affected them. They need to remember what happened, see what happened through their own new eyes, and through other people’s eyes. They need to sit awhile with themselves, experiencing again in the here-and-now what was done to them so long ago, and which has been so long forgotten, and which hurts so very much. And most times, we need others to sit awhile with us, too.
The Beginning of Wisdom
In Proverbs it says, “the beginning of wisdom is: get wisdom.” And so the way we heal ourselves is, we get healers. Though they speak to us through therapy, over tea, in church or synagogue or temple, through books or tapes or DVDs or free seminars or talks at the local library, speak they must. And we must listen, and humbly go forward for healing. They must lay their healing hands on our wounds, slap us on the forehead and shout, “BE HEALED!”, shake the rattle, breathe smoke over our inert forms, apply the poultice, tell us to breathe, hold our hands, hug us, rock us, mutter an incantation, wield the antidote and say, “This is going to sting.”
And then, we talk.