When deep in your journey of healing, it can really feel like an uphill battle. In episode 276, I received a question from an individual with a difficult past who has found themselves questioning whether there is ever a time when the cost of “healing” just isn’t worth it. In this post, I dive into more detail and offer advice on how you can keep climbing that mountain at a pace that works for you.
Short version: Is there ever a time when the cost of “healing” just isn’t worth it, when the ‘hard’ of healing outweighs the ‘good’?
Long version: Hey Duff (Dr. Duff? Doc? Robert?), First I want to say I really respect and appreciate what you do. It isn’t easy to take on any of the tasks you have chosen and accepted, but here you are- doing all of them with care. Thank you. I’ve written and rewritten my message a couple times. Still not sure if I’ll actually be gutsy enough to send it, or what it will end up saying. I’m not really sure how to put this question together, so please forgive me if it sounds confusing or disjointed. Also, if by some chance you actually choose to respond to this, please feel free to shorten it.
For background, I am a 29 year old female. I grew up staying with my grandparents a lot for my first few years of life while both my parents were addicted to drugs, and then eventually lived with my mom. Due to some behaviors as a toddler/preschooler (according to my mom) and the early age at which I began regularly masturbating (like, 1st grade) as well as various risky sexual behaviors from literally upper elementary school (4th-6th grade) through college, there is suspicion and speculation I was sexually abused in some way when I was young, although nobody can say for certain- myself included. I was also raped repeatedly and became pregnant by my then-boyfriend when I was a young college student. The pregnancy ended in miscarriage at 7.5 weeks. God, I’m writing you a novel, sorry. Anyway, my point in putting all this out there is that I, apparently, have learned to detach myself from my body and thoughts pretty well. My therapist described what I have shared as a “glass wall with a curtain” that I can just pull down in my brain. I can shut off any thoughts other than those required for immediate functioning, and it’s like I can hear a dim buzz through the glass but it’s just background noise. And if, in the moment, something is too intense I just “pull the curtain” and it goes away. It’s like, I feel things in the moment because I’m supposed to. But later, if I even can recall them, I just don’t care. Like. It just IS and It’s hard to get worked up. I feel like it’s so challenging to know if I actually like something and am having fun or if I just know I’m SUPPOSED to feel that way- so I do.
In therapy, I’m supposed to be working on reconnecting with my body, sensations, and thoughts/feelings- breaking down the glass, if you will. By doing this, and increasing my tolerance for discomfort, and specifically discomfort related to thoughts of my past, the hope is that we can really begin using EMDR (or something with a similar purpose) to process/reprocess some of these experiences. So. My problem or question right now is this. How on God’s green earth am I supposed to do this and function like a freaking human? The more thoughts I recognize and notice and connect to the more there are. The more I think about the past. The more I replay events. The more intrusive thoughts start popping in because my barrier is down. And the more my mind is screaming at me to stop. It was already tiring and now I just feel like it’s so exhausting. I don’t know how I’m supposed to be able to do this. Is there ever a time when the cost of “healing” just isn’t worth it, when the ‘hard’ of healing outweighs the ‘good’?
This question was way too long, but there was so much effort in it and it’s an important question, so I want to try to distill it down a bit and provide a response that will be helpful. So first off, I want to say that I’m super proud of you. It takes a TON of bravery to even begin thinking about this.
Dissociation in detail
What you are describing is dissociation. The sensation of disconnecting from reality. There are different forms, but they have the same vibe of existing, but not feeling like you’re really there in some way. Dissociation is super common in individuals that have lived through trauma. If you think about it, it’s not so hard to understand how it could be a very useful defense mechanism. When you encounter things that aren’t supposed to happen to a human, your human brain has a tendency to nope out and disconnect you from experiencing the full brunt of reality. This can be extremely helpful. This also happens in instances of enduring long-term trauma or people that have to hide their identities for a good portion of their life. For instance, trans people who need to pretend like they’re someone else. Dissociation is super common in situations like that. Dissociation can become the go-to response to intense experiences to protect your own psyche.
There’s a downside to dissociation though. Well, several. As you mentioned, you lose touch with reality. You don’t feel like other people. You can’t tell if you’re actually a human or just going through the motions the right way. You also miss out on experiences. It’s not uncommon to forget things that have happened while you were dissociated. This can be useful when it’s something bad, but it can also happen in good situations like forgetting a graduation or a birthday party. You also run into situations like yours where the dissociation does such as good job of protecting you that you never learn how to tolerate the presence of negative emotions and unpleasant thoughts.
At its core, we are talking about anxiety here. The sensation of something dangerous and wrong, even when there is no active danger in the environment. And avoidance is the fuel of anxiety. The more you avoid the thoughts and feelings, the bigger they get. The more you avoid reaching in there and accessing memories of what happened to you, the more credit you give them as items of danger locked away in your head. That certainly is what they sound like right now.
There’s no need to rush
At this point, you have a complex network of mental protections to keep your meatsuit functional as a human in society. For good reason. You’ve been through a lot, but it’s obviously important for you to start unraveling that. As I said, I think that’s brave. It’s not an easy process and it will take time to unravel. But there must be some sense of confidence or safety, even if it’s buried deep down in there, that’s allowing you to approach this. You wouldn’t even fathom it if that were not the case. But this is going to take some patience. It is not going to happen quickly, consider the timeline here. Think about the amount of time you spent actively avoiding this stuff compared to the amount of time that you have spent starting to consider dipping your toe in. You’ve spun an intricate web and that will take some time to unravel. That’s not a bad thing. It’s just how it is. So be patient. You don’t need to rush this.
So, I’d advise you to connect to your why? Why is this important do you? Why is it important to be in the driver’s seat rather than just on autopilot? You can do a bit of the downward arrow exercise here. Keep asking why does that matter or why is that important until you get down to the core values that make this important to you. This process is going to cause discomfort and it does need to be worth it for you. Connecting to those values and that “why” can help you remember that it’s important enough to endure. The thing about anxiety and trauma is that they are not actually dangerous. They feel dangerous. They might remind you of real danger that you have been in and make you feel like that painful experience is happening all over again. But they are not actually dangerous. The thoughts and sensations cannot hurt you. It won’t be this raw and painful forever. Right now, you are starting to do exactly your therapist said, which is build a tolerance to the discomfort. Just like when you first start working out physically – it hurts like a mofo before it starts to feel normal. The same thing will be the case here. But you don’t need to rush.
Is the pain worth it?
To your question of whether there are times when the cost of healing is not worth it, I think yes and no. Ultimately, it’s clear that you feel you would be better off healing from this and moving forward in a way that you are more comfortable with and proud of. But definitely, there are times where you might just not have the mental space or the room in your life to be unraveling and unable to get work done/concentrate. There are times where your recovery is allowed to be the most important thing and take priority. There are other times where you might need to take it easy and just coast. I would advise you to question the voice that tells you that you don’t have room or the capability to deal with this though. It could be true, but please question that voice. Because you could also be doing just a bit of the anxiety shuffle. Overestimating the risk and underestimating your ability to cope.
So approach this, but do it at the pace that you need to. You can take this very gradually. You have time. But also understand that even if you move “too” fast, you’re still okay. You can just adjust as needed. If you know that you are going to be diving into the work deeply, you can also plan for that by investing more in your self-care and accessing your support system. Just like if someone had cancer and knew they would be going into chemo. They would make plans for that. This is just emotional chemo. In this way, you can balance the scales a bit.
It’s also probably important to be working on your coping scales in general. The plan isn’t to throw you to the wolves with no tools to protect yourself. Your coping strategies should be focused on and trained so that they serve you well and are consistent with the level of intensity that you are inviting in with approaching these issues rather than avoiding them. So things like grounding exercises and physiological regulation are going to be focused on a lot at this juncture. Then as I said, you can back off when needed. If you can’t endure the intense work or you are not ready to dive deeper yet, then you linger and you pace yourself before you keep going forward.
This is a noble journey that you are on. The burn means it’s working. But it’s also a fucking hard one. I don’t blame you at all for being scared of it, but I’m super proud of you for even starting to figure this stuff out. You got this.
You can listen to this on Episode 276 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
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