Because it works. It matters. And it never ends.
I started doing “self help” when I was around 12 years old. I think I did it because I felt so bad about myself. I’d been molested by my father and my grandfather, and I was racked by shame, self-doubt, and anger, which I directed at myself. The hope that I could become a better person, a person worthy of respect, a “good” person, inspired me. Most of my work then aimed at intellectual and physical goals — things that other people would notice and praise.
All of this felt good: it felt good to believe I could get better, become a more worthy person. And the improvements that I did achieve won positive attention from other people. But all this effort also felt exhausting. And for many years it served as a distraction, keeping me from seeing how low my self-worth really was, insulating me from the true intensity of my pain. I was papering the walls, not getting to the causes of my suffering. I didn’t know how.
Fast forward 20 years. I was in my early thirties, married, and desperately unhappy. My marriage was a complete sham, but I felt stuck and helpless. I was involved in a deeply painful and wrong relationship with a man who was also married. I had days when I felt depersonalized, which terrified me. I still had no definite idea what I wanted to do with my life or how I would even choose. I felt like I didn’t know who I was, what I wanted, or how to get out of this mess I’d made.
The Beginning of My Healing
As things got worse and worse, I started reading about psychology from library books and online. I took all kinds of assessments to try to figure out what my problems were. When one of them indicated that I might have a personality disorder, I accepted that I needed help. I started seeing a therapist twice a month; that was all I could handle at first.
I worked with that therapist for 12 years; for about six years, I spent three hours with her every week. It’s hard for me to say how much progress we made — I don’t think I ever reached a point where I really trusted her. I never once shed a tear in her office. But she helped me through my divorce and the end of that awful affair. I went back to college, and finished this time. I bought a little house of my own.
These accomplishments felt good, but they didn’t mean I was all better. I was still finding myself sobbing on the kitchen floor, or losing days at a time to feelings of absolutely emptiness and purposelessness. Depression was still all I knew, and it would be years before that changed.
But I am nothing if not tenacious. And, thank God, I’ve always had an inexplicable but absolute internal conviction that life should be wonderful. As if I had a vision of paradise just on the other side of the mountain. If I could only keep climbing a little longer, I would get there. I kept going.
During those 12 years of therapy, my compulsive journal-keeping habit gradually became more self-reflective and helpful. I kept careful notes about my inner state and learned to be accurate and thorough about identifying what I was feeling. Over time, this practice helped me recognize destructive patterns and sometimes granted profound insights.
The Never-ending Process
My life has had its ups and downs — it took a few more awful relationships before I understood why I kept forming codependent relationships with narcissists, and stopped. I was homeless for a couple of years. I had to learn that I could provide for myself and make responsible decisions on my own. I’m still learning about myself — who I am, what I want my life to be, why I’m here.
Most important, I’ve learned how to do emotional healing work. I’ve learned that I have the power to alter my own inner landscape. It’s hard work, it’s uncomfortable and often painful, but it works. My inner work is a central part of my life. I journal every day, often twice a day or more. I’ve found a spiritual teacher who focuses on emotional processing, and I read or watch his material almost daily. I read books that spur insights or surface buried feelings. I make my emotional work a priority and arrange my life as much as possible to allow time and space for it.
Because I still have a long way to go — and I suspect I always will — but every step on the way brings rewards.
I no longer find myself compulsively seeking attention from men, and I don’t think I would develop a codependent relationship again — but now, instead, I’m finding myself terrified of starting a new relationship. Ever since I left my last relationship — five years ago — I’ve been alone. I know I won’t be able to have a healthy relationship until I work through my fear and distrust.
In 2018, for the first time in my life, I completely supported myself on my own income rather than depending on a partner. But I’m still doing work that mostly feels tedious and mundane, and I’m earning just barely enough to support myself. I want to be doing more creative, satisfying work, and I’d like to be earning more from it. I feel like I’m limiting myself somehow. Emotions come into this, too: as I build my sense of worthiness and legitimacy, it’s becoming easier to write from my heart and then put my work out in the world. I’ve finally begun to feel that I deserve happiness.
I still struggle with food addictions and self-care. I was slim and intentionally sexy throughout my twenties and thirties because I felt I had to be — I depended on partners for my survival, and, given my low self-worth, I felt that being physically attractive was basically all I had to offer. When that notion began to drop away, I started to gain weight, I think because there was no longer a compulsion to stay thin. I still have feelings that my needs aren’t real or necessary. I get angry with myself for needing nutritious food, for needing exercise or sleep. I have a long way to go still to accept myself as I am, honor my own needs, and care for myself with love.
I still have deep wounds in my sexuality, that I don’t understand at all and have barely begun to look at.
So I laugh when a friend or family member says something to the effect of, “I don’t see why you’re still doing all this emotional stuff, you seem fine to me.”
Doing “this emotional stuff” has allowed me to stop getting into abusive relationships. I no longer wake up every single morning terrified of what might happen that day. I used to think of life as an unfunny joke, and I don’t anymore. It’s been years since I had a spell of depersonalization.
Emotional work has helped me become more compassionate. I don’t feel compulsively competitive like I used to. As I understand my own wounds and misunderstandings better, I develop more and more empathy for other people’s struggles, as well.
I have constantly growing confidence in my own abilities. I’m not afraid to be my strange and wonderful self — at least to a degree. (And the thought of being able to do that more and more gives me huge motivation to keep going!)
Sometimes the rewards are unexpected and surprising: A few years ago, after I worked through some grief, the tension in my upper body decreased. I started breathing more deeply and easily, and as a result, my singing voice improved.
I could list many more ways that emotional work has made my life better and happier.
There’s been some dysfunction in my drive to self-improvement. I think that same compulsion from when I was a kid — to distract from feelings of shame and unworthiness and cling to hope of proving myself worthy — is still there somewhere in the back of my mind. I have a feeling like I can’t stop doing this work: if I did, my life would collapse in some terrifying way. That tells me I’m using it to avoid something, something I’m afraid to see or feel. So it’s getting meta: I need to work on why I’m working on myself.
But why would I stop? I think people sometimes assume that emotional wounds and dysfunctions will gradually go away by themselves, that we sort of grow out of them. Sometimes, I think, that happens — life has a way of working on us by slow erosion.
Or people think that our emotional structure is set in stone, that there’s not much we can do. I know that’s not true. Emotional change isn’t easy — it’s hard and painful and slow — but it does work, and is infinitely worth the effort.
Most of the time, people’s pains and fears, false beliefs, disappointments, resentments, losses, regrets, all that stuff, they just go on and on. People often never recover from traumas or heavy emotional blows. Or the little everyday cuts accumulate until life starts to feel like a torture chamber or a vale of tears, and then you start to wonder what’s the point.
Life on Earth requires constant, even daily attention to self-care and healing. All you have to do is look out the window or read the news and you see a dozen more things that generate grief or fear or anger. Those build up, like pieces of garbage blowing into your yard — they accumulate and can turn your life into a wasteland. We call it overwhelm or burnout or just getting tired. It causes withdrawal or shutting down. People become inured or unresponsive. And that’s how the world got this bad in the first place. To me, not an option.
When painful emotions are ignored or discounted, they fester. The pain doesn’t go away. Instead, it leads to more pain: addictions, disillusionment, messed-up relationships, shutting down, cynicism, isolation, loneliness, bitterness, stagnation, and a spiral of emotional deterioration.
It doesn’t have to be that way — I’ve seen that for myself, and research is increasingly showing that emotional work can relieve our suffering.
More than that: It’s changed me from a depressed, dependent, withdrawn person into a happier, goofier, more adventurous, independent, and self-confident one. I’ve become more capable of compassion. I’m learning to make more loving choices. I’ve begun to believe in my own goodness — and the world’s.
I don’t think the day will ever come when I don’t spend regular amounts of time self-reflecting and working through my emotional dysfunctions and wounds. The rewards are so incredible. Why wouldn’t I keep doing this work, as long as there’s work to do?
“Seeming fine” just isn’t nearly enough.