We all know that our bodies have the amazing capacity to repair themselves naturally, given the appropriate conditions. The body has a deep, ancient, instinctual knowledge of how to heal its wounds. What if the mind, or psyche, had a similar ability?
Psychological healing can take many forms depending on one’s age, culture, background and belief system; but one thing I am certain of is that the psyche, just like the body, has an innate capacity and drive toward wholeness. And just like the body, which needs the right amount of nourishment, rest and attention to heal itself, the mind's natural healing function is aided or blocked depending the psychological environment we create.
The type of psychological healing I talk about here is the one I am most fascinated by as a therapist – healing through expression to, collaboration with, and trust in another. Essentially, healing through relationship, or psychotherapy.
In my experience, both personally and professionally, psychotherapeutic healing seems to have 3 distinct stages.
Stage I - Witnessing
The first stage involves the mere sharing your inner experience in a safe, contained atmosphere. Being gently encouraged to not only give language to your experience but also expression to your emotions – and having it be understood by an empathic other – has the effect of making your inner life feel somehow more real. Sharing the contents of your psyche with another seems to concretize them in a way that makes them impossible to ignore, and often intriguing. This simple act of witnessing by another is essential, as it can coax out of you truths about yourself that are often lost within the hall of mirrors that is your mind. And over time, being witnessed in this special way teaches you to be a similar sort of witness to your inner experience.
Empathy is essential for this first stage to be successful. Empathic understanding means someone is participating in your inner world, sharing it with you, and thereby liberating you from the solitude and loneliness that encases your most private thoughts and feelings. At times of great emotional distress, therapists servedas a second nervous system, helping to contain and metabolize some of the overwhelming emotional activation.
Stage II - Awareness
The second stage of psychological healing I would describe as an expansion of self-awareness – a making conscious of the origin and meaning of symptoms, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. This sort of insight has its own evolution in the psyche. At first it feels revelatory and powerful; then it usually declines sharply in significance as the problematic thoughts and feelings continue, undeterred by the epiphany. But then, after some time living with this new awareness, you may find that you begin to change in barely perceptible increments. This change comes from the simple fact that with greater Self-awareness there comes a degree of choice that was never before present.
Stage III - Choice
The third stage of psychological healing involves strengthening this perception of choice, and figuring out collaboratively when and how to make use of it. Therapeutic work is usually a continuation of developing self-awareness in the context of ongoing life events and challenges. For example, gaining greater understanding of why you react so negatively to certain personality traits in others can help you separate the past from the present, and develop a more authentic, less distorted relationship to the world around you.