Healing or Happiness: Why They're Not The Same Thing
My dad has always been a bulwark of strength and capability in my life, but that all changed six months ago, when he was diagnosed with lung cancer.
My parents, sister, and I have always prided ourselves on making healthy life choices, and until now we’d all enjoyed good health. But now, for the first time in my life, someone in my immediate family is deathly ill… and none of us know what to do.
My dad decided to go with conventional treatment, and the rest of us have been wondering ever since whether it is helping him more than it is hurting him. (After he almost died from a collapsed lung recently, I have extreme doubts.)
In wrestling with the question of whether poisoning my dad with chemotherapy is worth it, I realized that it isn’t just about whether the treatments make him feel bad in the moment - but about whether they are healing him in the long run. Because often what makes us feel better only does so by masking the symptoms.
As I applied this realization to my professional passion (emotions), I found that this is especially true with regard to emotional healing.
If I went to a counselor to help me work through the shock and grief of my dad’s illness, and she succeeded in helping me to feel better, would I be healing? Or would I be simply down-regulating (calming down) my emotions for a while?
I suspect that many tools and strategies that claim to provide emotional healing only address the symptoms, not the cause.
While they often feel like healing (we can sometimes feel better almost immediately!), most of the time they don’t address the underlying issue any more than a band-aid does. They succeed in creating a temporary change in one’s emotional state, but this change does not equal true transformation.
This may sound like a damning indictment of most emotional healing modalities, and in a way it is. But I’m not saying that these tools aren’t helpful… they just don’t do what people think they do.
I believe the reason for this confusion lies in our cultural inability to discern between true healing and symptom-removal.
We see this most prominently in our health care system, with entire drug cocktails being prescribed to manage the symptoms caused by other drugs — but it most definitely exists within the realm of emotional healing as well.
There is much to say about this topic, but here I’m going to restrain myself to discussing the difference between emotional healing and emotional down-regulation (the process of bringing the emotions back down to a quiet and peaceful state). Both are important, but they have very different effects, and are helpful in very different ways.
The first thing I’d like to clarify is that emotional healing and down-regulation are not the same thing.
True healing is always transformative, in that something has fundamentally changed in the person’s state of being. This is true regardless of whether that fundamental change is physical, or emotional.
Down-regulation, on the other hand, is the emotional equivalent to giving someone a painkiller to numb the pain, or a shot of insulin to stabilize their blood sugar levels. This is helpful and effective in removing painful (and potentially dangerous) symptoms, but it does not create a permanent change in the person’s being.
To bring problematic emotions under control, most meditations and “emotional healing” techniques focus on changing the emotions, often by changing one’s perspective. But if simply changing the emotions is the goal, that’s treating the emotions themselves as the problem — the cause, rather than the symptom.
The problem with this is that it avoids getting to the root of the feeling, and resolving the issue there. So while these methods do shift our emotional state in that moment, it won’t last.
I have learned by experience that when a deep emotional wound gets triggered in me, just changing my perspective in the moment (something I’m very good at) doesn't actually clear the trigger — it just makes me stop reacting to it in that moment. While I may feel healed in the moment, in the long run I end up getting triggered again the next time that situation comes around, because the wound is still there.
With all of the many forms of emotional healing that are out there these days, how can we distinguish between the ones that are truly helping us to heal, and the ones that simply help us to feel better in the moment?
The first way to notice whether our efforts to heal our emotional wounds are succeeding, is whether we end up in the same place in the long run.
In other words, are our efforts truly transforming us, or simply removing the symptoms of our inner struggle?
Now, I want to clarify something here. The process of transformation does involve falling back into old patterns... temporarily. Especially for the first two weeks after the initial transformative event, life tends to trip us back into the patterns we’ve chosen to step out of, as if to test our resolve and commitment to the new way of being.
To explain this in terms of science, the process of transformation lays down new neural pathways in the brain, but the old pathways don’t immediately disappear. They still linger on for a while until they fade away from disuse. So after a genuine transformation takes place, we might experience ourselves momentarily falling back into the same old ways of thinking and behaving.
But the difference is that after a transformative experience, those old behaviors are simply flash-backs, and stepping out of them now is as simple as choosing differently. (And as many of us have experienced, until we transform it is not at all that simple).
Ultimately the proof is in the pudding: will we end up feeling the same way in the same situation in the future, or in the long run do we find ourselves responding emotionally to life differently? Time will tell, if we pay attention (and are honest with ourselves).
The second litmus test of whether we are emotionally healing…or not…is how we feel in the process.
If whatever you are doing or experiencing is causing your emotions to become calm and peaceful as you are doing it, then you are almost certainly down-regulating rather than healing.
The difference between healing and down-regulating can be most succinctly summed up with these words: change and stasis.
You may have heard the saying that growth can only ever happen when we work our edge of discomfort. In every example I can think of, I find this to be true. Where we are comfortable, we are stagnating.
To illustrate this, think about your workout routine, or one you’ve had in the past. Do you become stronger and more fit while you are resting in between workouts? Or does strength and fitness require effort and discomfort?
Our comfort zone is where things stay the same, where we rest and relax. By definition, we are never challenged when we are in our comfort zone. Change, on the other hand, requires moving out of our comfort zone and into new and uncharted waters.
In the emotional realm, our comfort zone is our calm and steady baseline, where we feel mainly happiness and contentment (what many would call inner peace). Outside of this happy place is where our old hurts and painful feelings reside, and into these choppy waters we must go if we wish to truly heal.
Healing requires us to be willing to leave our calm baseline (our comfort zone), and feel instead all of the stormy emotions that make us really uncomfortable. And no wonder, if we consider that the true nature of healing is transformation. We cannot transform in our comfort zone!
But don’t get me wrong, being comfortable is important too.
Comfort and discomfort have a Yin and Yang balance, just like the healthy (and necessary) balance between resting and exercising.
It is natural and wise to retreat back into our comfort zone regularly, because that is where we rest, rejuvenate, and build up the strength and energy to be able to go back at it again.
And similarly, when the discomfort gets to be too much and the healing gets too intense, tools that help us down-regulate become invaluable.
Not only do they keep the discomfort at a manageable level so that we can successfully engage with our difficult emotions and “stay with” the process of healing, but they also give us much needed breaks when we simply need to rest.
And our emotions will naturally shift back to a peaceful and calm state once the healing is done! This shift is one of the clearest signs that we’ve succeeded in healing something… but we also need to be careful with this.
In the healing process, our emotions will also return to our normal baseline if we dissociate, get distracted, or otherwise lose the connection with what needs to heal. It takes a certain level of skill and honesty with ourselves to be able to discern the difference between losing the thread, and bringing the process of healing to completion.
True healing, just like all growth, requires being willing to work our edge of discomfort.
This is especially true when it comes to emotional healing. We simply cannot expect to transform our emotional state without diving deeply and engaging with the discomfort of our deepest and most difficult feelings.
And at the same time, practices that down-regulate us back to baseline are also an important part of the transformative process, in the way they help us to keep our emotions at a manageable level. Changing our emotional state at whim can also be very helpful in the process of establishing new habits and stabilizing new ways of being.
So by knowing the difference between healing and down-regulation, and how they each serve us in different ways, my hope is that we can choose to use them both wisely, as valuable tools in our journeys of growth and transformation.
What are your experiences with healing and returning to inner peace? I'd love to hear the wisdom you have to share.
And if you are unsure how to move forward in your emotional healing journey and could use some support, I’d be happy to hop on a free call with you to help you get your emotional ball rolling. You can book your free Emotional Breakthrough session here.