“I should be over this by now; it’s been so long since it happened!” Ahh, what a line, and a relatively common one at that. I hear it all the time when working with clients, and I have found that often it stems from an idea we have all been told repeatedly: that “time heals all wounds.”
Often, the phrase “time heals all wounds” is said to comfort and reassure that things can get better, even if it doesn’t feel like it right now. But what this sentiment leaves out is that time itself is not what makes us feel better—the journey of healing is not passive. Instead, it is how we use the time that determines whether our wounds heal. In other words, if we do not actively engage in the hard work of processing a traumatic event (whether it be little t or significant T trauma) and begin to understand why we are allowed to let it go, we won’t; we will sit with whatever it is that happened and let it become part of us.
What does it mean to “process” something?
Good question and the answer varies a little bit for everyone. Depending on one’s own story, life events, how they relate to their trauma, and where the pain is stemming from, what it means to “process” a problematic issue will change. The following are a few overarching themes of what processing a challenging problem or traumatic experience may look like:
- We are integrating it into your life story. As humans, we often think of our lives as stories, with everything up until now that has led us to our current circumstances. Of course, we do not have control over our stories to the extent that a writer may have authority over a novel they are writing, but we, more or less, do have the ability to guide our story in the direction we want it. We often experience things we wish we hadn’t, but most of the time, we can still integrate them into our story and keep going. Sometimes, however, what we experience is too painful for us to integrate it into our life story. The experience is unfathomable—not only can we not believe it happened, but we cannot believe it happened to us. And to accept that it did, to allow it into our life story feels impossible. With the help of a licensed therapist, processing, in this manner, means to integrate the event into our life story without letting the event dictate, overwhelm, or control our narrative.
- Re-evaluate the event using an updated viewpoint. Events that cause us a lot of stress, anxiety, or sadness to think about are often mentally avoided: we don’t think about it, we don’t talk about it, we don’t review it. It is simply too painful to do so. This, however, leaves us without a chance to update how we remember the event. As we grow and mature, our understanding of the world and ourselves becomes more profound and complex. This updated framework helps us make sense of why things happen the way they do and what extent we do—and don’t—have control of our circumstances. However, this updated framework is sometimes not applied to past events, especially when it’s an event identified as too painful to think about willingly. So, while we may have since developed the tools and understanding needed to make sense of an event that we once could not, we continue to think about and relate to the event as we once did. In this manner, “processing” the event may include remembering and re-evaluating it using an updated viewpoint.
- We are taking away the power it holds over you. It is not uncommon for people to be reluctant to speak about traumatic events they have experienced due to feelings of shame, guilt, fear, and isolation. Sometimes, the thought of others finding out about what we have experienced and giving them that opportunity to judge us feels just terrifying enough that we cannot bear to say it aloud. It turns into a secret, and the more effort we put into keeping it hidden—the more we try to deny it ever occurred—the more power it gains over us. And so while it may seem small, the act of saying this secret aloud in a safe, understanding, and accepting environment can have a tremendous impact; in shining the light on something that has been hiding the in shadows, we can take away the power it held in its uncertainty. To process, then, may mean allowing another to hear our full story and to offer us acceptance and empathy—in turn showing us that we may accept and show compassion towards ourselves. You can read more about what it means “to process” in therapy in Noam Spencer Ph.D.’s blog on Psychology Today
To process a traumatic event requires remembering it and re-experiencing thoughts and feelings we may have hoped never to encounter again—thoughts and feelings that were so painful the first time around, we pushed them to the side just to gain some relief from experiencing them. To process traumatic experiences is not easy, and it would be misguided for anyone to claim it can happen without experiencing some extent of uncomfortable emotions. It is often a non-linear process, and it can feel frustrating and tiring and confusing…it can feel like work. It is! And sometimes, it sucks. But it is also worth asking ourselves if the alternative is any better: is carrying around the emotional weight of our trauma experience everywhere you go—bringing it into all of your new adventures and moments and memories—worth it? Is the emotional labor of holding onto your trauma experience not also frustrating, tiring, and confusing? Might it be worth it to engage in the work of “processing” what you have been through so that you can finally put it down?