Healing vs. exercise analogies for emotional work

by Kaj_Sotala KajSotala.fi2 min read27th Jan 20209 comments

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I know a fair number of people who put in a lot of effort into things like emotional healing, digging up and dealing with buried trauma, meditative and therapy practices, and so on. (I count myself in this category.)

And I think that there’s a thing that sometimes happens when other people see all of this, which is that it all seems kinda fake. I say this because even I have this thought sometimes. The core of the thought is something like, “if all of this stuff really worked, shouldn’t you be finished sometime? You claim that practice X was really beneficial, so why have you now been talking about the way that practice Y is great – is any of them really that good if you keep jumping between them?”

And there is something to this suspicion. I do think that jumping from thing to thing, each time claiming that you have found something amazing and transformative while you are actually only deluding yourself, is definitely a thing that sometimes happens. I can say this because I’ve been that person, too.

But it’s not the only possibility. Sometimes the moving from thing to thing does mean that you are getting genuine value out of each, and you work on each until you hit diminishing returns, and then you move on to the next practice to help deal with the issues that the previous one didn’t address.

And it’s worth noting that to the skeptical mind, the opposite pattern can be suspicious too. Sometimes someone does stick with just one practice – a particular style of meditation, say – for years, maybe decades. And keeps talking about how great and healing it is. And again the person who keeps hearing this starts wondering, okay, if it’s so healing, why are you not totally healed yet?

And again, there is something to that suspicion. Sometimes people do stick to one thing and think that it is amazing, even if it is not really delivering them any results, and they would be better off switching to something else.

But then sometimes it really _is_ the case that their practice just is that good, and they keep getting consistent results.

I think that the major issue here is that “healing” isn’t quite the right metaphor. Yes, much of what these practices do could be considered healing, in that they can help you resolve old stuff, possibly for good.

But the way we usually conceive of healing is that you have some specific sickness or injury, then it’s healed, and then you are healthy and don’t need to do any more healing until you get sick again. And that’s not quite the right model for these kinds of practices.

I think that a better model would be physical exercise. Just like the emotional practices, exercise can be useful for healing – I am counting physiotherapy as a form of physical exercise here, though obviously exercise can help heal even if it is not explicitly physiotherapy. But even though healing is one of the things that exercise does, that’s not its only purpose.

If someone said that they had maintained a jogging habit every day for the last twenty years and that it made them feel consistently amazing, nobody would find that particularly suspicious.

And if someone said that they had done yoga for flexibility a while, then taken up running for the cardio, injured themselves and done physiotherapy for a while, and then started doing weightlifting for the sake of muscle, and each of those had been exactly the right thing to do, then that wouldn’t be very suspicious either.

A simple “healthy/unhealthy” model isn’t any better for mental and emotional well-being than it is for physical shape. There are things that count as genuine injuries and diseases, yes, but there are also things which require active maintenance, as well as different subareas that you may want to focus on. You might stick with the same practices for a long time, your whole life even, if they seem particularly effective. And you may also want to switch practices from time to time, because you no longer need an old one, or in response to new needs from changed circumstances, or just for the sake of variety.

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