When you’re living with mental illness, or carrying around a painful past, it may seem obvious that you want to heal from those experiences. What’s not so obvious to people on the outside, though, is that it can also be really scary to heal.
Many people are afraid that if they heal their pain, they’ll no longer be the same person. But it’s possible to retain the best parts of yourself after you heal, while shedding the parts of you that have caused you suffering.
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Trauma and Mental Illness Change You
Before talking about whether or not healing will change you, it’s important to think first about the ways in which traumatic experiences and mental illness can change you to begin with.
Trauma is the psychological term that mental health experts use to define people’s emotional response to something that is life-threatening, dangerous, or emotionally terrifying. Some common traumatic events that people experience are abuse and assault (physical, sexual, or mental), being in a war zone, community violence, racism, and being a witness to domestic violence. Of course, this isn’t a limited list of what trauma looks like; any situation in which you felt terrified can become traumatic for you.
Some people who go through trauma develop a mental health disorder called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many people recover from the trauma without developing PTSD, but that doesn’t mean they come out of these experiences unscathed.
Even if you don’t meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, you might still be noticing changes in yourself since the traumatic event. Maybe you feel jumpier or more distrustful of strangers. Maybe you get more irritable more often.
When the trauma occurs during childhood, the effects can be harder to tease out. What is an effect of the trauma, and what is the temperament or personality that you were born with?
For example, children who are abused or neglected by their primary caregivers can develop an unhealthy attachment style. And attachment styles can follow you well into adulthood — research has shown that kids who had an unhealthy attachment with their parents or guardians exhibit similar attachment patterns in adult relationships.
When we’ve been living with the symptoms of mental illness for a long time, that too can be confusing. Sometimes, it’s easy to remember what life was like before mental illness hit. At other times, that time may seem like it’s so far in the past that you don’t relate to that version of you at all anymore.
Is it depression, or am I unmotivated as a person? Is it anxiety, or am I just high-strung and neurotic? These are all common questions that people ask themselves when trying to separate their personality from their mental illness.
Why Is Healing Scary?
Putting in the work to heal from past traumas and mental health issues is important — but it can also be really scary. Of course, it can be terrifying to delve into past painful memories that we have spent so long trying to push down. But you might also find yourself feeling afraid that letting go of these experiences will change you to such a deep extent that you won’t even recognize yourself anymore.
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It’s not uncommon for people to wonder, “Who would I even be without my pain or mental illness?” Some of us have carried these traumatic experiences and symptoms with us for so long that they feel like a core part of our identities. It’s scary to let that go, and that fear is absolutely valid.
Painful experiences and suffering also may have brought some good into your life. Many spiritual teachers believe, for example, that suffering can lead to compassion. When you’ve been through painful things yourself, then you might be more likely to have empathy for others going through similar situations. And that’s a great thing. It’s normal to be frightened about losing that part of yourself.
This is painful to hear, but you may also find that you’ve come to use your mental illness or past experiences as a crutch in life. Sometimes, the crutch is quite literal - perhaps you receive disability payments for a mental illness, for example - and at other times, it’s more symbolic. Maybe you’ve used your mental illness or your past as an excuse not to go after your dreams.
Finally, people are afraid of change in general. Change is scary, period. Especially when you don’t know what’s waiting for you at the end of the road, it’s terrifying to want to change anything about the status quo.
How to Heal and Still Be Yourself
As scary as it can be, healing from the past doesn’t have to mean that you lose parts of your identity that you don't want to let go of. Nothing will ever take away the fact that you went through what you went through, and the lessons you’ve learned won’t disappear.
For example, maybe you escaped an abusive relationship, and you now volunteer at a domestic violence hotline. That’s a wonderful thing to do for your community, and a healthy way to make meaning of your past suffering. Just because you’ve healed from the pain of your experience doesn’t mean that you’ll no longer be able to have deep empathy for other survivors.
To maintain your sense of identity while you’re doing the hard work of healing, ask yourself the following questions:
- Who would I be without my mental illness or trauma? What about that person do I like?
- What lessons have I learned from my experiences?
- What do I appreciate about my mental illness or trauma?
- In what ways do my mental illness or trauma hold me back?
- What do I love about myself as I am now?
- What do I truly value?
- What could I change about myself to be a happier, more authentic person?
Remember that nothing, not even healing, can take a part of your identity away from you that you don’t want to give up. Think: is it your depression that you love about yourself, or the way your depression makes you able to empathize with others? Is it the mania that you want to keep, or your motivation to go after your dreams?
Your painful experiences might always be a part of you to some extent. At the same time, you are so much more than just these experiences. What else defines you?
Healing Can Change You — in a Good Way
Whether or not you can stay the same person as you heal from mental illness isn’t a black-or-white issue. Ideally, as you heal from your past experiences, you will learn how to let go of things that no longer serve you. You deserve to live a life that’s free from the shackles of mental illness or trauma.
At the same time, that doesn’t mean you need to become a completely different person, either. It’s pointless to think about who you would have been if everything in your life had been different. All we can do is remember that we’re greater than our suffering, and move forward into becoming our fully authentic selves.