“My scars tell a story. They are a reminder of times when life tried to break me but failed. They are markings of where the structure of my character was welded.”Steve Maraboli
Mental scarring, commonly referred to as “emotional scarring” is an often overlooked topic in mental health. When wounds are healed under professional, therapeutic guidance, like in brainspotting therapy – your emotional baggage is absolutely capable of healing and transforming you into someone with emotional superpowers.
As humans, we develop empathy based on our own learned experiences. Difficult emotional experiences like from past relationships, or an abusive childhood can grow tremendous amounts of emotional strength. This is not guaranteed, however, and the process for doing so is difficult. The act of looking inward at one’s own inadequacies or emotional pain can feel so traumatic that we avoid it at all costs.
Who among us hasn’t turned to unhealthy coping strategies to drown out the voice inside our head that is telling us to feel our emotions?
Because of how intense they can be, emotional scars tend to become a part of your personhood. They often envelop us in the chaotic elements that brought them forth and limit our visibility, so it’s difficult to see a way out.
Long after our emotional wounds heal, these scars may remain, reminding us of the events that brought them about. With this in mind, let’s dive deeper into the topic of emotional scars, what brings them about, and how to heal from them.
What are emotional scars exactly?
Definition of emotionally scarred
An “emotional scar” refers to the lasting effect of emotional trauma on the personality of the one who experienced it. Like physical scars, these wounds don’t often cause pain right away or in the near future like an open wound might. Instead, emotional scars randomly remind us of their existence and the pain they represent.
Occasionally, these mental scars are from a single event, like a relationship breakup or a parent’s divorce, that is easy to pinpoint as a defining factor in your life. Much more common, however, are dozens of smaller mental scars from events that you might not even remember that are deeply rooted in your unconscious mind.
The meaning of emotional scarring
Emotional scarring is similar to physical scarring in that it will have a long-term presence that won’t go away, except instead of being able to see it physically, you experience it with negative emotional reactions or coping strategies in certain situations like bonding with friends or attaching to romantic relationships.
What causes emotional scars
Emotional scars are caused throughout our life whenever an event has a lasting impact on us. Traumatic events in childhood can form emotional scars but so can those in our adult life. Anything that causes you to act in ways you wouldn’t otherwise is an emotional scar.
These frequently occur from events of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.
Can emotional scars be healed?
As Baba Ram Dass eloquently put it: “If you wrong me, that’s your problem. If I’m upset about it, that’s mine.” In other words, you cannot control the actions of others and your responsibility is to yourself.
Taking on your emotions as your own problem to address is an important first step to growth. Especially if you’re experiencing emotional scars from past relationships. Though we may feel how we do because of the actions of others, they are still our feelings. This mindset represents taking control of your thoughts and emotions instead of leaving them up to others.
Here are a few healing emotional scars examples to keep in mind when doing this:
1. Taking one small step at a time
As the riddle goes, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
There is not a quick fix for emotional healing. It takes time and effort which starts with a single step forward. If you place too many expectations on yourself in a short period, meaningful change is not likely.
Unrealistic expectations are also likely to cause greater negativity down the line. When you create a lofty goal that you cannot meet, there’s potential for giving up the journey altogether.
Set a goal that is achievable now and works along with the greater change that you would like down the line.
2. All types of healing is helpful progress
We’re often more judgmental of ourselves than we are of others. It may be hard to accept real growth just because you aren’t at 100% yet. If you’re at 20% of your potential right now, 25% is a big change. Celebrate every little bit of growth that you achieve.
3. Reframe setbacks as learning opportunities
Humans are fallible by nature. Falling back into old habits is not the same as failing at your goal. Rather, try to view your setbacks as an integral part of achieving your growth objectives. Setbacks show your shortcomings in a brighter light and make it easier for you to point to.
When you notice that you have slipped into old habits, retrace your emotional steps to see how you got there. It may be that you find a new trigger for yourself to avoid in the future. Or, it might point to an emotional reaction that you didn’t realize was important at the time.
Either way, see your setbacks as a gift that offers great insight into yourself.
4. Set realistic goals and regularly review
If you’ve spent your entire life running from a particular event or emotional scar, change will not happen in a day. Set realistic goals with yourself to ensure that you don’t burn out and give up down the line.
This is especially important for emotional scars which may make you feel more negatively towards yourself. When struggling with self-doubt, self-hate, or self-sabotage, it’s important to give yourself goals you can achieve.
Otherwise, that voice will be waiting for you at the other end, making you feel like a failure for not growing enough.
5. Put yourself first as a priority
Prioritize your self-care and compassion through acts of kindness to yourself. Like our bodies converting food into energy, self-love transfers into the capability for change. You cannot expect to make meaningful changes to yourself without making meaningful self-contributions.
What constitutes self-love for one person may be entirely different for another. Find what energizes you and fuels you to keep moving forward and then stick with it. Some of the best forms of self-care include:
- Breathwork – Arguably the most effective way of connecting with our emotional body system, breathwork is a way of managing our own energy flows as it rises and falls. It activates our nervous system which is intrinsically linked to many emotional states and unlocking that key will help you immeasurably. Follow our Beginner’s Guide To Breathwork to take back control of peace in your mind and body.
- Mediation – Practice a few moments of mindfulness to ground yourself. Our minds spend most of the day in the past (memories, tragedies, trauma) or the future (plans, hopes, dreams.) Meditation is a way to return to the present and to stick with it.
- Journalling – Journalling is a great way of keeping track of your emotions throughout the day, week, and month. Look back frequently to see if you can notice any patterns in your behaviours. Communicate your thoughts and feeling through this as well to help process and uncover them. Try these mental health journal prompts as a starting point.
- Exercising – Exercise is a natural way to help combat depression. Adding an exercise routine to your day will go a long way in giving you the energy and confidence to continue going forward. When we are sad, it’s easy to give in to the lie that a nap will energize us and help us go forward. In reality, exercise is far better for producing energy than a nap could ever be.
- Avoid Avoiding – Mail the power cord for your tv to a friend in a different country. Block or delete time-wasting apps and websites. Reach for a book instead of rewatching that comfort-bringing TV series. Avoidance is a natural response to painful introspection and is a huge hurdle for most people. Replace the activities that take you out of daily life with the ones that bring you further into it.
6. It takes strength to seek therapeutic help
There isn’t a single person who couldn’t benefit from therapy. Even in the periods of life where things are going well, professional help can reveal parts of our psyche we didn’t know existed. Try taking an online screening like Behaveo’s BPD test to see how likely you are to be diagnosed. If nothing else, have a friend that you can confide in. Verbalizing your thoughts and pains is a crucial element of growth.
Helping others heal
Having someone close to you that is experiencing pain from emotional scars is never easy. There are ways, however, that you can help in their growth and ally yourself with their mission. Here are some things to keep in mind when helping others grow:
- Never Discourage – Your role is one of encouragement. Someone experiencing pain from trauma has enough negativity going on in their life. Instead of telling them to not do something, encourage them to act differently.
- Celebrate with them – Don’t keep positive comments to yourself. When you notice a change in someone or an element of growth, mention it to them and tell them you’re proud. Be that voice of positivity in their life and celebrate their accomplishments with them.
- Allow for Setbacks – Just like a substance use disorder, it’s possible to relapse into old ways of thinking and acting. Be patient and allow for growth on the timeline of the person experiencing it. You cannot will a person to move faster than their mind is allowing them to.
- Participate – Be there for the self-love tasks and other healing elements of the process. Show them that they aren’t alone and that you’re here for it.
- Most importantly, keep in mind that you are not a therapist (unless you are) and know when to encourage professional help. If you know somebody that is talking about suicide or having trouble coming back from their emotional scars, don’t handle it on your own. The best way to aid in this instance is to encourage them to seek qualified help.
For better or worse, we are made up of all the events that we have experienced throughout our lifetime. Sometimes, this is a good thing, other times, it is not. In all instances, however, we have an opportunity for growth.
Even the most irredeemable events of our lives can be harnessed for some element of good. While this isn’t always enough to weigh out the tragedy of the experience, it is at least better than living in that darkness.