What does recovery look like?
I once asked people at various stages of recovery from an eating disorder to share their thoughts. The answers were wide-ranging, including:
“Not feeling cold all the time”
“Having space in my life for friends again. Caring about something other than what I look like.”
"Going to University."
“The word “recovery” feels scary. This (eating disorder) is all I know.”
“Not hating myself.”
“Feeling like there’s hope. Like I can be hopeful about the future.”
“Recovery" can mean all these things and more. We can use the word to describe the process of healing or the imagined outcome (though, of course, there is no real end to our growing and healing). It will mean something unique to each person, though there may be common elements of what is involved, such as a growing sense of compassion, emotional openness, peace, hope and resilience.
The following quote, attributed to Albert Camus, brings these concepts to life:
"In the midst of hate, I found there was, within me, an invincible love. In the midst of tears, I found there was, within me, an invincible smile. In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm…in the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back".
There's some debate whether Camus wrote all of this, or just the part in bold, but nonetheless, I love the idea of having an "invincible summer" inside, especially on a cold January day.
I recently came across this next quote in Barbara Kingsolver's novel "Demon Copperhead". I thought it was another unique way of describing recovery and emotional healing:
"I’ve tried in this telling, time and again, to pinpoint the moment where everything starts to fall apart. Everything, meaning me. But there’s also the opposite, where some little nut cracks inside you and a tree starts to grow. Even harder to nail, because that thing’s going to be growing a long time before you notice. Years maybe. Then one day you say, Huh, that little crack between my ears has turned into this whole damn tree of wonderful."
Here, recovery is a shift from a state of disintegration (everything having fallen apart) to a growing, wonderful sense of wholeness. Like a very slow-to-grow tree, progress is imperceptible for a long time, but then, one day, you realise how far you've grown, how "together" you can feel.
In Schema therapy, these qualities of wholeness, compassion, openness, peace, and resilience are encapsulated in a mode or mind-state called the Healthy Adult mode. Understanding and strengthening the Healthy Adult mode will therefore be an important goal for recovery and healing.
(NB Schema Therapy is not alone in this focus. Other therapy models share similarities, though the terminology may differ).
When we are in our Healthy Adult mode, we feel well and relaxed. We can respect both our own needs and the needs of other people. We can navigate the ups and downs of the day without feeling overly vulnerable and overwhelmed, without self-attacking, and without feeling driven to avoid or compensate. We may be aware of other inner modes/voices and urges, but we can keep them in their place. In this way, the Healthy Adult mode is often compared to the captain of a ship or the leader of an orchestra. There might be a lot going on in our minds, but this particular mode can take charge, and steer a path forward towards our goals and values. For example:
Situation: Sitting in a coffee shop with someone you don't know very well.
Critic mode (witheringly, sarcastically): "I don’t know why you’re bothering. You’re sounding really stupid. Why did you just say that? They're looking bored. Not surprisingly."
Avoidant, protective mode (Hissing): "Quick - withdraw. Shut down. Back off. Pull away!" You feel an overwhelming urge to close the conversation down and leave.
Healthy Adult mode (warmly and firmly): "Shhhh! Nonsense. You can do this. Focus on what they’re saying. Keep engaged. Keep going!"
The Healthy Adult mode develops from our genetic inheritance and our early experiences. If your early childhood emotional needs were met in a good-enough way, and you had some reasonably wise, compassionate adults around you, it’s likely you will have internalised these qualities, and now have a relatively strong Heathy Adult mode.
Conversely, if your early emotional needs were not sufficiently met, developing a strong Healthy Adult mode will have been harder, and its voice may now be quiet and meek, compared with other internal modes. Returning to the "leader of the orchestra" analogy, it might sometimes feel as though you're trying to conduct a symphony while all the violins make a horrible noise, ignoring both the music and your baton. The trumpets completely drown you out. The wind section refuse to play. The oboe players fight with the clarinettists. The audience jeers...
Hard as this seems, it can change.
If you'd like to begin to explore and strengthen this mode, here are some reflective exercises that might be helpful. By the way, if you don't like the term "Healthy Adult" you can use something else that works better for you. Exercise 2 might give you some ideas for other names.
Exercise 1: Finding your Healthy Adult mode
Think of examples of the following:
A time when you behaved kindly to yourself or to someone else
A time when you felt strong and confident
A time when you overcame difficulties to achieve something.
Your Healthy Adult mode will have been active in these situations.
Close your eyes. Take some time to remember and really connect with how these situations felt.
Notice any physical feelings, your posture, any thoughts going through your mind when you are in this mode.
Appreciate these experiences: savour them. Appreciate your Healthy Adult mode. It exists. It's really there.
Exercise 2: Finding external Healthy Adults to draw from
Think of examples of strong, compassionate role models:
A real person who has been important to you in your life - even if only briefly. This could be a family member, a friend, a teacher, a neighbour when you were small, a friend's parents, a former therapist or other caring professional...anyone who embodies qualities of wholeness, compassion, openness, peace, and resilience.
A character in a book, film or game with these qualities
A religious/spiritual figure with these qualities
Close your eyes. Take some time to imagine being in the presence of this person.
What do you need from them?
Imagine their words, facial expression, tone of voice, body language.
Imagine their voice being inside you...becoming part of your own voice.
Exercise 3: Practicing using your Healthy Adult mode
Following from exercises 1 and 2, when you next feel troubled, ask yourself:
What am I feeling?
What do I need?
What would I like to hear?
Invite your Healthy Adult mode to speak into the situation. If this feels too hard, ask yourself:
What would "X" (your chosen person from exercise 2) say about this? How would they respond to me?
What would I say to a friend who felt as I do? How would I speak to them? What would my tone of voice sound like? What would my facial expression look like?
Spend some time imagining these situations and letting yourself experience the thoughts, posture, gestures, and emotional warmth of a Healthy Adult speaking into your situation.
Recovery can be a long road. Maybe at the moment it doesn't feel like you have an "invincible summer" inside you. Maybe there is no sense of a "tree of wonderful" between your ears. But at the very least, there will be a little seed of a Healthy Adult mode. Notice it. Nurture it. Water it. Give it time. It will grow.