In a recent conversation with a colleague, we discussed the way in which a broken relationship had caused them overwhelming distress, and that they carried a deep burden of mistrust toward themselves and their ability to trust their judgment about relationships.
This colleague, however, was engaged in health care and giving support to others, and their inner burden was not apparent to those they helped with a high degree of effectiveness. The clash of this outer responsibility and inner turmoil was almost overwhelming them. And a highly critical inner voice kept taunting them. Physician, heal thyself!
These words are an ancient challenge meant as an insult to one who was purported to have healing powers. It is an insult that many in the healing professions secretly express to themselves, given the pressures they face in their professional and personal lives. And given the high stakes and risks that are inherent in the provision of health care, this insulting self-talk was a deep distraction—undermining their sense of confidence in the ability to make good health care decisions.
Yet this is, as many insults are, based on a truth. At its core is the truth, that whatever medicine, surgery, or other marvel is used to start the process of healing—any of those things at best are helpers to the natural processes of healing that already exist within us. Our sense of pain is a natural prompt for the body to heal. So yes, we do heal ourselves. We are all our own physicians, both in body and mind.
When we experience pain, it is an indicator of what we need to attend to, so we can heal. As for our body, so for our mind. Our emotional pain is a pointer toward our need for healing. And in this healing, we can discover a pathway to our purpose.
For my colleague, their mistrust of themselves was causing them deep pain, and their awareness of this opened them to a pathway to healing.
They were able to uncover a story about themselves—a story that they were a person who was weak and unable to make good decisions about relationships.
When asked whether they would make the same judgment of a good friend if they had a breakup, my colleague saw themselves and their experience from a different perspective.
When asked what had changed when a different perspective was held, it showed their values about healing also applied to themselves as it would be for a good friend. This value of healing revealed a pathway toward taking steps to recover from heartbreak and distress and to rebuild trust in themselves.
They allowed themselves to explore ways to follow this pathway with openness, interest, and curiosity. One way they enjoyed was to journal their internal dialogue and consider what was said from various perspectives. Each perspective gave a different point of view and sometimes meaning to a thought, emotion, or event. Another was to give the harsh internal criticisms a funny voice. This gave a comic dimension to what the internal critic had to say, and they wondered how they could have previously taken such criticism so seriously. Another was to consider whether they would consider this internal criticism good advice if they were ten years older. Each way had its own healing purpose and allowed them to get more agile with their emotional playbook.
Having done this work, my colleague realized it was time to forgive themself not only for the breakdown in that important relationship, but more importantly, to forgive themselves for how they had treated themselves since that time. They realized self-forgiveness was much harder than forgiving others as in the case of our internal critic we live with 24-7—often with three o’clock in the morning being the worst time. However, having made a lot of effort to engage in their internal healing, they knew it was time to forgive themselves.
After a time, they realized how much had been given up over the period of grief and self-punishment, and made a decision to start reengaging with life and the chance to explore new relationships. Having learned so much about themselves and having used a variety of techniques that allowed for a respectful internal dialogue, they commenced to engage in the trial and error of seeking new experiences with care and insight.
They found a new, enriching relationship—and in the new relationship, many reminders came up of previous challenges and let downs, hurts and recovery. Each reminder was a chance to apply the skills of self-forgiveness with compassionate introspection.
They learned that in both their personal and professional life, the skills of self-forgiveness were an essential guide on the pathway to healing in response to pain.
This journey has ultimately been one of growth and increased satisfaction in their life and their capacity to create new opportunities to live the life they want to live—and to help others to live their best lives.
Grant Dewar, PhD, is a Life Educator, work health and safety adviser, and trainer from Adelaide, South Australia. After losing his father to suicide, Dewar embarked on a life journey to seek better responses and solutions to the devastating effects of self-harm on individuals and the community. Work in the community, public service, and later in life as a health professional has helped him to develop, research, and apply his work on self-forgiveness.