Emotions don’t respond to pain the way the body does. Understanding that can prevent a ton of heartache.
We work hard to maintain our physical health.
Activities that reduce the stress that can lead to illness.
But for the most part, we take our emotional health for granted.
I’m not talking about mental health. If we’re feeling manic, depressed, or suicidal, we will almost surely see a doctor. But if we’re suffering emotional unease and discomfort, we may complain to a friend or partner (unless the partner is the cause), or we may just suck it up and figure that what doesn’t kill us makes us strong.
This is true to a point, but repeated emotional damage, particularly to the same area of the psyche, weakens us, and eventually we reach a breaking point often known as a breakdown.
The problem is that our understanding of emotional health parallels our basic understanding of physical health, and we neglect to acknowledge the impact of cumulative damage. If you’re cut with a knife, you bleed immediately; the wound is visible, you’re forced to treat it, and eventually, it heals. If you’re savaged emotionally, you bleed inside, while you say to the world, in the absence of healing, “It’s OK. I’m OK.”
A cut, a bruise, a broken arm—these are injuries that heal over time and with appropriate treatment.
But verbal abuse? Psychological torture? Using our vulnerabilities against us? We can only watch as someone who claims to love us slowly, methodically dismantles our psyche, first hammering away at its outer core, then infiltrating the resulting cracks, dropping in the deadly poison, and finally mashing our center into pulp.
We all get kicked in life, but when the kicking is constant, consistent, calculated, and calibrated to hit our unprotected places, we suffer cumulative damage. We recover to some degree from each successive wound, but the lingering damage – festering under the surface – refuses to heal as again and again hurt is re-inflicted.
An apology may soothe us temporarily, but no words of contrition from someone who’s damaged us deeply, twisted the knife of denigration, shot us through the heart with hatred, or dripped bitter acid on our sweet, caring soul, can help us feel wholly restored or fully recovered.
Abusers wonder why their victims suddenly decide they can’t take it anymore and leave, often after years and years of silent suffering? They don’t understand the shift, because they didn’t see it coming. Like their victims, they didn’t realize the damage was cumulative, that there comes a point when you can take no more.
“She got over it this time, she’ll get over it again.”
As emotional damage accumulates, we grow sicker and feel more unhealthy every day.
And eventually, when we suffer something we might have brushed off earlier as minor, we feel something break inside, and we finally say—Enough!
We realize the magnitude of the horrendous hurt that’s accumulated.
And we realize the cruelty our damager is capable of.
If you’ve ever seen that cruelty, you know how terrifying it can be.
Fear prevents the damage from healing fully, for we can never safely open the wounds, drain the infection, and allow proper healing.
To heal completely, we need to enter the damage-free zone.
The zone where damage not only doesn’t occur, but also isn’t possible.
We need to be, at least for a while, and sometimes forever, with someone constitutionally incapable of hurting us, someone who makes our welfare, well-being, and best interests a priority.
Someone who treats us as first among equals.
Not a savior, but a conscientious caretaker, a kind of redeemer.
The key to preserving your emotional health is to recognize, stop, and walk away from cumulative damage.
To treat emotional damage like heart disease that could end your life, or a sports injury that, if aggravated, could end your playing.
And to avoid taking on suffering with the hope of making something—or someone—better, because we can only heal ourselves.
Dirty Harry wasn’t known for being an emotional character, but he did have one thing right: “A man’s gotta know his limitations.”