It’s commonly perceived that ‘time is a great healer’ of emotional pain. If we take this claim at face value, it would imply that the mere extension of sequenced events carries with it some intrinsic medicinal or healing value, which appropriates itself to remedy feelings of emotional pain. If time truly was a great healer, the human being would indeed exist in a state of great fortune. By definition of our space and time-bound existence, no human being would ever be outside the healing process so long as they were alive. We would all, by default, be in a state of constant emotional recovery.
Obviously, this is not true. Many people still deal with emotional pain or traumatic experiences from years in the past, which negatively impact upon their lives in the present. Sometimes a situation could appear to get better over time, but in reality, the pain has merely taken a different form. Tears and anguish might characterise a broken heart in the relatively short-term period, only to be followed by bitter resentment and anger in the long term. In such cases, the negative attitude is then often projected onto other individuals who have nothing to do with the experience, spreading the pain further.
Sometimes emotional pain worsens with time. The mere realisation that a certain problem has relentlessly continued to trouble an individual for so long can in fact accentuate the feeling of its burden. In other instances, the later discovery of how a personal problem affects other parts of one’s life – in a way previously unknown to the individual – can progressively complicate the emotional disorder, increasing its intensity, and further one’s loss of self esteem. In such examples, the individual doesn’t necessarily do anything self-harming to feel worse, yet one’s emotional state can quite easily deteriorate as time passes.
The confusion of the myth that time heals may lie in its false analogy with the healing experience of physical pain. Broken bones, cuts and bruises heal in time. The body possesses biochemical properties, which temporarily ‘address’ injuries immediately after they occur. Here one doesn’t need to do much. Chemical signals send the correct cells to perform their own consecutive tasks best suited to the problem. In the case of a cut, platelet cells instantly rush in to cause congealing at the opening to prevent bleeding, while white blood cells follow to kill any unwanted bacteria from the intruding instrument. After the area is cleared, other cells arrive to form new skin beneath the now dried congealed area (scab), and the area is well on its way to full recovery. What’s important here is that although the healing process occurs in temporal stages, time itself is actually not a cause of healing. In fact, time is no more of a cause to physical recovery than it is a cause to the building of a house, or to the winning of a tennis match. The causes are respectively, the biochemical processes and the skilled physical and mental activities involved in these occasions. Time, on the other hand, is impotent, having no causal or healing properties whatsoever.
So why is this now hopefully obvious fact important? Because the general assumption that ‘time heals’ makes people do nothing about their emotional pains. It validates the idea that prolonged anxiety or depression will eventually just go away. Even the language of ‘moving on’ implies that some kind of temporal ‘passing’ is required to get over something. This is simply not true.
Our ability to overcome an emotionally painful situation has little to do with time and much more to do with changing the way we think about the experience. This is the ‘healing process’ of the mind. Like the processes involved in physical healing, it’s active, characterised by various methods that address one’s thinking patterns. We don’t have the equivalent of automated cells to rush in at the scene of a problem and patch things up; hence, emotional healing is conscious, and comes down to our cognitive choices. In particular, it concerns how we interpret what an incident or circumstance means to us. It’s about keeping grounded in reality and not lost in baseless negative assumptions. Deeply seeking answers to questions such as: what can be learnt from this experience; what good can come from this, and thereafter, letting answers to those questions become the ultimate meaning of the situation by consistent review and repetition, can alter, quite profoundly, the way one feels. How you talk about the issue to yourself and to others, and the extent to which you interrogate the assumptions on which this speech is based, can also effectively cause your trail of thoughts and therefore your emotions, to break out of the limiting, negative, cognitive frame in which they are trapped. (Good friends, family members or psychiatrists can also help with this process.)
Such examples are just some of the ways in which one can begin to re-evaluate and re-organise one’s thoughts regarding a situation. Negative thoughts bouncing within falsely constructed frames do not just naturally break out after some time. However, it is possible that this may happen accidentally. That is, eventually, something may happen, or something might be learnt that naturally causes an empowering shift in one’s understanding of the situation, changing the way one feels. But there is no guarantee here. It could take years for a person to break out of a negative thought pattern in this way, and even still – given the accidental nature of this solution – it doesn’t equip the individual with the correct mental tools to prevent the same feelings or heartache from being experienced again and again in the future.
So, no. Time is not a healer. No one should leave his or her feelings to the mercy of time. Rather, we should take active control over our emotions by looking into the cognitive methods that re-interpret what our emotional experiences mean to us. The body may have its rescue functions to heal its pain, but when it comes to the mind, we really need to get to work ourselves. With enough training and conditioning, such healing can eventually occur naturally.