How to Keep Going When the Going Gets Tough: The Wound Metaphor

Life isn't easy. In fact, sometimes it downright sucks. Sometimes you work and you work and you work for something, and it all falls apart. Friendships, marriages, school, hobbies, jobs…sometimes you really give your all to something and despite your best efforts, it doesn't work out. Sometimes life takes things or people from you before you were ready to give them up. How do you keep going? Why keep trying?

Well, the first step is to be sad. Yes, I said it. Be sad. Be super sad. Cry, even. Maybe even cry a lot. For hours, if you need to. Do nothing for a while, and maybe even be unproductive. Don’t clean. Don’t be perfect. Take time off. Scrape by for a bit. Don’t pretend it is all okay.

The problem is, our culture tells us not to do this.  So I’m telling you otherwise. BE SAD.

Yup – this is the first step – even if it may feel like you are going backwards, you’re really not. You are actually taking the crucial first step to be able to eventually move forward again in time. And to skip this step can often lead to long-term problems in your healing. The truth is, for many things in life, we need to grieve and to mourn in order to be able to eventually heal – even though grieving and mourning is painful, difficult work. The only way to the other side is through. You can’t go around it, you can’t go under it – you have to go through it.

The reason why it’s important to be sad, and to grieve and mourn can best be described by a really gross metaphor I like to use a lot. This is the Wound Metaphor. Warning: this may not be for the weak of stomach.

Imagine getting a really deep cut on your arm, and it hurts a lot and is bleeding everywhere. EVERYwhere. But you’re embarrassed by it because, in this metaphor scenario, you know that it is not “socially acceptable” to talk about it. So, you quickly slap some bandages on it and make sure you wear long sleeves for a while so no one sees your wound. You generally ignore it, and maybe only change the bandages once they are completely soaked through, and leaking through your shirt sleeve – the times you can’t pretend it’s not there anymore. You try to carry on in your day-to-day life as normal, but everything you try to do with that arm is a bit crippled now. It keeps reopening when you use your arm the wrong way. It hurts to do just about anything, but you smile anyway and push through, hoping the pain will go away and it will just heal on its own. And anytime anyone bumps into that arm, it’s overwhelmingly painful. People don’t necessarily know to avoid your injury because they can’t see it, so when they bump into you, you double over in pain. And they feel awkward that they didn’t know about it and that they hurt you by accident.  The wound just always hurts, with a dull, throbbing pain in the background, always present.

And guess what? Because you never cleaned out the wound or got medical attention when it first happened, it gets infected over time. By slapping a bandage on it and ignoring the injury, the wound wasn’t properly inspected and cleaned out. There was probably some dirt and bacteria that got trapped in there when you threw a bandage over top of it and covered it up. AND your wound doesn’t heal cleanly because there are no medically administered stitches. The edges are ragged and the wound is now leaving a giant, ugly scar – while there is still infection under the surface.

In fact, the wound now is affecting other parts of your life. You end up getting blood poisoning from it, and your entire body starts to become affected because the wound wasn’t treated properly. Finally, when you feel like you can’t even function, you are bed-ridden, and your body is close to shutting down – you realise it is finally time to get medical help. You finally go to the doctor, even though it’s almost more embarrassing now than it was initially, because you’ve ignored the wound and it’s gotten even worse.

At the doctor’s office, the doctor now has to re-open the wound and clean it out – just like it should have been from the start. They recommend medication for you, now that the infection has become so bad, because your body needs some assistance to get back to how it used to function. The Doctor also recommends some lifestyle changes until you recover, more sleep, and less physically demanding activities. But most of all, they recommend that NEXT time you get a wound like this one that you don’t just cover it up. Get professional help immediately. Tell your friends and family so they can help you and so they can make sure not to make the injury worse by accidently hurting you. They tell you to take some time to recover next time. Inspect it. Clean it. Don’t ignore it. Take time to heal. Talk about it. And to stop forcing yourself to try to keep trying to function as you did before the injury for a while. And the Doctor tells you that there will be a scar – but how bad the scar ends up will depend on how you treat the wound right away.

So that’s the metaphor. (I hope everyone followed that the cut was metaphor for the emotional injury and the emotional pain that can come with a loss.) In our current culture, the way we deal with emotional injuries is very different than we deal with physical injuries. This metaphor makes you examine what life would be like if we treated our physical injuries the way we treat our emotional injuries. It tends to seem rather bizarre when you look from the other direction like this.

But the effects and the outcomes for both physical and emotional injuries can be the same, if they are left untreated, unsupported, and ignored. Each can end up affecting our whole bodies. A bad, untreated wound can lead to a whole body infection – an untreated emotional wound can lead to depression, or even suicidal thoughts. These symptoms of untreated emotional pain can evolve just like an infection can from an untreated physical injury.

So ignore society’s advice to “buck up” and “get over it” and treat your emotional pain like you would a physical injury. See a mental health professional, if you can, just like you would see a medical doctor. Make sure the wound is properly treated, and that it has appropriate time to heal with appropriate supports. Don’t expect yourself to perform exactly as you would have before the emotional injury – take time off or take it easy, just like you would with a broken leg.

You can and you will get through this – whatever it may be – even if it seems impossible right now. But you need to treat it, not ignore it, and get the right supports. Seek help. Talk about it. Give yourself a break. Take time to recover. And with time and attention, you will heal.