Upgrading the Healing Frame

person about to touch the calm water

One thing that seemed to keep me stuck for quite a while when I was younger was the healing frame, i.e. layering a desired area of improvement with the perspective that I needed to “heal” something within myself.

The healing frame remains a popular way to frame various aspects of self-development, addiction recovery, human relationships, and more. It also carries some major downside baggage though, so it can bey very risky to use it, not just for yourself but for others you interact with.

How the Healing Frame Slows Us Down

With healing physical wounds, the body largely does that for us, so healing basically means waiting or resting or taking it easy, so the body can do the healing part. When we transplant this frame to something mental or emotional, it’s easy for the mind to link up with the association that we’re in waiting mode, which is a pretty passive stance. So in that sense it’s almost a frame of anti-investment, like we’re clinging to the pre-transformation state.

With physical healing we also have a pretty good idea of what the healed state looks like. For many injuries or conditions we can clearly see or feel the difference. The “solved” state is pretty crisp. The wound is closed up. The bone is mended. The sniffles are gone. Our energy is back up again. We’ve stopped coughing. The scans detect no more tumors. The COVID test is negative. So we have some good ways to measure progress when using this frame for physical ailments.

On the mental and emotional side, what does the healed state look like, especially if we feel we’re dealing with some pretty old trauma? I think many people who use the healing frame aren’t really clear about how to state the destination in a way that makes much sense, even to themselves. So it’s very easy for this frame of healing to become an endless quagmire of circular thinking. I think many would agree that they don’t see a clear path to the healed state, and I wonder how many realize that this endlessness is a predictable consequence of using the healing frame. You’ve entered a game world with no actual ending, and the only way to “finish” is to exit the game and stop using that frame.

It’s also pretty easy to use this frame to deflect investments or offers that could be rapidly transformational because the healing frame will likely make you feel skeptical of anything that seems too quick and easy. I think we tend to expect that inner healing must take a long time and that we just need to be patient and go slow. But in the real world, there are plenty of opportunities for inner shifts to come through quickly and effectively, just as some medical problems can be cured with ease today.

We tend not to frame the quick medical procedures as “healing” but rather as something else like a “procedure.” And when you think that inner healing is the answer, you can easily miss opportunities for simpler actions that could speed you along because they don’t align with the healing frame. But if a simple procedure would work even better than your slow-paced healing efforts, why not use it?

The Healing Frame Is Inaccurate

The more I read about neuroscience and how the brain works, the more the healing frame seems outdated. There are many ways for our brains/minds to improve, including ways to recover from major emotional trauma, but a neural network doesn’t really “heal,” unless perhaps you’re dealing with a physical injury to it. So this model doesn’t align so well with the realities of how our brains process experiences.

No matter which direction we bend the healing frame – emotional, mental, spiritual, social, etc – it carries significant drawbacks, except when we limit it to the realm in which it works well, which is physical repair. And if we do apply this frame just in the physical realm, we can even find other useful ways to apply it which can create positive mental and emotional ripples too, such as by leveraging detoxification and physical exercise to improve the health and resilience of our brain cells.

I like and appreciate the healing frame for its usefulness in the physical realm, but outside of that realm, I tend to think of it as pretty messed up and problematic, with a major risk of keeping one trapped for a long time.

Another very real risk of the healing frame is that it can be used manipulatively as well. When someone invites you to heal a relationship or to heal some part of you, take a step back and notice how you might be getting invited into a trap with a risk of giving your power away for someone else’s benefit for a considerable amount of time.

More Effective Frames to Use

Instead of using a healing frame and supposing that same part of my thoughts and feelings are wounded or damaged, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense neurologically speaking, I find other ways of framing mental and emotional issues much more effective if I actually want to solve problems and release them.

One way to think of such problems is to see the brain as an input-output box. Like any neural network, the brain is trained on experience. For any sort of input, it will generate output. That output could be thoughts, feelings, words, actions, behaviors, etc.

So a “problem” can be defined as a situation where some form of input is creating undesirable output. Once I can admit that my brain isn’t behaving as I’d like, then I can clarify what output I’d like to see instead, giving similar input patterns. So if my brain is doing X, and I don’t want it to do X, then what do I want it to do instead?

This framing helps me step into a frame that gives me a solid grasp on a solution path, instead of trapping me in endless dialog with my inner child. I love talking to my inner child (and many other parts of myself), but for such dialog to be effective, we have to first get on the same page about what we’d like the overall mind to be doing.

Once I know what kind of output I’d like to see, I can leverage the brain’s strengths. It’s very good at learning from experience. That’s real-world external experience, not endless inner probing. So then I need to give my brain some fresh input of various forms to modify its training, such that I retrain its output patterns to get closer to the desired results.

Hence instead of using a healing frame, one significantly more effective frame is to use the frame that you’re retraining, retooling, or refactoring your brain’s outputs. If you want to steer this in a more spiritual direction, call it retraining your consciousness; it works just as well.

Retraining Habits

For instance, if I want to get up at 5am, and my brain is generating “sleep in” thoughts and feelings of tiredness, that’s an input-output mismatch. So then I would need to retrain my brain to generate different thoughts and feelings when the alarm goes off, including the behavior of getting up.

I don’t just want to force my groggy self out of bed when the alarm goes off. I want to awaken feeling well-rested, energized, motivated, and enthusiastic for the coming day. Note that I’m clearly defining the total output package I want to see.

Using this framing leads to much faster results than if I tried to “heal” my relationship with the pre-dawn hours or something like that.

Retraining Anxiety

Suppose I feel anxiety, fear, or some other negative emotion in a situation where I’d rather feel differently. Then I can retrain my brain through different kinds of experiences to create different output there too.

Many years ago I used to feel high anxiety, nervousness, and dread when I’d have to speak in front of an audience, even for days or weeks in advance if I knew it was coming up. My thoughts would dwell upon the pending doom, draining my mental resources. Instead of preparing well in advance, I’d procrastinate, which would just increase the stress levels.

Eventually I thought about the output I wanted, which was to feel relaxed, confident, and excited before speaking and to feel safe, comfortable, playful, trusting, connected, compassionate, and in the flow while speaking. I also wanted to feel well-prepared. And I wanted to feel that the audience and I were on the same side because we’d all benefit from a good outcome. That gave me something to train towards.

Action-wise this involved six years in Toastmasters and a variety of other speaking experiences that retrained my brain to create the desired output. I kept chipping away at the mental and emotional retraining by adding layers of small successes to teach my brain that public speaking could be fun and rewarding. Basically I gave my brain a lot of new experiences to learn from, so it could update its internal connections.

My childhood training in this area was dreadful in that it trained my brain to produce feelings of anxiety and pressure, as well as associations with grades and competition. I can blame my teachers and the school for that because they did a terrible job there, but I was still stuck with the after-effects. As an adult I was able to recognize this deficiency and responsibly retrain my brain to serve me well in this area instead of leaving the poorly trained model in place.

That was a resounding success, and now I love doing public speaking in a variety of forms. Instead of generating fear and dread, my brain now automatically generates very positive feelings when I do public speaking, as well as leading up to it. For instance, I very much enjoyed delivering The Octo Intensive 3-day workshop at the end of October.

While I can of course continue to make improvements, I’m delighted with the part of my neural network that now processes anything related to public speaking. It’s a highly functional part of my brain now, and I cherish what it does for me. Moreover, I appreciate it even more because I know what I had to invest to “train up” this part of my brain to work the way I wanted it to work.

Retraining Mental and Emotional Patterns

Now the retraining process can go in all sorts of different directions, and it can involve many of the same methods you might also apply with a healing frame. But in this case those methods are applied with a much crisper direction in mind. It’s easier to see real progress being made, and there’s a light at the end of the tunnel when you can call the transformation completed, which is basically when you’re getting the output you want to see from your own mind.

What exactly is your standard for measuring progress when you use the healing frame for mental and emotional issues? Do you measure progress by how many therapy sessions you’ve had? By how much you’ve paid for therapy? By how many journaling entries you’ve made? It’s really easy to mistake busywork for progress here. How much time you’ve invested doesn’t matter since that time can easily be wasted on activities that don’t move the needle forward.

If you’re going to use the healing frame, it’s important to clearly define the healed state. How is your brain output different in the healed state? What will you think, feel, and do differently? Are your healing investments clearly shifting your brain’s output patterns towards the healed state? Are you seeing obvious signs of progress in the span of a few weeks?

If I focused on healing my relationship with my inner child to reduce my nervousness with public speaking, I’d still need to get up and speak now and then to assess if those efforts are working. Do I feel less anxiety than before? Can I speak more easily this month than I could last month? If there are no signs of progress, then my healing efforts aren’t worth much. I’m basically just navel gazing and pretending that I’m getting somewhere.

How about healing your money wounds? Is that approach working if you step back and measure the results? Is your income going up? Is your net worth rising? Can you earn the same money you used to earn but in less time, with greater ease, with more fun, etc? Or are you just filling up journals with endless thoughts and feelings? What if you retrained your brain to generate abundance-producing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors? No healing is needed. It’s just money, not a broken bone.

Feed Your Brain the Experiences It Needs to Grow

While there are many ways to make progress towards changing your brain’s outputs, I think the simplest way is to give my brain the input, i.e. the direct experience, it needs to learn what I’d like it to learn.

This is a very flexible frame that helps point me towards actionable solutions.

For instance, when I wanted to retrain my brain to think and feel differently about human touch, I spent time connecting with non-judgmental, compassionate, touch-friendly people, so I could gain plenty of practice. I fed my brain enough positive experiences to shift its output patterns. That helped me transition from an affection-starved life into an affection-abundant one – and with a relationship partner who revels in the joy of touch as well.

When I’m going through a retraining process, I want to focus on positive experiences, meaning that I want experiences that teach my brain what I want it to learn. Consequently, if I want to feel good and safe with touch, I’m not going to practice with people who aren’t at least leaning in that direction themselves, and ideally it’s best if I engage with people who are already where I want to be mentally and emotionally.

I got better faster at public speaking by practicing with people who were way better at it than me – and who were super comfortable with it. Some of the people I trained with, and was trained by, had been speaking for decades. I recall having a 2.5-hour sit down talk with a guy who’d been on stages since he was 3 years old. His parents were skilled comedic performers, so he grew up in that world. Thanks to spending time with people like him, my brain tuned into more effective mindsets for thinking about public speaking. But I still needed to practice plenty, so my brain could really “get it” internally.

If I approached public speaking with a healing frame, I might have wasted years trauma-bonding with people who were just as anxious about it, or worse, and I don’t see how that would have helped much at all. In fact, that approach incurs the huge risk of strengthening the very patterns I want to retrain.

If I want to recover from some kind of trauma, it’s more effective to connect with other people who’ve successfully retrained their trauma responses. I want to learn from other brains that are working the way I want mine to work. It’s not going to be as helpful if I wallow in the trauma pit with people who are in endless healing mode but never healed.

Using this kind of framing has really sped me along through some transformations that might never have happened if I used the healing frame.

Is the Healing Frame Effective for You?

I invite you to question whether the healing frame is really helping you or if it’s actually getting in your way. Are you really wounded or damaged? Are you checking off healing issues as done and cured at a healthy pacing?

I do a lot of coaching, and I don’t normally regard people as wounded, even if they use that frame on themselves. I consider instead that their brains may be outputting patterns that aren’t serving them well. I can still feel compassion for them, knowing how easy it is for ineffective patterns to be trained into us, especially from childhood. There’s no blame or shame in that. But my role isn’t to heal them since I’m not a doctor, and there’s no wound to treat. My role is to invite and encourage them to retrain these patterns, so their brain shifts towards generating the output patterns they’d really like to see.

Like many human beings, I have had to retrain my brain a great deal. I entered my 20s with many messed up mental and emotional patterns which, if left uncorrected, would surely have held me back from accessing and appreciating so much of life’s beauty and deliciousness. I’ve been investing in this kind of retraining for 3 decades now, and it’s still ongoing. And I can tell you that these efforts have been paying off wonderfully. I’m happy. I’m highly motivated. I’m experiencing the best creative flow of my life. I enjoy lovely high-trust relationships. I give and receive hugs, kisses, and cuddles daily. I contribute to the world. My finances are in great shape and keep improving. I have a lifestyle that I appreciate. Nice home. Yadda yadda yadda.

Perhaps my most powerful starting point was in a jail cell back in January 1991. I remember that it was Superbowl Sunday because people were watching the Superbowl from their cells (barely though since it was playing on a small TV a bit far away). I’m glad that even back then, I didn’t use the frame that I needed to heal myself. I started with the frame that I needed to grow, really to grow up. That was a start. I feel lucky that I began by creating a clearer picture of the kind of person I wanted to be, which gave me a standard to move towards.

It was some years later that I discovered and explored the healing frame, and while I’m glad to have explored it a lot because I do love exploring, those were among my slowest and most stagnant years in terms of measurable progress. Relevant to how fast the gains came during other years, it seemed like I was standing still during those times. So using the healing frame was a bit like pushing the pause button on growth, even though I still felt like I was busily occupied with growth-like activities.

Outgrowing “Poor Me”

Another issue with the healing frame is that it doesn’t help unless you perceive yourself as wounded or damaged. What if your life is going well and you feel great? How do you keep healing beyond that? The healing frame is pretty much guaranteed to hit a plateau sooner or later. I don’t want to plateau, and with the retraining frame I don’t have to. Even when life is really good, I can keep reaching for more growth and improvement. I can upgrade endlessly, which I love.

This month I’m doing a 30-day challenge to improve my divergent thinking skills. I’m generating 100+ ideas per day to improve my life and business. Then I assess and figure out how to apply some of the best ones. Divergent thinking is already a strength of mine, so I definitely don’t need to heal it. I’m training my mind to get better at generating even more wildly creative ideas. By the end of the month, I’ll have generated 3000+ ideas. I know most of them won’t be practical, but I can say that after just 2 days of this so far, I’m super optimistic about it. I’ve already implemented some fabulous ideas that were quick to do.

What’s your relationship with the healing frame? Has it done wonders for you and flowed you into a bountiful new phase of life? If so, that’s wonderful, and I applaud you for it. The purpose of this article isn’t to dissuade you from using that framing if it’s truly effective for you. Rather I want to nudge those who find themselves feeling stuck to consider if the healing frame could be a potential reason for that stuckness. The healing frame has some major shortcomings, so my intention here is to caution you about using it. I think it’s highly likely that you’d get better and faster results with a different framing, such as retraining your brain or upgrading your mental and emotional output patterns.

A simple way of thinking about the approach I find more effective here is to ask: What kinds of experiences do I wish I’d had growing up, such that I would have learned much more effective patterns? Getting clear about how I wish life had trained my brain (in contrast to the training I actually received) gives me so much clarity about the solution path.

The overall benefit to having been poorly trained in some key areas is that it was a powerful invitation to learn how to consciously train my brain. If my early mental and emotional training had been much better, I might not have developed this skill set nearly as well. So that helps me appreciate anything traumatic from my past, knowing what an amazing invitation it really was. And this appreciation just compounds when I flow these personal gains into sharing lessons to benefit many other people as well. So even though it was hard going through some of those early experiences, in retrospect I think it was a fair and generous offer from reality, and I can respect and even admire how it set that up. Instead of spending so much of my life resenting or resisting the past, I expect that sense of appreciation will only deepen in the years ahead.

Steve Pavlina

Steve Pavlina is an American self-help author, motivational speaker and entrepreneur. He is the author of the web site stevepavlina.com and the book Personal Development for Smart People.

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