HEALING OR RECOVERY? WHY LANGUAGE MATTERS IN MENTAL HEALTH

The term recovery is often used to address those who are working through mental health struggles. Let’s dig deeper into the implications of this word, and why it might be time for a shift in language.


BY: MIMI COLE

Have you ever thought about the meaning behind the words you use? Not obsessively scrutinizing the connotation of each word, per se. But when was the last time you critically thought about some of the language that may have an impact on another’s perception of well-being?

One word that’s frequently used, especially in circles and communities that value mental health, is ‘recovery’. 

Recovery is all about a return to an old self. We use this word to describe a process of returning to a “normal” or previous state of being, to who we were before symptoms arose. 

In some ways, this is a helpful tool for measuring progress. We compare ourselves to who we were – before an eating disorder, substance use, or major mood episodes. 

If we consider recovery as the goal of diagnosis and treatment, then it becomes similar to a more research-oriented process of collecting baseline and intervention data to classify improvement post-treatment. 

As a result, recovery becomes less about spirituality and connection, and more about numbers and measurements. Have you weight-restored? How much less depressed do you feel on a scale? Questions like these are commonly asked when considering whether or not someone is in recovery. 

But what if we looked at recovery through a lens of healing? Let’s examine a few reasons why it may be more beneficial.

1. Move towards your future, not the past.

When asked about personal goals, many who are going through mental health struggles presume it’s about “being my old self again” or “being happy again” – an idyllic, nostalgic past they long to return to that may not have even existed.  But can we ever really return to who we were, especially after encountering new experiences and working through cognitive distortions that are so commonly explored in therapy and healing practices?

When we get down into the meaning of the word, recovery isn’t possible nor something to aspire to because it implies ’going back’.  Rather, viewing this process as healing helps us recognize that it’s a process of evolving and becoming our future self, rather than measuring against a baseline for who we were in the past.

2. Honors the individual, and the collective.

Healing implies movement towards your true values and a sense of self.  It is not about going backwards, but rather one that keeps shifting forward as we continually step into ourselves.  It can be done as both an individual and a collective – meaning that it differs for each person and has the potential to happen in community. So what can that actually look like?

As an individual, healing is honoring our body’s intuition while also considering health and well-being. It is about recognizing that our thoughts are not reflections of our values. 

Through community, healing is about discovering layers of ourselves, understanding how and why we show up in our relationships, and forming more secure relationships that are strengthened by the boundaries and communication tools we learn.

3. Connect within yourself.

Healing in the context of mental illness is not about the absence of symptoms, but rather about integrating compassion, learning how to cope with symptoms, and exploring who we are outside of behaviors and symptoms that may have defined us in the past.

However “woo-woo” and spiritual it might sound, healing is ultimately about process. It is unlearning the narratives we have been taught about ourselves and the world. It’s about creating supportive environments that nurture us as we emerge more fully.  

And most importantly, it’s reconnecting to our most authentic selves – the person who has been there all along.

HEADER IMAGE: HEATHER FORD


Currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling in North Carolina, Mimi Cole is the host of the podcast, The Lovely Becoming, and is passionate about disordered eating and obsessive compulsive disorder. She has experience working in the residential and outpatient levels of care as a patient assistant for individuals with eating disorders. As a clinician-in-training, Mimi hopes to practice from a Health At Every Size, trauma-informed lens. Outside of being a student, Mimi loves to read and write, go to coffee shops, and connect with new people.

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