Insight Is Not Enough
Understanding is necessary but not sufficient for healing.
Posted November 23, 2021 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- A wound that’s closed may appear to be healed, but for a while, any new trauma can easily reopen it.
- When our pain isn’t noticed or responded to appropriately by our caregivers, we learn to push it away.
- Emotion, not insight, is the ultimate engine of healing.
In my capacity as a consultant on parent-adult child estrangement, I talk with many people who’ve been in therapy and learned a great deal about themselves.
These clients – mostly unwillingly estranged parents – often mention the deprivations of their childhoods and how hard they tried to spare their children by parenting differently.
These parents know they didn’t get what they needed as children themselves. In some cases, they can even list the emotional needs that were never met for them.
But despite all the knowledge and self-understanding gleaned in therapy, the unwanted estrangement of their now-adult children still triggers the same feelings of rejection, inadequacy, and baseless shame in them.
Understanding Isn’t Enough
Insight is valuable. Insight can help us feel better about ourselves. But it is not the same as healing. A wound that’s closed may appear to be healed, but for a while, any new trauma can easily reopen it. Similarly, new injuries like estrangement by one’s adult children can expose unhealed emotional wounds.
It’s not a lack of understanding that invites the pain. It’s more the need for healing.
When you understand your pain yet don’t feel better through that understanding, it can be confusing. Once you’ve made unconscious triggers conscious—once you’ve understood the roots of your pain—shouldn’t those triggers fade away?
The answer is no.
Once you understand yourself and your history intellectually, the best way to make strides in therapy is to consciously revisit and experience unhealed emotions in a supportive, nurturing environment.
Feel It to Heal It
The first time you were hurt, and the hundred times after that, who noticed your pain and offered you concern and kindness?
We learn self-compassion and compassion for others by receiving it. When others express empathy for us, we can tolerate emotional pain better, make sense of it, and begin to heal from it.
When our pain isn’t noticed or responded to appropriately by our caregivers, we learn to push it away. Emotional pain that’s ignored or actively suppressed tends to fester.
We can look back at our early days and find compassion for our younger selves, who had to put away their pain and carry on.
But the only way to heal old pain is to invite it into the light and give it our kind attention. Not just with our minds but with our hearts.
The Compassionate Witness
One of the most powerful tools of a competent therapist is a willingness to sit with their clients’ pain. Without pushing it away. Without rushing to intellectualize it. Just being with it and caring for the person who’s feeling it.
When your therapist is a compassionate witness to your emotions, you learn to be there for yourself. Their gentle, accepting approach creates a mental model for you to use with yourself and others outside the therapy room.
Emotion, not insight, is the ultimate engine of healing. Ask your therapist to help you safely feel your feelings. It’s potentially one of the greatest benefits of therapy.
(Mind you: Venting feelings isn't enough, either. Find out why.)
To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.