The 3 Stages of Self-Healing and Recovery Work

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Recovery Isn’t What You’d Expect

On a recent trip to Portland, I grabbed a copy of Co-Dependence, Healing the Human Condition, by Charles L Whitfield. I’ve long admired Dr. Whitfield’s work. He’s been writing about co-dependence, inner child work, and adult child issues for decades (and authored dozens of books!) His is one of the enduring voices for adult children of traumatic and dysfunctional upbringings.

A Note to Therapists
If you’re treating clients whose parents struggled with addictions or who experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), please study Dr. Whitfield’s work. Therapists are part of the moment as those who help clients turn-around the effects of childhood trauma. You can bring greater understanding of the core issues to your therapeutic work and better help clients by integrating Dr. Whitfield’s deep knowledge into your own.

I’m slowly digesting this fantastic book, and will share gems as I go.

The 3 phases of recovery is one of those gems.

DISCLAIMER:  All of this language is my own, inspired by the book. The concept of three phases and the nature of the three phases is the work of Dr. Whitfield.


This first stage is the “AH-HA!” moment we experience — the flipping of a switch — in which we feel so, so sick and tired of being sick and tired. We realize that there’s something wrong in our life, and we think that ‘something’ is living and operating within us.

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We feel powerless. We are hurting. We know we’re sick of the patterns and we know we want to change them. But here’s the rub:  we also feel powerless to change them. That is the conundrum, and it’s a painful one.

We finally realize that (a) there’s a Problem and that (b) we cannot solve the problem Alone. We decide, “I’m going to seek help.”

This stage brings contradictory feelings:  we feel relief but confusion, we feel hope but huge overwhelm! We are feeling a lot of feelings and we are overwhelmed by the magnitude of feelings. We would give up and return to the chaos, drama, and codependence — except: we are done with the frustration the the cycles, and in pain. We’re really, truly DONE and ready to END THE INSANITY.

That’s when we reach out for help. A therapist, a 12 step group, group therapy, blogs like this, or online communities. We quickly realize we are not alone. We can survive this. There is a road starting here.

Something to watch out for is addictions, addictive behavior, and the whack-a-mole of addictions (you stop drinking but you unconsciously start shopping more). When you’re in pain and feeling overwhelmed, that may be when you reach for:  food, the “BUY” button online, sex, stirring up drama with people, alcohol, dugs – you name it. So, be aware and watch out for new and/or different coping habits.


We begin to think:  It’s not me. It’s my childhood. Something is off. The something is in me, but not because of me or who I am. As we begin to do research we learn a new vocabulary – adult-child, codependence, ACoA, toxic shame, etc. And we begin to relate the theories we come across online with our childhood — we read something like, “Children of alcoholic parents have trouble finishing projects, ending conversations, feeling like themselves…” and we identify. We realize we are one of those people, and that we have a “diagnosis” (so to speak) and even better, that we have a tribe.

Much grieving occurs during stage two.

The grieving comes as we learn how to find ourselves again, and we see what we missed out on in childhood. As we take action to become actors in our lives, as we move out of a life of victimhood and reacting to everyone and everything and into a life that we steer and in which we take action, we grieve what we didn’t get. We grieve who we didn’t become. We grieve the loss of love that we are slowly learning to give ourselves.

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Deep self-discovery and the work of putting what you learn into action begins in this stage. It’s a stage with steep climbs and temporary plateaus. You begin to start saying “no,” to establish boundaries, establish needs, and disengage from codependent dynamics. You might end friendships or marriages, or you may transform them. This stage begins and repeats over time.

As you enter stage two, you will probably believe that it won’t take “long” to heal. You’ll imagine you’re going to work really hard and wrap it up in a year or so. Tee hee. We all find that after a certain period of time (a year, or so) that our thinking was right and wrong, both. We realize that self-healing and recovery are a way of life, not a destination. We see that we’re feeling good when we put what we’re learning into practice. Because of that satisfaction from the work, we stop asking, “How long is healing myself going to take?”

However, if you are still asking that question, read my post from last week.


This stage just creeps up on you. At some point after you’ve given yourself over to stage two being a way of life, a journey without a destination, you suddenly find that your spiritual life is blooming and central to you being You.

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When you’re in stage three, you’ll be regularly practicing self care and doing your daily spiritual practices. For some people, knowing God is what happens in this stage. For others, like me, that is feeling deeply connected to and empowered by All-That-Is. The Universe.

This is where you know, and cultivate, a connection to God, to Goddess, to a higher power, to All-That-Is. Your emptiness is filled. You will begin to think to yourself, “I am loved.” You will love yourself, love being alive, and feel ready to be of service to others making the journey.

You’ll feel overwhelmed during this phase too, but not overwhelmed by pain or by resentment. You’ll feel overwhelmed by love and gratitude.

You can handle small “relapses” without being distraught or destroyed when you fall. You know your identity and true self and have fewer and fewer instances of ‘forgetting’ who you truly are.

- Be kind to yourself.


You can get Dr. Whitfield’s book here, Co-Dependence Healing the Human Condition.

Reference:  Co-Dependence: Healing The Human Condition: The New Paradigm for Helping Professionals and People in Recovery by Charles L. Whitfield, M.D. (HCI Publications 1991).

Amy Eden is the author of The Kind Self-Healing Book: Raise Yourself Up with Curiosity and Compassion



  1. Vanessa says:

    Very interesting. I find myself in different places…had to laugh at the part where I found I needed help and with hard work …I should be done in a few months … not.
    Some days i feel Ill never be ok ever again. Or find and be comfortable with who I am suppose to be.
    More times than not I dont have the energy or want to to keep going on….it seems to daunting.
    And forget the God issue….I feel burned by God…in my head I know this and that but in my heart ….Im at arms length and not ready to get closer.

    • Amy Eden says:

      It really is daunting. That is true. Healing is such a tough road that we sometimes have to sit down and just catch our breath for a minute (wondering if we can scale the mammoth mountain of it), and even fantasize about giving up abandoning it altogether until we can put one foot in front of the other and very slowly move forward. It’s important to be really kind to yourself when the overwhelm and hopelessness strikes, kinder than you are to yourself on your good days.

  2. Rose says:

    Wow, very helpful, thank you.
    As someone who relatively recently ‘woke up’ and realized that ACoA & its sidekick PTSD is a thing, I find myself skitting between phase 1 and phase 3, oddly enough. I’m yet to fully delve into phase 2 as you describe it, I’m still in research mode and in very early therapy visits. I haven’t changed any of my behaviors yet and am still stuck in addictive kneejerk unconscious behavior, and frustrated that I can’t kick it. All I have is the rollercoaster of overwhelm to hopefulness, and my spiritual practice. Two rather extreme modes of being, I note. But the presence I encounter in my meditations is what’s inspiring me and driving me to heal, so I feel lucky about that. Left to my own devices in my own mind I couldn’t have fathomed it possible.

    I think the ‘so, how long’s this gonna take?’ *arms crossed, skeptical look on face* question is, in part, tied to what woke us up in the first place. WE ARE SO TIRED. So hurt. To discover that there is more grief, more decimation, more work to come, is like demanding a starved leper run a marathon. I know I’ve spent a lot of time trying to avoid my abyss of grief and self hatred not to mention battling my weird life responses – to hear that the only way out is through more of it, is rough news. I think we’re probably bargaining with ourselves when we want to know a timeframe. ‘OK, I’ll face all this, but I can’t do it for long. I’m spent.’ AND!! Can we pause to acknowledge what a crap life sentence this is? Does it really have to go on and on and on FOREVER? It’s already totally engulfed my life from behind the scenes. I’ve already devoted my entire existence to alcoholism and its various charming effects. When I first read this on facebook I reeled. 3-5 YEARS? Is she serious?!!
    Haha. But I love all you’ve said here and it rings true and feels good in my heart. A devotional loyalty – we can do that, right? We’re EXPERTS on that. Godammit, we wrote the book. What if that was channeled and surrendered to a life practice of self care? Imagine <3

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