What does an emotional wound look like?

CW: Contains mention of trauma, abuse, and anxiety | Some links in this article are tied to the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com (and keep the lights on).

What does an emotional wound look like? A woman with long flowing brown hair is looking at the camera with their eyes closes. They are standing against a black background.

An emotional wound is not physically visible, like a physical injury or wound on the body. It refers to the psychological and emotional pain that a person experiences due to traumatic or distressing events | Photo Credit @Jacob Lund/Adobe Stock

What does an emotional wound look like?


During a recent session, my therapist asked that I visualize all my emotional wounds (i.e., trauma, abuse, neglect, addiction) – watching my breathing as I stared in the mirror, measuring the pain with my hands, and becoming aware of how each part of my body reacts.

Feel free to participate in this exercise with me.

What does your emotional wound look like? A tiny papercut? 50-100 papercuts scattered across your body? An oozing gash? Where does it begin, and where does it end? Is it infected and unattended to?

I see a giant cut located in the back of my body. The slit is inches deep. It starts at the tip of my shoulders and ends at my hip. Its where I was hit the most. Its where I was brought down by the weight of my burdens, while lifting others up. For many years, I chose to bleed out. Today, I see that the cut has been slowly sewn together, not well, but it is cared for.

Mindfulness and therapy are what are slowly stitching up my old wounds. I say that it is not done well because there are days when I revert to methods of coping that have not aged well and self-destructive behaviors. In those moments, I am the perpetrator of my wounds. I am the one putting salt where it already hurts.

The patch-up is a little sloppy, for I am still learning about my trauma and learning to live with my anxieties and fears. The psychology of the mind is vast, and there is so much to uncover. Things are never black and white or what they seem at face value. Letting go and developing new skill sets takes time.

Time does not heal all wounds. They simply fade.

People heal. What we choose to do in that time heals.

If envisioning your emotional wounds as their physical forms is too painful or too much to bear, stop, breath, come back to it another time. It doesn't have to be today or tomorrow, for there is no such thing as missed opportunities if you are not ready for them.

How are you taking care of your emotional wound?

I look straight at it. I don't shy away from it. It is not ignored. I am neither ready to parade my battle scars proudly nor do I ever want to, but it does not bring me shame like it once did before.

Emotional wounds, like physical wounds, need to be tended to. We need to unwrap and change out the bandages and examine the hurt closely. Some days it may seem that we are on a steady path to recovery, and others, it may get worse until it gets better.

Just as I would go to a doctor for my physical ailments, my emotional health is granted the same courtesy with bi-weekly sessions with my therapist where we unpack triggers, and I am prescribed an action plan – mindfulness, lifestyle changes, anxiety management, amongst many others.

Common side effects of emotional wounds

Common side effects of emotional wounds include but are not limited to impulsivity, quick to choose aggression as a response, frozen attitudes, and destructive coping mechanisms.

In My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem devised a 5-step anchor plan to help move through our emotional wounds or what he coins "clean pain," pain "that mends and can build your capacity for growth. 

It's the pain you experience when you know exactly, what you need to say or do; when you really, really don't want to say or do it; and when you do it anyway…when you step forward into the unknown, with honesty and vulnerability."

  • Anchor 1: Sooth yourself to quiet your mind, calm your heart, and settle your body.
  • Anchor 2: Simply notice the sensations, vibrations, and emotions in your body instead of reacting to them.
  • Anchor 3: Accept the discomfort – and notice when it changes – instead of trying to flee from it.
  • Anchor 4: Stay present and in your body as you move through the unfolding experience, with all its ambiguity and uncertainty, and respond from the best parts of yourself.
  • Anchor 5: Safely discharge any energy that remains.

Mindfulness - being in tune with my five senses (my dog's fur, so soft it would give Pantene a run for its money, noticing the newly formed blossoms on my orange tree, from the snow-covered mountains worthy of Bob Ross's Mount Mansfield to the color coordinated pillows I curated for my living room) keep me grounded in the here and now, in the mundane and the beautiful.

"If something is hysterical, then it is usually historical. If your (or anyone's) reaction to a current situation has more (or far less) energy than it normally would, then it likely involves energy from ancient historical trauma that has lost its context. In the present, your body is experiencing unmetabolized trauma from the past"

Resmaa Menakem

What do you hope this emotional wound will give you in the future?

There is a hollowness, a hole in my heart that I tried to fill with achievements, men, material things, and superficial friendships. No amount of external validation could replace the safety and security that I had to seek from within.

The dilemma is, do I leave it alone, call it the badlands, and mark it inhabitable? I am not running away from the face of danger but recognizing that it needs to take up occupancy, at least in one area of my heart. That for the time being, it just needs to exist.

Why not replenish the soil and plant new seeds? Nothing will grow there. No one will ever be able to pervade that space, for it belonged to my mother, and she no longer serves as its caretaker.

This does not mean that I cannot be whole without her. She loved me so much that she didn't know how to love me.

I know a part of me is missing, a wound cut so deep that it almost hits bone.

I hope to one day see my wounds turn to scars and wear them proudly. They are reminders of how far I've come, and I understand now that certain events had to occur in the order that they did, no matter how excruciatingly painful they were, for without them, I wouldn't be where I am today – content and at peace.

Emotional wounds are a superpower. They gave me a sense of humor and a proclivity for resilience that I wouldn't have found elsewhere.

A bit of scarring means the hard part is over. That past is no longer reactive. We are not repeatedly looking under our beds, terrified by the boogeyman of our trauma coming back to haunt us.

I want to show my wounds to those that are not too squeamish to look away with the aim that they may find solace in their own wounds and embark on their own individual journeys of healing.

I never got to see the ocean for what it was - blue, vast, unyielding but soothing because I was too busy trying to keep my boat afloat. It's my turn to appreciate the little things and find peace away from the crowd.

"Trauma is not destiny. It can be healed"

Resmaa Menakem

What does an emotional wound look like? was previously published as ‘Scars’ on Medium and is republished here with the permission of the author.

Article by
Tiffany Wu

Tiffany Wu, the author of "What does an emotional wound look like?" sees writing as an essential part of her mental health healing journey. She is not an expert or a medical health professional but is an advocate for self-awareness and discovery. She writes as a means to process her thoughts and in hopes that someone else will read her work and feel a little less alone.