This article comes with a cynic’s trigger warning!
If you are a cynic (cynicism is just one of our defence mechanisms against dealing with our own vulnerability) then there is material in this that may cause you to emotionally react.
How old do you feel right now?
An unusual question to start a conversation off with and one that is most often going to be greeted with the response “well about the age I happen to be at this moment.” No surprise there then. There are, however, a few moments when it is a relevant question and the answers can be quite revealing.
The issues that have challenged us in the past. The events that have impacted us, may have traumatised us and which we have not had an opportunity to fully process stay with us. Just because we have forgotten about them does not mean that they are not there. They are.
They are like a little frozen moment in time inside our psyche just waiting for our attention. The larger the trauma and the more recent, then the more it will demand our attention. The longer it was ago the less attention it will demand. But there will be times when it demands our attention.
If your emotional reaction to a person or an event is disproportionate to that moment or their actions then there is a good chance it is related to past events and figures in your life. This is the frozen moment inside your psyche demanding some attention. If you don’t give it the attention it needs then it will, over time, continue to interrupt the present moment. Also, because it chooses the moment when it interrupts the present, it often chooses the most inconvenient and emotionally disruptive time to do it.
Note: Just because your emotional reaction is not visibly angry or even visible, does not mean it is not disproportionate to the person or event. Our internal emotional reactions are often just as scary and can often last longer because the energy is contained within and has nowhere to go.
Kate is a client (obviously I changed her name). She has attended a weekend emotional development workshop with me and knows she has plenty of things to work on and is committed to it.
One day she sent me a text saying that she had just had an argument with her husband. She reacted very angrily and emotionally and could do with a chat if I have time. At that moment I did have some time and chose to give it to her.
I called her and my first question was “tell me what happened…”
She said that her husband and she were having a discussion about something that needed doing in the house. He is a very practical, no nonsense kind of man who says exactly what he is thinking at the time. His filter for whether this may hurt others feelings is set to low. In the construction industry that he works in that is appropriate. Indeed it is often a survival necessity and part of the majority male banter.
In this exchange Kate gave an opinion which was greeted with a snort of derision and the word “what?!”before he went on quickly to explain why she was wrong. Kate could not help herself feeling seriously emotional and in the moment she exploded. She got angry, told her husband what she considered to be home truths and stormed out with the dog for a walk. He was left quite bewildered as to what had happened because he had behaved the way he always behaved.
After Kate had finished describing this to me I asked “so…how old do you feel right now?”
After a pause she said “…about 7 years old. I feel about 7”
My next question was “what happened to you when you were 7?”
She said “ no specific moment but I spent so much of my time trying to please my father and feeling like I could never please him. I continually felt small, stupid and not good enough. I think he felt that he had to bring me up with the school of hard knocks so that I could deal with what he saw as life as it is. He did not mean it to hurt so much, but it did”
Once she had finished speaking my next question was “if you could turn the clock back now what would you like to have said to your father at that time?”
Kate paused and responded with “I’m doing my best”
I said “Good. Say that again…louder”
She said “I’m doing my best”
Me..”again and louder”
Kate said “ I’m doing my best!”
“I’M DOING MY BEST…WHEN WILL YOU SEE THAT!! WHEN WILL ANYTHING I DO EVER BE GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU!!”
Kate “JUST LET MY BEST BE GOOD ENOUGH!!”
At this point I felt a break in her voice and paused and then said “how are you feeling?”
Her response was “emotional….vulnerable…a bit weird…but lighter”
I thanked her for allowing me to support her and gradually turned the conversation back to more usual subjects and used that to allow her to slowly calm down.
What’s going on?
I won’t take credit for this particular process. This was designed by John Lee and described in his book Growing Yourself Back Up. This is a form of regression therapy which is highly effective if the individual is aware enough to contact their trusted person and their trusted person just asks the questions. Not once did I coach, empathise or intervene until afterwards. The process and the person in the process do the work.
This process allowed Kate to revisit issues she had buried at the back of her mind. Issues she had told herself “should not” matter to a mature woman. As described above, those issues need attention and at inconvenient moments decide to ask for that attention.
In this case, for Kate, these issues had caused her to behave for all her life in ways that caused her problems in relationships and jobs.
Sometimes all it takes is one use of this process. Sometimes it is repeatedly used to visit different issues and traumas.
By giving her 7 year old the voice she needed at the time she was able to process the pain she felt at the time and let it go. Then the rational explanation she had already formed “ I think he felt that he had to bring me up with the school of hard knocks so that I could deal with what he saw as life as it is. He did not mean it to hurt so much… “ could sit well in her mind and not be in conflict with her deepest inner feelings.
Dealing with the past
Dealing with the past does not have to be so dramatic. There are many methods for dealing with past issues. They range from straight forward counselling as a talking therapy to Trauma Incident Reduction Therapy right through to hypnotherapy and many others. John Lee also describes a reflective self guided method for this in his follow up book The Anger Solution. That means you don’t even need to use a therapist or trusted adviser. You can work on yourself.
The real point here is that the past does have an impact on our present and trying to deny issues from our past and hide from them does not work. In fact it intensifies the impact they have on the present. To be able to live life healthily, enjoyably in the present means we need to have properly left the past behind.
By laying the past to rest once and for all you are likely to be laying the foundations for growing your self esteem back up, calming yourself down, stopping your cycles of emotional eating , stopping yourself taking things so personally and actually liking yourself more.
Surely that’s worth a little emotional development work.
Note: In our Inner Calm Emotional Health application 95% of our users are avoiding dealing with something from their past. By using that site and its comprehensive assessment they are more aware and have a tool kit to help them in this and 6 other areas of their emotional health.
Interested for yourself? Take a look here
For your colleagues and employees? Take a look here.
If anything in this article strikes a chord and you would like to talk through your options email email@example.com and we can book a call in.
Note: thanks to Andrea Piacquadio for a photo that captures the spirit of this article