One of the wonders of our human existence is our ability to retain and interpret our experiences, using them to guide and direct us in our life in the present, and move forward into the future. Yet what happens when events in our life feel more like scars or wounds than lessons learned or muscles strengthened?
For many of us, there may be an ‘Achilles heel’, a weak or sore point in our past that seems to pop up unexpectedly to take us back to that particular time and place, or it may be a more constant reminder that we carry with us throughout our daily life. If this may be familiar for you or someone you know or love, the subconscious mind may hold both the problems and the solutions to these automatic loops of memory.
Right Now… Right to Feel…
The subconscious mind only has one time – right now.
While listening to a radio you can instantly be brought back to a time in your life where you fell in love, or when you lost someone – whether something that we feel is positive or something that may feel negative, the emotional link, inspired by something as simple as a tune, automatically comes to us in the present. I was driving when a song came on that reminded me of an old friend – it was fleeting as I needed to navigate rush-hour traffic, but it was a wonderful moment that brought a smile to my face.
Most people have experienced these affirmative memory connections which, even temporarily, have us physically, mentally or emotional react in a positive way. However, there are times when the gut reaction to memories is anything but pleasant.
Whether we consider an emotion a ‘good’ feeling or a ‘bad’ feeling, they are all valid in their attempt to get our attention or to tell us something. While a contented feeling might be indicating that we’re on the right track, grief might be sharing with us that we need to deal with loss, or guilt may be encouraging us to make amends on a mistake or hurt we may have caused others.
In fact, emotions can be very efficient, if we listen to them. They could be considered a mentor or teacher who is giving you hints on how to move forward more effectively in your life. And once the lesson is learned, gives you the space you need to construct your life… until you need help or direction once again.
Then why do we have so much trouble with negative feelings – and if they are so useful, why do they hang around and negatively impact us with reoccurring emotional patterns that get in our way?
For many of us, we were taught emotional reactions when we were very young and unsuspecting of the impact these lessons would have later in life. We may have been taught that sadness was ‘unmanly’ or that anger was ‘unattractive’ or it may have been more subtle than a direction or reprimand. It could be our nearest and dearest being embarrassed about expressing an emotion (lesson – that feeling is unwanted), or watching someone we love berate themselves for feeling something other than what THEY were taught was acceptable (in yet another time and another place). Our cultures, our peers, our education all contributed to a very stable foundation of emotional acceptance (or rejection) that, at its base, can trounce a more academic and adult understanding of the function or purpose of feelings as we experience them now.
Cuts… Cover Ups… Rub some Dirt on it…
I accidentally stepped on glass last month, and with some assistance I thought I had removed it. While the wound began to heal, after several days it looked slightly red and irritated, and it hurt quite a bit. I put some cream on it and covered it up with a bandage. Several days later, walking was becoming a painful practice, yet it was only begrudgingly, and under the advisement of others, that I went to my doctor. She congratulated me on coming in as she reopened the wound, removed two shards and ooze that had collected because of the infection.
I only write this story as a classic metaphor formemories and their influence and power over our wellbeing over time. Just like stepping on glass, sometimes crummy ‘stuff’ happens to us. If we had complete control in scripting a ‘perfect’ life for ourselves, these events would be edited out. We are hurt, betrayed, disappointed. We miss opportunities, make mistakes, upset others. We lose people and things; we experience situations that may be out of our control and result in bad things happening; we don’t always really understand what’s going on…
If we have been taught that the emotion that emerges from each of these situations is ‘wrong’, we’ll tend to cover up the wound immediately – to pretend that it didn’t happen or that it isn’t there. Even if we are aware that we might benefit from attending to our injury, our lack of expertise or limited coping mechanisms may miss the real issue at hand. Like my foot, we think it’s clear.
Yet under the surface, the emotional disturbance is still affecting the system. The infection uses up a lot of energy as the (emotional) body tries to defend against the ‘foreign’ contaminant (I say ‘foreign’ as our natural state – the state of us in our smallest, primal form – is to love and be loved, be curious, open and content when our needs are met). When the physical body is infected, it copes by producing pus and other vehicles aiming to surround and move the pollutant or piece out. So the infection response, while gross or painful, happens to try to serve us when something is wrong. When the emotional body does something similar – the ‘infection’ which often happens when similar situations or people activate our longer-term injury of unfinished business, tends to get all our (sometimes limited or child-established) defenses up. Just like our bodies, we counter in whatever means we can, even if it hurts us more in other ways or doesn’t solve the issue.
Sometimes that means we can even add to the problem. While I understand that historically dirt has been used to clot blood and special kinds of clay can combat infection, most of the time our rubbing ‘dirt’ on it is an even more primal way of covering something up. Forget it, get over it, yet all the ‘walk it off’ expressions don’t resolve the underlying issue, or don’t fulfill the need that wasn’t served in the first place.
Redefinitions… Positive Purging… and Starting Over (it’s never too late)
Father Michael Lapsley*, ‘foot soldier’ and the force behind the Institute for Healing of Memories, speaks of emotions in an interesting, liberating and lasting way. He speaks of ‘life-giving’ and ‘destructive’ feelings, rather than good and bad ones. And even while ‘negative’ emotions like anger can inspire to action to right a wrong, he and others who promote the cause of releasing the long-term poison of emotions that keep people down, know that holding on to anger (and other short-term ‘inspirers’) can turn toxic.
But what if what happened wasn’t good, or fair or right? Don’t I have a right to continue to hold on to that to keep me protected from this happening again?
Now imagine that someone I know had put broken glass in my path, knowing I would step on it. Would it make sense for me to not treat my injury to spite them? To keep my foot infected, so much so that I might have to have it removed or even die? Would they feel sorry about what they did? Would they pay through my own pain?
Yes, I could be a victim or a martyr but the pain, over time, with the additional emotional suffering (which often makes the physical pain much worse) may be more excruciating and more of an investment (in distress and energy) for me than the other person. Another can’t actually feel my physical aches, and likewise isn’t privy to the internal emotional anguish I feel.
Just as I did at the doctor’s, I needed to reopen the wound to properly clean it out. Did it hurt a bit? Yes. Was I glad that I had a professional helping me? Definitely. Did it take some time for the final healing to happen? Certainly. Yet now I can firmly place both feet painlessly in the present.
Sometimes to release memories that are keeping us stuck requires some mental and emotional ‘surgery’ that can help us move through the pain and to a state of renewed healing. Might we have to learn a few things? Might some of the pain that we’ve been covering up bubble to the surface and make us feel ‘bad’ on the way out? Might we need to forgive ourselves and others for the past? Might we find that we have to take responsibility for the ‘post-operative’ state of our life and support our own recovery? Yes to all. Yet the freedom and grace we can feel on the other side might just be worth the uncomfortable feeling of the ‘ooze’ that needed to come out anyway for our greatest health and wellbeing.
If you’re interested in exploring some quick exercises, we’ve got three for you to explore. Follow the underlined links to You’ve got choices, Tell a story to set it free, and Understanding the lingo of your emotions (at our website) and enjoy the feeling as you begin to ‘heal’ and have the capacity to see your past as a building block to your future.
Let me know if I can be of any help to you on your journey.
*A letter bomb sent in response to his anti-apartheid work took both Father Lapsley’s hands and the use of one eye, yet the crime didn’t deter him from his work in being a living example of letting go and moving on.