Why do some things – certain words, certain people – hurt so much? You know it shouldn’t affect you that way, and yet it does. Someone makes a comment designed to hurt, and we are left stinging for weeks and months. A friendship, a romance, ends and we are left in pain for far too long. Why?
In my own work, I’ve found that these events touch my unfinished emotional business. These people represent others from my past, represent issues larger than I first suspected. This post describes these in more detail, and provides some questions to help in your own search – is this true for you as well?
This unresolved business can be divided into three categories:
1. Unfinished Emotions
The painful event touches on events from the past, unfinished emotional business.
As an example, some parents punish their children by turning cold and silent, withdrawing their love and affection and ignoring the child. As this child grows up, he notices that he feels very hurt whenever anything reminds him of this childhood wound, even if he doesn’t know why. Perhaps his wife innocently forgot to return his phone call, or his friends go out without inviting him. It might not mean much to them, but to him, the silence and exclusion is heart-wrenching. To avoid feeling this way, he might start becoming very clingy and needy.
2. A Series of People / A Period of Time
The painful event represents an entire period of time or a series of similar events; a person represents everybody who behaved the same way.
One of the painful memories I recently had to process was of a drunken man who spat at my feet and called me racist names as I walked past him. It happened a decade ago, when I was a young boy, and I had forgotten about him until recently. However, when I finally forgave him, and healed all the pain I had repressed then – I realised with joy that it wasn’t just that incident I had healed. I had let go of every single incident of racism I have ever experienced.
3. Attached Meanings
The painful event has a meaning attached to it, and this meaning is really causing the pain.
Part of the work I had to do with that drunken man was to let go of the beliefs I had picked up from him and other similar incidents. He had created in me a repressed shame at being a racial minority. I had started to believe, on a very unconscious level, that I was somehow sub-human, that I had no right to even walk the same streets he did. No wonder that incident took so much time to heal.
However, in his case, he had created these beliefs. In other cases, the event had merely brought to the surface other, older, issues. As an example, I often discussed a client in my design business. He had sweet-talked me into doing some free work for him, and then gave me a long tirade of verbal abuse when he didn’t like what I had done. This memory tortured me for years, even though others had done far worse. Although I’m a bit sick of writing about him, let’s discuss him one last time, as many readers have asked me about him.
Why did this relatively minor event hurt so much? I had attached some far older issues onto what he did to me. It was not really about him and his tirade – somewhere deep inside me, I thought I deserved it.
Some of the meanings I had attached to him –
I am so completely worthless that even my free work gets abused.
I am such a piece of s*** that he can abuse me; he wouldn’t dare do it someone else.
Life is dangerous, at any moment I can be attacked for no reason
Briefly imagine what meanings, if any, you might give this event if it happened to you.
One And The Same
If we look closely at these, they are really variations of the same theme. The meaning we give any event is likely related to our unfinished emotional business, which is likely caused by a series of people or a period of time in our past.
Let’s imagine if another designer had met this exact same client and suffered the same tirade. She might simply have shrugged and moved on. Why wouldn’t she attach the same meanings to this event that I did? Being useless, being worthless, never good enough – these were issues I have been struggling with since childhood. In healing the memory of this man, I was really healing these lifelong issues.
(On that note, maybe our imaginary friend will give his actions a different meaning, based on what her unresolved wounds were. What meanings did you give this event?)
As you can see, most of it was not about him. A percentage of it, yes, but most of the pain was caused by me “borrowing” his image and his voice to mentally beat myself up about my own issues. And this was also the reason he disturbed me for so long. I was healing and processing the wrong thing – I was focused on a very superficial level, focused on him alone.
The Thoughts That Cause Our Emotions
With the theory out of the way, let’s look at some practical steps we can take in healing. Most people will be familiar with the idea that our thoughts lead to the way we feel. If you aren’t, it is simple.
First, identify what you are feeling, without judging it.
Second, write down all the thoughts that caused it.
If it helps, you can ask yourself: What do I have to think / believe in order to feel this way?
To illustrate, my thoughts with the client would be – he cheated me, he abused me, he is an asshole (well actually, I used something more colourful, but you get the point ).
However, you will notice one thing – these thoughts are very superficial. Many systems I have come across – whether psychological, popular self-help, or spiritual – keep it at this surface level. This kept me from dealing with the real issues involved.
However, I have to put the standard warning here – there might be a good reason we keep it at this surface level. Perhaps my mind only presented me with these core issues when I was strong enough to handle it. Please always use common sense, don’t force anything, stop if it gets too much, and seek professional support if needed.
Finding The Underlying Thoughts
The next step is to try some of these questions. I have divided them into categories, for ease of use – try one category and if it doesn’t do much, leave it and try the others. Not all of them apply to all situations.
It is helpful to first step into the younger you, the you who was directly in the middle of the event – feel what he felt, think what she thought, and answer the questions from that mental place.
Unresolved emotions from the past
What does this remind me of?
When have I felt this way before?
Who has done something similar to me?
What does this mean about me?
What kind of person does this happen to?
What does he or she think about me?
What would a 3rd party think of me?
The Other Person
What do I think about him or her?
What does this mean about him or her?
A Broader View
What does this mean about life?
What does this mean about my place in life?
What does this mean about [higher power]?
I wish _____.
I want _____.
The last series of questions is an expansion on the theme. Just as we take events personally, giving them meanings about us, it is also common to draw meanings about something much bigger. For instance, the nasty client also touched into my fears of fully participating in life – I felt there was always danger just around the corner, so it was best to just hide at home and not expose myself.
When filling in the want and wish statements, don’t think about it, just take the first answer that comes to mind. You might be surprised at what you find. For instance, a denied and repressed part of me wishes I was “strong and powerful” like that man – even though my adult mind thinks that he has anger issues.
Releasing and Undoing
The point of this exercise is to get into places inside our psyche that we previously denied. There are feelings we are afraid to feel, thoughts we were afraid to accept, beliefs that we pushed away out of pain. This brings them up to the surface for healing and releasing.
As a booster technique, this is a companion to the Core Practices.
If you prefer working with emotions, try Welcoming and Releasing Our Emotions
If you prefer working with thoughts and beliefs, Undo Your Thoughts with The Work
A more psychological approach is to Catch the Distortions in your thoughts and beliefs
If we answer the questions while fully reliving the original event, the answers to these questions bring might up a lot of emotion. This is a good thing. The more that comes up, the more that can be healed and released.
After feeling and releasing these emotions, try releasing the answer itself. The statements suggested by Michael Ryce to be helpful in doing so – simply state mentally “I willingly release the thought that _____”, and then do your best to release it.
As different people respond to different modalities, those who do not work well with releasing can simply use one of the two cognitive practices on the answers.
Given that these questions get into our deeper issues, it is likely that we need to perform this process several times, with each time building into a shift in perspective. If we do this often enough, we will eventually shift to what we think are the cold, hard, facts. At this stage, I began to stop – I thought I couldn’t go any further.
For instance, my initial thoughts about the client incident were of my worthlessness. As I processed this out, my perspective began to change. He attacked me, not because of me, but because he had anger issues. This was a big step forward from the shame and self-hatred I used to feel, but still caused me some anger. Eventually I had to look at the idea that he attacked me. Wasn’t this the truth? Wasn’t this what he did? How could I possibly release that?
But when I did, the results were quite surprising – to me, at least. I began seeing his actions as a cry for help. I didn’t force this perspective; it came about on its own. My anger turned into understanding, and I felt a relaxation and relief that comes from no longer being dominated by negative emotions. This is still not the end goal, of course, but just to share the obstacles I have come across so far.
Hope this article has helped someone. A Belated Happy New Year to everyone!