- People want to let past hurts go but often hold on to show that they care about themselves.
- You can allow your younger wounded self to grow up and become part of who you are.
- Painful experiences are a part of life and can be integrated into a strong sense of self.
Do you have that feeling inside again? The wound that you just can’t seem to shake? The memory that plays across the screen of your mind as you lie awake at night or that is forever present in the back of your mind? You might experience it as nagging anxiety or a depressive undertone that gently, and sometimes not so gently, taps on your shoulder to let you know it is still there.
Most people will be pulled back to that betrayal by a best friend, the heartache of the last relationship, that unrequited love, or the loss of the first romantic partner in high school. Some of us go back even farther into childhood memories of being alone, unseen, unprotected, or even abused.
What is unmistakable is that the themes seem to repeat in our lives, and we continue to feel them. They permeate our experiences and our stories. And, so, the big question is: Do we want to get rid of them? If the answer is a resounding “yes,” then why don’t we?
Resolving most social/emotional wounds is similar to how we treat trauma.
- Learn to discriminate feelings from the past from emotions that you are feeling in the present.
- Trace back and connect the feeling to the original memory that spawned it.
- Try exposure to the memory along with its associated emotions while staying relaxed in a supportive environment with people who care about you.
- Learn to do inner child work, where your adult self is the caring person who coaches and protects your younger self who is experiencing the event in the memory.
- Accept the experience as something that did indeed happen and that shaped you… and then release it.
Healing can be a bit more complicated than this, but these are the basic steps. There are many good resources in published books and online references, and a good clinical psychologist can see you through the process. (To find a therapist near you, search on Psychology Today’s Therapy Directory.)
If it is that simple, then why do so many of us walk around still being influenced by those old wounds? If you look at the wounds you carry, a common theme is likely to be a lack of support and care when you needed it. No one was there for you the way you needed. Reality-based or not, you felt alone, unheld, and unseen.
You might feel a bit angry and hurt by this thought, and so you (consciously or not) decide that you won’t let that person, that earlier version of you, be forgotten. They deserved to be seen, cared for, and protected. And as long as you keep replaying their story and feeling their pain, you are ensuring that they are seen and still exist in someone’s mind.
What would happen if you let that part go? What if you did not hold your younger self and their experience in your mind? Would they be alone and forgotten, swallowed up and made invisible by the sands of time? Believing this (which isexistential anxiety), we keep the painful memory and loss alive.
This is not that different from the 50-year-old parent who has lost a young-adult child to a drug overdose. They tend to have extended grief experiences, believing that if they allowed themselves to heal and stop feeling the pain, it would mean that their lost loved one was not that important to them and didn’t matter, and so they keep the grief alive.
Similarly, I was talking to a friend recently who is having a hard time leaving a romantic partner. My friend’s thought is that if he leaves, the partner will forget him, and he will not exist in a meaningful way in that person’s mind. And so, my friend hangs on, even in the midst of dysfunction and pain, to avoid the grief of being forgotten (unseen, invisible).
Here is the truth of the matter: Those social/emotional wounds are supposed to hurt — and they should and do shape who you have become and how you see the world. But the emotional pain and the memory do not need to be stored in a bubble and kept separate from the rest of your experiences and memories. That part of you cannot be forgotten because it became you. It is supposed to become an integrated part of who you are.
An interesting side effect of being a therapist is that I can often apply what I am talking about with my clients to my own life. Recently, many of my clients have been reclaiming stuck parts of their childhoods and earlier lives. And despite 30-plus years of doing my own healing and inner-child work, I kept being drawn to a memory of myself at age 7, in a foreign country without my father and my older siblings, alone in my bedroom with just my stuffed animals, grief-stricken and thinking, “If I die here in this place, will anyone know that I ever existed?” As I reflect on that still very salient memory, I understand why, 51 years later, he still does not want to leave that room. He is afraid that he will become invisible and not exist.
But the truth is that he did matter, his experience did shape who I became — and he made it to grow up and have a happy healthy life. He became me.
The younger parts of ourselves are supposed to grow up and become fully integrated into who we are. It is time to let them.
Winnicott, D. W. (1965), The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment. London: Karnac.