Being able to heal past wounds and move on to live a happy, healthy life is a goal of many people who enter therapy. But what you may not realize is that in order to do this, at some point, you have to be able to let go of what has happened to you that hurt you, damaged you, or wounded you in some way. You can’t open yourself to receive a wonderful new life if you’re holding tightly onto your past hurts.
But how in the world do you just “let go” of something so painful, so damaging that it still affects you today?
“Write the bad things that are done to you in the sand, but write the good things that happen to you on a piece of marble.” -Arabic parable
Name Your Pain…
Well, the first thing for you to truly understand is that it’s a process. It doesn’t happen overnight. It may take a lifetime to move beyond some things…but that doesn’t mean the rest of your life has to be devoted to feeling bad about what happened.
You start by identifying what happened to you that has hurt you and caused you in some way to be unable to move forward. This is a crucial part of getting better…you have to name your pain. This is not just a blame game, though, because no matter who did what to you in the past, it is in the past now. And even if that person who hurt you would like to go back and change what they did, they can’t. Not until we invent working time machines, anyway.
So, you start by figuring out what happened to you. Name it.
Try very hard to be non-judgmental toward yourself here…it’s really okay if you’re still hurt by being bullied twenty years ago if a comment someone made when you were a child or a teenager has done some damage to your self-esteem…just name what hurts and try not to judge whether it “ought” to or not.
Sometimes understanding the “whys” of what happened can be helpful, but sometimes we will never know why someone or something hurt us. Sometimes we will never know why a parent died too soon, why you ended up with a particular disorder or disease process, or why the “bad thing” occurred. And you don’t want to make your own recovery contingent upon understanding why the bad thing happened…you may never understand why.
But that’s okay.
You don’t have to know why something happened in order to get better.
Feel Your Feelings…
Once you have named your pain, you need to let yourself feel any feelings about it that you have. Trust me, you’ve got feelings about it. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be painful to you.
Many times, if you’ve been hurt as a young child, you will find you have buried your true feelings about it. Maybe it wasn’t safe to express your feelings… anger or sadness or shame wasn’t acceptable to show in your family or culture. Even as an adult, maybe it was all just too much to bear when it happened, and you shut it all away until now. Whatever the reason, the natural human feelings you have about being hurt are still there. You can talk about the pain or write about it to get in touch with your feelings.
Talking and writing about feelings is good, but it isn’t enough. You have to actually feel them! You don’t get to move forward if you just shut down again now. Feeling a lot of emotional pain doesn’t feel good, and if you have any doubt about your ability to just be in emotional pain for a while without thinking you can’t handle it, then please get help.
If you are getting in touch with powerful feelings, and you start to get frightened about your ability to handle them, get into therapy.
Your therapist will walk with you through this difficult time.
CRYING ISN’T GOING TO KILL YOU… I PROMISE!
Some words of reassurance: Your feelings aren’t going to kill you. Crying isn’t going to kill you. You’re just going to need tissues.
A lot of tissues.
A whole lot of tissues.
Tissues are my overhead, as a therapist….you don’t do your real therapy work without them! Feeling powerful, negative feelings just feels really, really bad. There’s no way around this. Nobody likes feeling pain, and most people try to avoid it. That’s probably why you’ve put it off for this long in the first place. But you can do it! And you have to in order to move past it.
YOU’RE NOT GOING TO FEEL THIS WAY FOREVER…
When you’re feeling really angry or really sad and start wondering if you’ll ever feel happy and at peace again, remember that you have never felt just one emotion forever…your feelings always change. Sit with your anger or your pain and you’ll find it ebbs and flows and eventually morphs into something else.
And scientists have found that there are hormones in tears that are cried when we are feeling a powerful emotion, as opposed to the tears that we have in our eyes from having an eyelash stuck in there….you are balancing your endocrine system when you cry, balancing yourself emotionally, and helping a healing process.
Feeling emotional pain and crying may not feel good while you’re doing it, but it is good for you. The emotional equivalent of eating Brussels sprouts. (Can you tell I hate eating Brussels sprouts?)
A lot of people will talk themselves out of crying or grieving about things that have happened “a long time ago,” figuring that they should have gotten over it by now…if they cry about it now it’ll just prove that there’s something really wrong with them. They’ll tell themselves they need to “just grow up” and “get over it.”
Fine, if that works.
But it usually doesn’t…you’ll just add another layer of emotional scar tissue over something, making it even harder to use that part of yourself in your present life. You may need to feel the pain about something that happened 40 years ago and honor it respectfully so that you can let it go and move forward. Do whatever it takes….try not to talk yourself out of doing something you need to do by shaming yourself or being mean to yourself.
If you want to refinish an old table, you have to take the time to strip off all the old layers…it’s a nasty job, but you gotta do it if you want the beautiful, original wood to be able to come through. The work is what the work is…your work is what your work is. Stop judging yourself….and get to work!
No one Wants to Live in a Mineshaft….
So, figure out what your pain is and feel it, but please don’t stop there!!!
Naming your pain and feeling our feelings is crucial to getting past something. However, too many people do the first step of naming their pain but never move past that. They end up living out their lives blaming their misery on the past, blaming others and what they’ve done to them for their inability to live a healthy life.
And many people get past that first step but get stuck in the second step of feeling their feelings. They remain anxious, depressed, ashamed, and feel nothing but the pain from the past. Getting stuck in the past is a horrible place to be.
Living your life in constant reference to all the bad things that have happened to you is horrible. I envision the past as a mine, deep in the ground. You go down there occasionally to do some mining for a valuable gem, but you don’t stay down in a mineshaft for very long. And you definitely don’t want to live down there! There’s no sun, no fresh air, no life!
But there can be so much to learn from the past…those helpful, hard-earned nuggets and gems of wisdom that can help us to live better today. So, it’s okay to go back and get a diamond or two. Take what you can from the past that could help you today, but then get back up here and live today.
That was then….
The past is the past. No matter what happened, good, bad, or indifferent…it’s gone and done. No one can go back and change it now. Not even if they wanted to…not you, not the person who hurt you. That was then. This is now.
To define your life by what has happened to you in the past is to remain a victim.
You can move past being a victim.
You were a victim in the past.
You are not a victim now.
You are a survivor.
And that is something to celebrate. And to move past being a survivor, you need to thrive!
And to thrive, you need the fresh air and sunshine of NOW.
This is NOW!
So much is being discussed today about mindful awareness. Being able to truly be present and live today is the last step of healing from something bad that happened to you in the past. You can leave the past in the past. You embrace the good that has happened and that is happening in the present moment…two things you really can’t do when you live your life in “victim mode.” When painful memories from the past do emerge, you repeat the process: honor your experience, name the pain, feel your feelings, then remember that was then and this is now.
It’s not happening to you now.
Come back and be present with what is happening now. This way you continue to heal, continue to find those gems you worked so hard for in the past, and you can move back up and onward into the sunlight. Painful experiences in the past shape us and in some ways make us the people we are today. But they do not have to dictate how we go through life, as if in some survival mode, unable to enjoy today.
That was then.
This is now.
What would you like to do now?
Dr. Anita Sanz, PhD, Psychologist
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