Stings from the Past When the past interferes with the present BY : Troy Murphy |April 2013
Thinking influences the feeling experience. Thoughts, experience and accompanying feelings intricately intertwine to create perceptions; we then project the perception outward through behavior. Our perceptions spill over into the experience of others. Working through painful experiences (real or perceived) grinds on resolve and diminishes happiness. These personal experiences aren’t self-contained. Those close to us respond to the projected feelings. Some experiences evoke powerful emotions, strongly felt and motivating before thinking ever begins. The thoughts we entertain following the bursts of emotion magnifies or diminishes the original hurt, anger and sorrow. We are primed for action.
Biological programming insists we respond to fear, unfairness, and loss. The emotions warn the body that something isn’t right and we need to act—NOW.
The motivational system is functional. The emotions proceeded conscious thought in the evolutionary development of our mind. We are surrounded by living organisms that survive---and even flourish—without conscious thought. Our well-being requires a familiarity with the emotions. A complex system—such as emotions—developed because of the strong serviceable to survival. The emotional system signals good, bad, and dangerous. Many emotional responses are innate—a baby feels hungry and cries. But with learning, we associate things, places and people with the past; when the past was chaotic, present perceptions will be chaotic. The feelings of normal interaction will be littered with bursts of emotions breaking through and interrupting bonds.
The larger the emotional reaction, the more important we place value in the trigger, evaluating the trigger as a threat (or benefit) to well-being. A person who suffered in childhood typically will experiences powerful emotions in adulthood, traumatic memories imprints associations of fear with relationships, always guarding for the next bout with chaotic connections. For some, the any feelings of closeness spark fears of abandonment.
A dreadful pattern disrupts the lives of those with painful past. The powerful emotions, not chosen, influence thoughts, the thoughts influence behavior, and the behavior influences environments. Many fears become reality because the stresses these fears place on new relationships often overwhelm the relationship; the emotions become self-fulfilling prophecies. A person’s fear of closeness prevents intimacy from developing. The victim of a painful past often acts in ways that inhibit closeness in budding new relationships. Each failed relationship perpetuates the painful legacy, confirming the belief that relationships are painful. The fear motivates behaviors that alienate and attack. The partner, the target of attack, must protect their own ego, engaging in protective defensive reactions, further igniting the anxiety. All the moving pieces—reactions, emotions and reactions to emotions—expand in a dynamic action loop until the relationship is destroyed. The new loss smolders in memories, combining with the past, increasing vigilance for hurtful threats.
Aaron T. Beck in his classic book Love is Never Enough wrote: If our thinking is straightforward and clear, we are better equipped to reach these goals. If it is bogged down by distorted symbolic meanings, illogical reasoning, and erroneous interpretations, we become in effect deaf and blind. Stumbling along without clear sense of where we are going or what we are doing, we are destined to hurt ourselves and others. As we misjudge and miscommunicate, we inflict pain on both ourselves and our mates and, in turn, bear the brunt of painful retaliations.
This kind of twisted thinking can be untangled by applying a higher order of reasoning.
We need a repertoire of resources to face the challenges of crumbling relationships. The impending doom magnifies emotions and dims creative thought. Young couples, unaware of the accumulating small hurts, miss opportunities to intervene preventing the destruction of trust. The hope accompanying new relationships blinds the lovers. As the relationship progresses, they neglect the small things that build. As two people become more invested, they also become more dependent--old fears resurface.
The strongly felt emotions spur thoughts—thoughts directed to explain the emotion. The mind dredges up the past to explain the present. The young couple, just emerging from love blindness, is unprepared for the emotional road ahead. The mounting frustrations, hurt, and unrest taint new interactions. Underneath the conversations lies a destructive hidden theme: you don’t love me. The returning ache of the childhood victim is felt and fear invades the soul. Disagreements remain unresolved because we replace meaningful discussion with the poison of defensiveness. Love and intimacy is never found here.
When we task a relationship to relieve painful relics of the past, we become frustrated, expecting too much, we drive those that care away. The process has begun. We feel it again. Our joy is replaced with fear, magnifying anxiety, and motivating attempts of control. Overloaded emotions stimulate hysterical responses—even to neutral triggers, we jump. The partner we hoped to fulfill needs now we unconsciously treat as a threat. The slightest word, facial expression, or gesture triggers powerful emotions. Our dear partner, once loved, has transformed into the enemy. If we don’t notice the signs of deterioration early, the damage may be irreparable.
There is hope. We can untangle relationship-destroying patterns when we recognize patterns early. With recognition, we can change directions to avoid the familiar relationship-destroying conversations. Healthy changes require knowledge, skill, and empathy; but most importantly—patience. Strong emotions, unfitting to the experience, become embed deeply in the fabric of the relationship. Quick solutions to break long existing patterns seldom work. Reconstructing a broken relationship requires more than stumbling through a new relationship technique.
Relationships can be healed. We can be resurrected from the depths of sorrow. Broken relationships require a healing atmosphere. We must confront the automatic responses and emotional reactions together with our partner. Relationship friendly skills must be invited to interactions. Mastering skills of compromising, cooperating and following through with joint decisions requires patience, attentiveness and compassion. We must forgive partners for their flaws. All partners are imperfect. Flaws are easily exploitable; we must avoid escaping personal responsibility because of a partner’s peculiarities. Compassion must be displayed in our words and felt in our hearts.
If we can’t take responsibility for our emotions, we will blame our partners for the internal disruptions. A partner may trigger emotions but not be the underlying cause—the cause often is much more complex. Emotional disruptions are a relationship problem not a partner problem. We must accept personal accountability for unhealthy behaviors, recognizing distorting labels and programmed emotional responses.
Over-time, positive interactions accumulate. As we respectfully work through disagreements, trust increases. Some problems are resolved; others we must continually face. When we approach the issues with patience and understanding, we find solutions. Our partner’s differences may annoy but we can artfully differentiate the problem and the person. We can integrate the individual differences without demanding change. As partners cultivate healthy skills of relating, they will find relief from the painful stings of the past.