Compassion with the Past
Working Through Traumatic Pasts
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | August 2018 (edited November 14, 2021)
Kindly embracing our hurtful past to invite healing, and begin a healthy new life with intimacy and love.
Our histories are little devils, creeping into the present, wreaking havoc and then slipping back into the shadows. The most significant marks from our pasts are from important relationships. We are social animals. We need others for well-being. So, when past relationships have hurt, the trauma remains, integrating into our emotional lives, warning and alerting to possible painful repeats. New relationships, glorious as they may be, often ignite fears that the aches of the past will replay in the present. Pain (physical or social) motivates changes. We adjust behavior.
We desperately seek to cease the pain, initiate healing and prevent reoccurring harm. Social pain, the sharp agony of rejection, loneliness, or shame, leaves deep scars. Fear of these social maladies demands protective measures. New relationships, following the heartbreak and abuse of the past, must contend with the painful memories and adapted drives to protect. When similar events are encountered, emotions jump to action—fears demand defenses, and we build protective walls around the heart.
Emotional Arousal and Misinterpretations
When emotionally aroused, we easily misinterpret the origin of the disruption. We overlook the fears and focus on a present trigger, blaming partners and situations for our off-kilter interpretations. When opportunity for new love crosses our path, we momentarily bask in the warmth of security, certain that this time will be different, only to panic once vulnerability surfaces. The possibility of rejection disrupts, blinding us to obvious signs of acceptance and loyalty.
Our over-active protections intervene, spoiling the joy—childhood fears resurface, and past pains return. Fear and love aren’t healthy traveling companions. Feelings of closeness often uncover the more sinister feelings of fear. The fearful’s relationship behaviors shift from bonding to protecting, openness to secretive, from accepting to manipulative. Our fears become self-fulfilling.
Excessive Relationship Fears Damages Closeness
Childhood fears linger disrupting hopes, dreams and security. While recognizing the fear is essential, recognition alone doesn’t heal wounds. Emotions connected to the past are learned, bridges forged, and triggers remembered. The igniting of emotion is not a consciously chosen response; it’s automatic—a protective evolutionary creation.
We can’t turn fears on and off with willpower. Emotional reactions occur first, before cognitive functions kick in. A trigger sends chemicals surging through the body, only then to alert the mind. We often, instead of evaluating the validity of the trigger, seek to justify the emotion, explaining reactions as legitimate. Some feelings aren’t appropriately matched with the experience.
Our success at connections relies on appropriate action, correctly identifying when a feeling alerts of real danger and when a feeling is an unhelpful relic from the past.
Emotions connected to the past are learned, bridges forged, and triggers remembered.
Relics are stubborn, holding on after their original purpose has faded. Those pesky emotions, ignited by an extremely sensitive warning system, may follow us for a lifetime.
Our task is to identify unhelpful emotions, work through them and properly act in a way that builds a better relationship (see Emotional Intimacy). Our healing is delayed, with each explosive episode, hurting feelings, damaging trust, and recreating the agonies of the past (see Relationship Drama). We can’t keep destroying relationships, hoping a prince (or princess) charming will save us from this torturous cycle of destruction.
This is a difficult undertaking; we need help to navigate the unfamiliar halls of connection. Professional help, close friends, and a gentle understanding partner play important roles in changing the damaging relationship cycles haunting our lives. Poor relationship skills often limit our choices for partners; we typically default to people beset with their own relationship incompetencies. We hope that the similar shortcomings would facilitate mutual understanding, excusing each other’s relationship clumsiness; but too often this isn’t the case.
The Harmful Practice of Blaming
Instead, each other’s weaknesses become easy targets for blame, blasting convenient culprits that provide ready-made justifications, we need to stop ignoring our faults that menacingly intrude on intimacy. Some partners help; others hinder. We all have strengths and weaknesses. We all have limitations. When a partner lacks necessary emotional resources, our pains ignite their pains. The better we can manage our discomfort, the less we demand a partner to save us. Perhaps, they need us more than we need them. We can’t expect a partner to do all the healing work for us.
Partners can support or interfere with the healing process. We must distinguish between personal responsibility and partner’s responsibility, being honest with ourselves, realizing our partner is not a terrible person; they struggle too, feeling real emotions, haunted by their own traumatizing histories. They need support too. If we constantly struggle with our demons to survive, we limit energy available to love and connect with the lover we have chosen.
We naturally seek solutions; but before activating a fix, we must correctly identify the problem. We are masterful fault finders. But identifying clear causes to complex relationship problems is tenuous at best. Our subjective evaluation of relationship problems protects our self-esteem by dodging critical information. We struggle in relationships because of complex mixtures of past and present, other and self. Complexity of cause amplifies the difficult to correctly find the causes that need fixing. Fault finding arguments cloud the issue, leading away from productive discussions.
As we stumble through this maze and become familiar with the associate emotions and reactions, we can intervene in the cycle, drawing upon behaviors that improve the relationship. our histories will remain, the past never disappears—only fades in importance. We will occasionally slip into old routines, but with mindful attention, our emotional maturity and social awareness grow; and love and life are enriched with all the beauties we have missed.
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