Monday Musings… Scarred for Life
Life is going along tickety-boo, and then you see them in the grocery store. You’re introduced to someone new, and lo and behold, they have their name. You drive by a certain location and an avalanche of bad memories floods back into your consciousness. You're scrolling your social media feed and up pops a reminder that triggers old hurts.
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been tackling the topic of forgiveness. I discussed how it doesn’t do any good to hold on to previous hurts. You realize that you can’t waste your life pining for a better past. Perhaps you've come to peace with the hurt, and have laid it to rest. Or so you thought.
It’s amazing isn’t it, how you can think you’re ok, that you’ve moved past things. And then one day, as you're rounding the corner of life, you're hit with a puddle of painful memories of the past, splashed unexpectedly on your face by some chance encounter. Your brain goes into recognition mode, then recall, followed by full blown reaction in 3 seconds flat! The memories you thought you had processed and healed from, have flooded back. Why?!
Your mind can be a fascinating and yet troubling entity that functions somewhat like your iPhone. Think of all of the data stored on that handheld device. All of your search history, texts, photos, practically your whole life is recorded there, and accessible at any moment. Even if you’ve deleted things, that data is never really gone. Some tech savvy whiz kid could probably find anything you thought was erased in mere seconds. Your brain is like that too. Potentially everything you’ve ever experienced in your lifetime, is stored, waiting for the opportune time to pop back into your awareness. That's precisely why you can forgive, but not forget, even if you want to.
I'm sure that there are some memories you wish were gone forever. Maybe you've watched Men In Black and thought how cool (and helpful) it would be to have an electro bio-mechanical neural transmitting zero synapse repositioner, aka a Neuralyzer, that permanently erases the past. But alas, we don't have access to that secret weapon and so, we have to realize that we're all vulnerable to resurfaced memories.
Are you telling me that I'll always be haunted by certain memories? Well, the answer lies in understanding your emotional reactions to events. The more emotional you were at the time the memory was created, the more ingrained in your brain that memory will be.
Emotions are generated as a response to your experiences. They flow naturally from your interpretation of what's going on around you. You take in the information, and you think about what it means for you or about you, and that generates an emotion. The stronger the emotion you feel at the time, the more that memory is cemented in your mind.
Some of you may have been bullied as a child, or led a lonely existence never really fitting in. Some may have been rejected, betrayed, or been a victim of violence, or even sexual assault. When you feel unsafe, when you feel undervalued and unloved, emotional war wounds are created and stored deep down in your mental registry. And sometimes, all it takes is a small cue to bring that emotional memory to the forefront of your consciousness. You thought you had let it go, but BOOM, there it is! It feels like you're reliving it all over again.
I know that doesn’t sound like great news, especially if it is a deeply personal and painful memory, if you’ve suffered at length, or if you’ve spent time and money going to therapy working to ‘get over’ the trauma, or the distress, or the loss. But it does explain your reactions when you read that post, or see that person, or drive by that location. You experienced an emotional trigger.
The problem with a trigger is that it comes out of the blue, when you least expect it, and you react, instinctively, as if the Band-Aid protecting your wounds was ripped off, without your permission, and now its exposed to the air and stings like mad. And it’s in that instant, when you revert back to that time, to the trial or trauma, that old thought patterns flood right back, and say to yourself: “I thought I was over that!”
Here's how triggers work: the instant your senses detect a cue from the past, you start to feel warm, your heart begins to race, and what you thought you had let go of or buried rises to the surface, and the memory produces molten lava of emotion. A fight or flight response is immediately generated as your brain struggles with the memory, then tries to suppress it, heightening your emotional reaction even more. You desperately try to push that memory away again, but it boils over into fear, rage, self-doubt, or despair. You feel like you’re right back in that painful past scenario. And in your head, you’re screaming, get me out of here!!
Triggers threaten to throw you off course. Why? Because your mind recognizes that painful memory and doesn't want to re-experience it. Your thoughts are racing, facts you've logged are flooding back and emotions start to rise. Your emotions are trying to cope with the impact, and attempting to help you regain control.
When you're faced with an emotional trigger, the first thing to do is to pause and recognize that your perception is not based in the present reality; it's thrown you momentarily into the past. You have to tell yourself that whatever was done is not happening to you now. Don’t let your mind go and start thinking it's happening all over again. Bring your focus to the present, to what we call the here and now, not the there and then. It’s like a time magnet and your brain will want to pull you back into history. Don’t let it. If you do, you're giving that person or that event your power (which I talked about in an earlier blog). At one point in your history, you did feel helpless and the situation may have appeared hopeless, but you are no longer there. You are not a prisoner of your past.
Once you've reclaimed your mental position, and set your focus on the present, you've got to tackle the war with your emotions. You can tell yourself to stay grounded in the present, but your emotions are a whole other story. Your brain doesn't want to re-experience the painful memory. It's trying to protect you. But hard as you try, the fear, rage, disgust, whatever feelings were triggered, are fighting for your attention. So lean into them. Know that healing comes from feeling.
Recognize and name the emotions you are feeling, where they came from, and why they're there. Most of the time, the emotions stem from being exceptionally hard on yourself (the shoulda, woulda, couldas). Tell yourself, you can't go back in time, but acknowledge the hurt. Go ahead and validate the emotion – it makes me mad to see so and so. What suffering have they had? and then redirect your thoughts to be more positive and rational. But they can't hurt me anymore... So, don't deny your emotional reactions. Just don't drag them around for the long term.
When you thought you'd gotten over pain from your past only to have it flood back because of some random trigger, the key is to stay grounded in the present. Triggers will come, but they don't have to derail you. The goal in managing emotional triggers is to stabilize your emotions, not eliminate them. So, recognize the trigger, acknowledge the emotion, but then focus your attention on the gains you've made. On how far you have come in spite of the past. On the positives that you do have in your life right now. How you've actually become, or are trying to become, a better person because of the experience.
So, you may think that you are scarred for life from your experiences. And I'm here to tell you, that's true. The gaping wounds from those deep hurts need time to form scabs. Scabs can stay for a long time, but underneath, new cells are growing, until one day the scab falls off and you have shiny new skin. It's kind of miraculous when you think of it - how the body heals itself. Scars are a permanent reminder of that past injury. It's part of your story to tell when someone asks you how'd you get that scar? And what will you say? You'll talk about how you you didn't think the bleeding would stop, or you didn't think you'd survive. But you did! The scar is your tattoo of triumph.
Emotional wounds are no different - they are deep and they are painful, they scab over, and then, with time and perhaps treatment, they form a scar. It becomes part of your mental history. You may be emotionally triggered from time to time and the pain brought back to your awareness because of the depth of those scars, but let that be a reminder of the miraculous growth and healing that is taking place in you each day. That is how you find the power to not let the memories control you.
Dear readers, I am just like you, and have my fair share of scabs and scars that I wish I didn't have. But the reality is that they are a part of me. I know that I can be thrown off course by emotional triggers too. The key is to not deny my reaction, but rather to acknowledge it, and reevaluate it in a less threatening light. The song below really grounds me. It's like an anthem to my soul to remind me to be thankful for the scars. When I listen to this song, I belt out this line: "And I'm not who I was before. No, I don't have to fear anymore. " Maybe that's the refrain your heart needs to echo today, too!e"