When an emotion feels too overwhelming in the present...it’s probably about the past.
Our most difficult emotions, the ones that feel too big to handle usually have nothing to do with what is going on in the present moment.
Rather, the present situation often triggers memories, albeit sometimes unconscious, of times when we felt overwhelmed and were not neurologically equipped to process or manage the situation. This is why a seemingly innocuous off-handed remark from a partner may send us reeling, feeling like we are 7 years old and being dismissed or criticized by a caregiver.
As children, we are not equipped to rationalize and think, “This has more to do with dad having a bad day than it does with something being wrong with me.” What we process is, “There must be something wrong with me, otherwise dad wouldn’t have yelled at me for being too excited.”
Children are developmentally egocentric, meaning that children internalize all situations from a perspective that it was caused by them or has something to do with them.
When mom threatens repeatedly to leave, fears of abandonment are evoked in the child. Often there is a sense of “if I were important or better than mom would stay.”
I was speaking with a woman who was telling me about her tendency to be reserved in meetings at work. She was incredibly competent, articulate, and intelligent. She described a sense of “shutting down” when conflict would arise during a meeting. Her superior had a tendency to invalidate the ideas (and emotions) of her colleagues. Ideas that did not stem from the boss were frequently shut down. The woman described a very physical reaction that would take place about half way through these meetings.
She described a “fog” coming over her. There was a sense of paralysis, of withdrawaling from the conversation, increased difficulty in focusing, and tension in her shoulders and behind her eyes. She would leave these meetings feeling drained and frustrated. She came to me stating, “I don’t understand what happens. It’s like I shutdown.”
We dug a little deeper and I asked about her family dynamics around the dinner table. She described a father who dominated conversation and a mother who would be repeatedly dismissed by the father when describing the happenings of her day. The woman also had a brother. She described dinner at her house as “a race to see who could be heard first.” She shared that she, like her mother, was rarely asked about the happenings of her day. When trying to share her opinions on relevant topics, she frequently felt dismissed or invalidated. Overtime, she began to withdrawal. She dreaded family dinners. She never shared what was going on in her life because she did not feel that her family was interested.
When she was a young adult, her father confronted her stating, “We never know what’s going on with you.” Rather than feeling defensive, she internalized this as a deeper problem within herself. She felt like she had “intimacy issues” and rarely “let people in.”
Fast-forward to present day, and I ask her how frequently the meetings she finds herself in feel like a re-enactment of the family dinner table when she was 12.
The realization hit her like a ton of bricks. “That’s EXACTLY what it feels like,” she said.
Our brains don’t know the age of our emotions, and when left unattended we can become triggered to process things from the unhealed child’s perspective.
So...how do we change this?
Like most things, I think we have to start by noticing and getting curious. The next time you feel an overwhelming emotion, rather than our inclination to shut it down, see if you can first describe what you are feeling.
Where is the emotion coming from?
How are you physically experiencing it?
Does it feel familiar?
Is it a new emotion?
When have you felt this way before?
If you’ve felt it before, try to identify a specific time and set of circumstances, the farther back you can go to identify when you first experienced this sense, the better.
And when you find the age and circumstance in which this emotion was first evoked, remind yourself that you are in the present by stating,
“I am (name), I am (age) years old. I am not that ___ year old child anymore. I am (something you’re proud of), and I am okay.”
Sometimes it helps to imagine ourselves at the age in which we were in pain by shutting our eyes and envisioning our adult selves comforting that hurting child.
When we feel an emotion that seems overwhelming, chances are it is coming from the past.