Sometimes it’s nice the way feelings can magnetize the past. Looking out at sun dappled mornings can easily put me right back to when my children were little, playing out in the yard, and for moments I feel like it was yesterday not decades ago.
And certain smells, or breezes or sounds easily transport me to days at the beach although, alas, I haven’t yet been there this summer except to the Adriatic which was beautiful, and clear but way too cold to go in.
But then there are times that it’s not at all lovely or benign, the way feelings can so easily magnetize earlier times, or behaviors. Often when this happens we’re not even aware that the present is magnetizing the past; what we may be aware of is that our reactions are overblown, our hurt or our anger, or our behavior doesn’t quite make sense in the current situation.
A while ago I worked with a man who for years had been trying to convince his wife that her flea market purchases were out of control. Her bags of “do dads” filled two spare bedrooms, and her purchases continued.
He clearly and aggressively told me the obvious: her “shopping and hoarding” behavior was irrational. She had gotten worse since their youngest child went to college. I could understand and sympathize with his frustration but I didn’t understand why this obviously intelligent man had spent years arguing in a way that had no effect. At work, high placed in a large corporation, this man solved seemingly unsolvable personnel problems.
What would he do if an employee described this to him? I asked. He shot back, “I’d tell him to decide what he could live with, to set limits, and to stop trying to change the other person.” His answer was so quick that both of us laughed. What wasn’t at all laughable was his struggle to wrestle with the powerlessness the situation with his wife evoked in him.
Only once he identified this in terms of past situations when he was young and really was powerless did he know that he was fighting against that old feeling as much or more than he was fighting against his wife’s behavior. In part he was fighting fiercely to keep the feeling at bay.
If he could control his wife’s behavior, he would be able to avoid something painful inside. Sometimes that works. But anyone who has tried to control someone else knows how energy draining and useless it usually is.
It’s often puzzling to see that the way the past shows up in the present is through the similarity of a feeling we’re trying to avoid.
We set out to express what seems to be a seemingly small hurt, and pretty soon are awash in what seems to be way more pain and blame than we knew we had stored; or we start out expressing rational anger at something particular and pretty soon are screaming.
Often it’s not even that the present and past situations are similar; it’s that a feeling that we didn’t even know we had gets triggered, a feeling that was important and buried.
Sometimes people speak as though the healthiest people are always “rational” but there’s really little rational about pretending that emotions aren’t powerful.
As much as in any other way, we carry the past with us through our responses, and usually we’re healthier and feel better if we can get to where we have a choice in how to respond rather than just relying on the old bag of tricks we picked up when we were children.