You find the perfect love. You commit. Suddenly old painful feelings crop up. What can you do
“The snow is so beautiful,” said Lila when she sat down in my office
“Yes but why are you crying?” Tears streamed down her face even as she tried to smile.
Many people learn to wipe away tears and smile. Sometimes it seems that the more unhappy someone was as a child, the better she learned to do that. Put on a good face, kids are told.
Lila was running her hands over her lovely wavy hair, wet and glistening from the snow.
“The snow puts me right back to the first night Mick and I walked together. It had just started to snow, big beautiful flakes. He was walking me to my car but it was so wonderful, we just kept walking.
“Everything seemed magical. We felt so lucky to have met. You know how it is when exactly what you want happens, and you can’t believe it -- that’s how we felt.”
That meeting was five years ago, months after Lila’s first marriage ended in a heartbreaking divorce.
Lila and Mick married a year after they met. It seemed quick but, Lila said, why not “seize the moment, and live the dream.” She seemed to be living her dream when she got pregnant and gave birth to a beautiful baby girl who was now three years old. So why was she crying?
She was crying because MIck’s addiction to child pornography had recently come to light. Lila couldn’t help but fear for her daughter’s safety. Lila herself had been abused by her father as a child, and ironically her first marriage ended when she found out that her husband had abused his daughter from an earlier relationship.
“What’s the matter with me? How can I keep picking men like this? I thought I knew everything about Mick.”
And Mick knew everything about Lila. He knew all about her past, and he had never given any hint about his problem.
To be fair, it’s not that Mick was deliberately withholding information from Lila; he thought he had his “problem” under control, and it was the furthest thing from his mind when he met Lila. He later said his “weakness” resurfaced when the stress in his life contributed to his feeling that he didn’t have control.
Lila was confused, frightened and angry. She was confused about what to do; frightened for her daughter but mostly, she was angry at herself.
“How could I not have seen or intuited this?
“How could I have been so blind and stupid?
“For a second time! What’s wrong with me?”
She was much angrier at herself than at Mick. When I mentioned this, she looked at me with sad searching eyes. “He’s really hurting. I think he left things around for me to find out almost as a precaution. Can you believe that? He’s sick and he wants to get better. Mick is such a strong man usually but when I confronted him, he cried and begged me not to leave. How can I be angry at him?”
Lila was turning on herself with her anger and pain because that’s frequently what people do when they weren’t well taken care of as children. It’s ironic that when parents act irresponsibly, children often feel like they themselves must have done something wrong.
All her life, Lila had tried to be more and more perfect to get the love she needed. While she didn’t get that love, she did become very competent and successful. But she couldn’t unearth blind spots that she didn’t even know were there.
Most people don’t know their blind spots until the past oddly and mysteriously, it seems, shows up in the present.
How can you know if your past is in front instead of behind you?
- If your feelings seem to be in control of you
- If they are directing the action
- If they seem much bigger than the situation you are in -- you’ve had a disagreement with your husband and you’re screaming about divorce
Those may be signs that you are dealing with the past in the present.
What can you do?
- The most important, and the hardest, thing to do is to stand your feelings until you can calm down enough to get perspective.
- Exercising or engaging in some other practice that helps you expel some of your energy may help.
- Feelings are strong forces and while you are trying to tolerate the heightened energy, it can also help to journal or talk to someone to help you clarify what is going on.
People create strong inner pathways for handling basic feelings. Bringing these pathways to light is often what’s needed when the past invades the present.
To get the love she needed and deserved, Lila needed to revisit what had happened to her as a child and the feelings she had buried. But it wasn’t just information she needed, it was a new way of handling anger and pain.
Lila was usually willing to turn anger and pain against herself; she would look for what she had done wrong to cause any unpleasant feeling or unpleasant situations. That made it harder for her to work on her real relationship problems.
Why go back to what was painful and frightening when one has lived beyond it?
The simplest answer is that if you haven’t digested the depth of what has gone on in your life, the past is likely to show up again in the present.
How this happens is something of a mystery.
Buried feelings seem to have magnetic force. A hidden force. Hurts we grew beyond without facing have a way of reappearing in our lives. Sometimes they have a way of showing up in awful behaviors that we ourselves hate but feel helpless to control. This may have been true of Mick.
Freud saw people as having a compulsion to repeat early life patterns of behavior, perhaps as a form of mastery or bringing things to consciousness. People often find the past facing them in a new form but the same old feelings are brought up: anger at oneself, feelings of not being good enough, or loved enough.
Happily, Lila and Mick’s story is changing as they are. They did separate but are now back together. In the time apart, Lila worked on feeling her pain and anger without automatically seeing herself as at fault. Ironically, blaming herself had always given her some sense of control but it blocked her from seeing other people’ weaknesses more clearly.
Mick also worked hard during their time apart, and committed to work on his own patterns of feelings and arousal. He wanted to do this for Lila and his daughter but also for himself.
Trying to resist the power of feelings can be like fighting against a rip tide in the ocean. We try to ignore or belittle the power by taking medication, drugs, or endlessly distracting ourselves. By doing that we may lesson our abilities to live up to the strengths of our natures.
You can’t always know that the past is resurfacing but if your feelings are overpowering, are leading you to snap decisions, if you keep facing the same old problem in new relationships, you may be caught up in the feeling equivalent of a rip tide. If you would like to discuss this, you can visit my website and get in touch with me.