We are all shaped by our past experiences and they make us what we are today. But how much of this is something that you have consciously chosen to be and how much is something you’ve just taken on, without questioning it?
Emotional wounds are what you get when as a child or later on in adult life, you come across actions, experiences or sweeping statements that hurt you, that make you change your perception of who you are and what you’re capable of doing. Often the action or the statement didn’t have the intention of hurting you. It was your interpretation of it that made it wounding.
Your parents never meant to hurt you
In childhood, who hasn’t been brushed off by a busy parent? Who hasn’t had the impression that, frankly, you weren’t that important? With mum, back from work, busy on the phone, cooking, taking care of everyday life, too busy to listen, to talk, to play, to cuddle? Maybe your mother was busy taking care of life so that you would have a place to live, food on the table, clean clothes to put on, access to education. So how come you blame your parents for having hurt you? They never meant to.
Children are excellent observers but poor interpreters
It is between what you observe and how you interpret it that the disconnect can happen. Imagine a boy in a shopping trolley at a supermarket with his father doing the weekly shopping. The boy’s happily talking to himself, observing the goods on the shelves, other shoppers, trying to grab hold of some of the items in the trolley that he can reach. Nothing unusual. Then the child says something to his father who doesn’t answer. The boy repeats what he said but there’s still no answer. He starts to look around but cannot see his father! A moment of panic, a feeling of abandonment! The boy just has the time to feel abandoned before he starts crying. Naturally, the father comes rushing back to the trolley, he was never far away, only around the corner of the aisle. But the boy couldn’t see him and wrongly believes that his father left him there, on his own.
Is this a reason for his father to develop a bad conscience for having left his child one small moment? Certainly not, but then he might. Is this a reason for the child to develop an abandonment complex? Whatever for? He was never abandoned; it only seemed like it to him. In a very brief instant he had the feeling of abandonment and once you’ve felt something, it’s really hard to make it go away or persuade yourselves that you didn’t feel it! Your subconscious stores this information as it stores all other information.
Occasions to berate yourself abound. You feel inadequate, unloved, unworthy or undeserving due to events that you sometimes can’t even remember. But the feelings stay on and as long as you hold on to these feelings, they will keep haunting you and they could prevent you from being and doing what you want.
Misinterpretations can have dire consequences
These feelings are actually self-enforcing: if you go through life with a feeling of abandonment, you will probably experience abandonment because you’ll be projecting your expectations on to all your experiences and only be aware of the ones that confirm your feelings: you are abandoned! Any other experience that doesn’t confirm your feelings could go unnoticed or be disregarded and explained away as a fluke accident. You might think that people who care for you and don’t abandon you are in the wrong: either they’ve got something wrong about you or they’re bound to abandon you soon. This could play out in your relationships where you could go from one relationship after another ending in the same result: your partners leaving you. Your belief that you deserve to be abandoned will make this happen every time. If you feel that you don’t deserve attention, you’ll project this onto everybody you meet and they will gratify you by showing that very clearly to you.
It is not only in relationships that these “misunderstandings” can occur. Think of a moment when you were at school. Were you required to recite a poem? Do maths at the blackboard, in front of everybody? How well did it go? Did you remember your poem? Your equations? If you didn’t, this could have created some challenges in your career. You could be left with the feeling that you don’t perform well under pressure which would make you avoid high-powered jobs! If you couldn’t remember your poem, maybe you don’t trust yourself to speak in public and find yourself held back in your career because unwilling or unable to speak in public. When attempting to speak in front of people, you could actually self-sabotage, waiting for the moment where your memory will default and sure enough, it will! If by some miracle it didn’t, you would be able to explain this away as some stroke of chance! It wouldn’t necessarily be enough to change your core belief that you’re unable to speak in public. If you suffer from low self-esteem, this incident where your memory didn’t default will be quickly forgotten because the instances where your memory did default would be overwhelming. It’s very difficult to change these core beliefs particularly if you’re unaware of them.
We are hardwired for integrity
When something hurtful happens to you and that you start believing that this happened because you did something wrong or that you are somehow unworthy, deficient or lacking in something, you then go on to explore your world for other instances that can confirm this opinion. You spend your time collecting evidence to prove your unworthiness and ignore all the evidence to the contrary. This is because you’ve got a deep desire for integrity. It is distressing for you when your thoughts, feelings and actions are not in accordance with each other. Imagine you’re a smoker. You know that smoking can cause cancer yet you find it difficult to stop smoking. For you to bring your thoughts, feelings and actions into alignment, you’ll have to either change your actions or change your beliefs around them. Anything else will make you ill at ease.
The way to cure is through awareness
Sometimes you have got a clear picture of what it is that’s holding you back. You distinctly remember a misfortunate incident, maybe this still makes you cringe! At other times, you have got no clue as to why you self-sabotage every time the same situation arises as in the example with relationships. So how do you find out what’s blocking you? A sure sign that you have got an issue with something is when things get on your nerves! So to increase awareness, you have to start noticing when you get upset with other people for what they do or for what they are. You have to ask yourself why you find the situation so upsetting. Why it is triggering you. When you find the reason why something’s getting on your nerves, you can then explore, perhaps even journal about how it makes you feel. When you’ve identified the feelings, it’s all the easier to remember the situations where the same feelings were present.
Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional
You cannot go through life without feeling pain. Of course you’re going to be hurt especially by people who love you but also by circumstances. Maybe you didn’t get into the university of your dreams, maybe you were passed over for promotion and somebody you think inferior was preferred, maybe you were slighted in love! Occasions for emotional wounds abound. This is however no reason for long-term suffering. When fate deals you a blow it could be an opportunity for you to start the negative self-talk, to buy into the should haves, the would haves and if onlys. This is what brings on the suffering. It is largely self-inflicted. If you could just accept the hurt, accept the blow, feel the feelings and then move on, wiser for the experience and if you had any influence over it, more confident of success the next time. But sometimes you choose to feel the fear… and then stay there.
We are thinkers so we can change our thoughts
When you’ve been hurt, you don’t smart under the emotions that you’ve accepted. You suffer from the thoughts you’ve had around the experience. The good news is that as you are the thinker, you can change the thoughts! But what you often choose to do is to go over and over the same thoughts, thus enforcing their power over you till you are no longer feeling the hurt but your anger and frustrations around it. What you could do instead is to try to see the incident from a totally different angle.
Imagine you were walking on the pavement in a busy street and caught sight of your best friend on the opposite side! You’d call out to her and perhaps wave your arms. She however barely gave a glance in your direction, just catching your eyes for a brief instant and then walked on without as much as a smile! You’d be left standing, stunned by the slight, immediately get your phone out and call her. You’d see her take out her phone, look at it and then let it ring…. Imaging your thoughts racing to catch up with your feelings!
Shift your thoughts
There could be any number of explanations to this sort of behaviour: your friend could not have put on her contact lenses and therefore not have seen you! She could not have answered your call because she was mentally rehearsing her upcoming presentation just minutes away, as she made her way to work. It is of course also entirely possible that your friend was dismissive of you, neglectful and ill-intentioned but why is it you sometimes choose the worst interpretation? It’s your own fears you let speak, it’s your own lack of confidence that plays tricks with your thoughts and lets you feel the rejection, the abandonment or the heartbreak that your experiences have pruned you for. This is how your emotional wounds become self-enforcing: you have prepared a fertile soil for them to take root but with a bit of training, you can change how you react to and interpret your environment. So next time your thoughts want to take you into a place of suffering, stop, review your thoughts, argue with the interpretation and then offer another, more soothing, one.
Feelings are always true
If you’re suffering from low self-esteem due to past hurts, you could have a tendency to interpret non-critical comments as critical. You could have developed a mindset that finds it difficult to deal with failure, seeing not only a setback in it but proof that you’re doomed to fail and that there’s nothing you can do to change this because you’ve identified with being a person who fails. This is however far from being true! People with high self-esteem treat failure as a temporary setback that in no way affects how they feel about themselves. They see it justly for what it is: a learning experience! Faced with a setback, they ask themselves: “Why did I not succeed? What are the causes of this setback? Are they due to something I did or are they due to outside circumstances? How can I change my actions, my decisions or outside circumstances to secure success next time?”. They don’t view themselves as faulty. They might have made faulty decisions or taken inadequate action, but they don’t define themselves though this. In other terms, they take a step back and view the situation with fresh eyes, avoiding identifying with it. This is something that you can train yourself to do. When tempted to feel defeated by a situation or a person, turn the table around and have a look at it from exactly the opposite angle. Your feelings are always true but maybe you put the wrong interpretation on the circumstances that provoked them.
Learn to control what you can and cope with what you can’t
If you get into the habit of cultivating your experiences as a learning opportunity, feelings of hurt won’t be able to take hold of you. Let’s take the example of a friend ignoring you: if she’s really ignoring you and it’s not “just” your misinterpretation of her actions that are the cause, then have a look at why she would be ignoring you. Have you been negligent towards her? Have you slighted her? Let her know that she wasn’t important to you? In other terms, can you at all be responsible for the situation? If you’re uncertain, ask her! No better way of knowing than by asking. If she WAS wearing her contact lenses and had no presentation to rehearse, if you had done nothing to hurt her, then indeed the reason for her ignoring you would lie with her! It would be outside your power and influence. There would be nothing you could do to change it so there would be no need to overthink the incident. All you could do would be to feel the hurt and the disappointment. Instead of drowning your hurt in overeating or binge television watching, sit down and feel the feelings, accept your loss of a friend and then learn from the experience. If you had done nothing wrong then the fault must be with her. Does that mean you’re unable to choose your friends wisely? Not at all. It means that this time, you’d chosen unwisely. Perhaps you were feeling lonely, perhaps this person represented something you wanted, perhaps she was convenient…. There could be many reasons why you chose to befriend this person who turned out not to be worthy of your esteem, but none of these reasons can have a hold over you if you examine them and learn from them. If you always choose friends that are unworthy of your trust then you’ve got a pattern! This pattern will point you towards your emotional wound!
Mindset over matter
If you get used to seeing life as a journey and not concentrating on the destination, you can treat everything as a learning experience. If you’re suffering from low self-esteem, you’re likely to have a fixed mindset. This is a mindset where there’s only one way of doing things, one way of interpreting things, one way of succeeding, and everything that doesn’t live up to that qualifies as a failure. In other words, you’ve got your eyes fixed on the destination, let’s say being an inspiring public speaker, and as long as you’re not THE best public speaker, getting the most applause from the biggest of audiences, you think you’re a failure. But when you think of it, what would happen if pianists refused to play the piano before they knew that they were the best? Not many pianos would get played! So please don’t let your emotional wounds run your life! You cannot be defined by what happened in the past. Use your emotional wounds to question your beliefs, feel free to operate the changes that need to be made and then choose the direction you want to take in your life. You can always start with baby steps.