Imagine that tied to your leg is a ball and chain that you drag with you wherever you go. The ball contains past experiences of emotional loss, hurt or trauma. Perhaps, there is the sibling who was jealous of you and treated you poorly, mother or father who rejected the way of being most natural to you, schoolmates who bullied you, death of a loved one, or authority figures in charge of your development and care who physically, emotionally or sexually abused you.
You cannot freely move around. Everywhere you go, the hurt and psychological issues around the injurious event goes with you influencing your perception and behavior. That’s the nature of emotional injuries; if we do not heal them, they will be tied to our identity and self-worth forever.
An emotional injury can be caused from a range of events that include chronic humiliation and embarrassment, physical or emotional abandonment by caretakers, bullying by family members or schoolmates, or physical or sexual abuse. An emotional injury weakens our sense of self and individuality, lowers self-worth, approval, and lovability and ill-equips us to adequately cope with stressful circumstances and to solve problems.
Damage to our sense of self has negative effects on future health and on our work and relationship success (APA, Emotional Health). Too, the more emotional injuries that we carry around, the greater negative effect on our well being.
That we can adjust and carry on with our lives despite such emotional assaults is a testimony to the basic resilience of the human spirit. Nonetheless, our ability to set aside (the compartmentalization defense) traumatizing past experiences takes a physical, psychological, and spiritual toll on us. We can try to put away a psychological injury, as if it is a messy room that we close the door to and vow to clean out one day. But, the injury is still there in the background of our awareness and robbing us of precious energy that we could be using to create our lives anew.
We can drag that ball of wounds around with us for a lifetime, once we get used to carrying the load. But, it is not without debilitating effects on our vitality, self-esteem and health. There is an absolute link between emotional and physical health (Everyday Health; Harvard Health). Nerve connections between the mind and body control bodily functions, and consequently our overall health. What we think and feel affects the outpouring of endocrine hormones and chemicals that influences body function. Also, memories of our emotional injuries are stored in the brain and determine the types of experience that physically and mentally stress us.
Fatigue, anxiety, depression, digestive and sleep disturbances can result from emotional injuries that we have not worked through. The more energy we have that is tied up in unresolved emotional hurt, the less we have of it to work, play, and to creatively develop ourselves.
The Parasitic Nature of Emotional Wounds
We may try to forget our past emotional injuries through over work, food, alcohol, drugs, or sexual activity. But, present situations that even slightly resemble the issues that first caused us to suffer are bound to bring up the painful feelings we thought we had put away.
Unhealed emotional wounds act like parasites. Present day circumstances become a host for their release and self-expression. Take, for example Miriam. She was 8-years old, at the time. Miriam returned home from school for lunch after the morning session. But, for a reason she could not recall, she did not want to go back for the afternoon class. Her mother had thought she was long gone, until she found Miriam sitting on the front doorstep. Rather than to explore why Miriam did not want to return to school, Miriam’s mother marched her three blocks back to class, slapping her all of the way. She threw open the classroom door and shoved Miriam inside. Tears and mucus from her nose was running down Miriam’s face. The teacher gently took Miriam’s hand and guided her to her chair, where Miriam sat slumped in her seat with head down and sobbing and doing all she could to avoid the gaze of her classmates.
Miriam had thought she put away this emotional injury for good. She intellectualizedher hurt by telling herself that her mother had a very stressful life and couldn’t do any better. For the most part, this defensive maneuver worked unless something occurred that awakened the wound into the here and now.
While shopping, Miriam saw a mother aggressively hitting her 5-year-old child. The child was staring at the onlookers while her mother was beating her. Miriam was mortified. The pain and humiliation in the child’s face was more than Miriam could bear. She marched over to the mother and while grabbing her arm told her that she would call the police if she did not stop beating her child. Miriam was so traumatized by the situation that it prompted her to enter into therapy, where she reconnected to the humiliation and embarrassment she felt that day in school. Therapy helped Miriam to become aware of the many ways she curbed her enthusiasm for living. She chose work, relationships, and activities that minimized the chance for bringing embarrassment to her.
We are meant to use the experiences that bring old emotional wounds to the surface toward our emotional and spiritual health. Rather than attribute our strong reactions and sensitivities to an upset stomach or a bad day, as did Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ classic book A Christmas Carol, we have to honor these situations that bring out our emotional pain and trauma. They are seeking to be expressed and psychologically worked through.
Get Into A Healing Identity: Release the Ball and Chain
To overcome emotional injury, we first have to embrace a healing identity. To heal means that we have to face, reconcile and settle the experiences that traumatized us so we can start creatively developing ourselves and solving problems rather than let the fears and concerns tied up in that past injury dictate who we are and what we can achieve in life.
A healing versus victim mentality encourages us to face our pain, to go back to what happened that hurt us so deeply. Only by letting ourselves fully feel the past hurt will we be able to reconcile what happened to us. We don’t have lock up our emotional injuries. Instead, we must bring them forward and integrate them with who we are now and where we want to go. We have to become aware of how the emotional injury played out in our lives, so we can begin to makeconscious choices. Awareness is how we take the power out of those painful memories. Miriam had to see how much she inhibited herself to avoid being humiliated ever again. Once she did, she began to take risks and make decisions that didn’t reinforce the fears tied up with her emotional injury. As she began to see herself in new ways, and strengthen her sense of self, the power of the past began to weaken. It’s like she took out a big pair of garden shears and cut the ball and chain away from her.
Now, it’s your turn. Are you ready to take out the garden shears and cut that ball of wounds away from you? Let the steps that follow guide you in this process.
- Get into a healing rather than a victim-mentality by acknowledging the emotional injury that you have been carrying around.
- Examine the emotional injury, through the following questions. a). How has this emotional injury affected my health, success and relationships? b). How has this emotional injury played out in my life? What decisions have I made that reinforce the fears this injury caused me? c). How has this emotional injury weakened my self-love and strength of my identity?
- You have insight into the effects of the emotional injury. Now, you have to start to make decisions that weaken its power over you. For Miriam, she started to take risks on the job and in relationship. She began to speak up more in team-building meetings, despite her initial embarrassment. Also, she started to act more playful with her husband, which he loved.
I know it doesn’t feel good to return to experiences that once hurt us. It’s understandable that we put on defensive armor so we don’t have to re-experience painful feelings. But, if we desire true happiness, the type of happiness that comes from engaging with ourselves and life fully, creatively, and authentically, we have to face our emotional wounds and find a way to integrate their meanings into the entirety of our lives.