After some strong realizations about what really is the strength and foundation of my relationship with Kristen, I’ve been thinking a lot about healing past wounds, especially in terms of former lovers and broken hearts.
I often notice some sort of snag or conflict come up between Kristen and I, and using those things I mentioned are the super strong foundations of our relationship, we can usually talk through it, understand where we’re both coming from, and explain how we got there.
My part of that often looks like this: “You did x, and x is very familiar to me because in my past relationship x had this kind of role and did this kind of damage to me, so it’s really hard for me when you do x, because I feel triggered and panicked.”
Another important part of this is: it’s pretty likely that she wasn’t intentionally doing x, or at least she certainly didn’t mean to hurt me; I do keep that in mind. Probably it was a by-product of her attempting to do something else. And usually she can express that explanation and I can hear her and I don’t get mad at her for doing it, generally I understand what she was trying to do.
But somehow I am still stuck in this past relationship, this past me, where that feeling was true and x meant something specific and my reaction is to PANIC. And I am starting to ask myself: is that happening in this relationship, right now? No, usually it isn’t. That is something else, that is in my past, that is an old wound that this new thing is pulling on, but it’s not the same wound. I am not becoming re-wounded there. I am not at danger of falling back into that wound.
So. Clearly, I need to “let go” of that old reaction. But how does one do that? How do you let something go when it feels like it’s so fucking hard-wired into the way my brain works? How do I not be scared and feel triggered and panicked when these things come back up?
This is what I’ve been contemplating lately, as things between Kristen and I are improving after another brief panic. One of the things about relationships that I deeply believe, indeed one of the POINTS of being in an intimate, loving, romantic, sexual relationship, is that they teach you things about yourself that you perhaps wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to learn, and if they are strong and founded and good, they also can be the space in which you have enough support to actually practice the growing, someone who is patient with you and who recognizes how hard you’re working to rewire yourself, who can gently remind you when you’re falling back into old patterns, and who can support you and encourage you as you try on new ones. Plus, they provide endless opportunities to use those new patterns, since conflict and difficulty and triggers from old broken hearts come up in relationship all the time. Isn’t that lucky!
I think what I’m talking about, in this question of “how do I let go,” is becoming more aware, becoming more mindful of what triggers what and what means what, especially in my relationship. I’m tired of all these old ghosts coming up. I have done a shit-ton of work to put these ghosts to rest, but the pathways in my brain are still carved out in many ways.
So I guess it kind of looks like this:
- I have a reaction to something that’s happening in my relationship (usually a negative, bad, “unreasonable” emotional reaction)
- I realize where my reaction is coming from (usually a past lover, wound, broken heart)
- Let go of the old reaction, be in the present (instead of gripping onto and explaining myself through the past). How to do that?
- Well first, I need to be able to release my grip on #2, to be able to ask myself, How did I come to this reaction? Where did it come from, and how did it serve me? What remains unacknowledged about this old wound that means I still think I need this protection? Can I heal that wound and know I no longer need that protection? What is asking me for acceptance?
- Then, I need to be in the present. I’ve noticed myself grasping at these old stories, justifying my high emotions, so much that I am not sitting with what is. So I must learn to ask myself: What is happening now? Is this old pattern that I fear actually present?
- After letting go of that old reaction, I can have a reaction to what’s happening now, with Kristen, with me, and aim, as always, to respond and react with lovingkindness and care and awareness and openness and love.
That seems fairly straightforward, actually. I think that is possible.
I spoke with a lovely friend and mentor recently about this exact problem, and she suggested a fairly simple rephrasing of relationship needs. I think that too will help in conquering this “how to let go” question. For example, if I notice this process happening, and get to step #2, realizing that I’m being triggered because it’s relating to a past hurt of mine, if I go on to say, “Okay, I need you to not be x like my ex,” that brings a lot of baggage into the conversation, a lot of layers and complicated past ghosts and old wounds and old ways of working and whoa suddenly it’s a whole lot more than just me and my beautiful girlfriend trying to talk through a little snag in communication or interaction.
Let me be a little more specific for this example, I think it’ll make more sense that way.
So one of the things that triggers me heavily is when someone in a relationship with me is withholding. It reminds me of my former lesbian bed death relationship, among others, and I get panicked that I’ll never again know what’s happening in her head and will spend years trying and it will eat me up. Ahem.
But this plays on other ways I work too, especially in that I am a very insightful, observant person who often knows what’s going on with another person’s emotional landscape even better than they do (especially if they aren’t too self-aware), and I have the tendency to constantly check in with them (silently, emotionally) to see where they’re at. If they aren’t telling me where they’re at, and in fact are deliberately putting up a wall and withholding that information, saying “I’m fine,” or “I don’t want to talk about it,” when I ask, I tend to assume something is brewing and will bubble up and explode later, which makes me way anxious.
I know, this is a totally unique situation that nobody else has ever been in, right? Nobody else has this problem, ever.
So, instead of having the reaction of “I need you to not be withholding like my ex!” I can rephrase it to something like, “it’s really important for me to know what’s going on with your mental/emotional landscape.” Not that we have to spend hours processing that, but I can briefly explain why I need that, and if she can just say, “oh, I’m feeling anxious about work, but I don’t want to talk about it,” that’s enough. Some broad-stroke explanation of what “that feeling” is that I am reading on her face but she’s not expressing.
Knowing what is going on with someone else’s emotional landscape one of my basic relationship needs, in fact! And in some ways it has nothing to do with my ex, it has to do with ME. It just reminds me of a time when this basic relationship need wasn’t met (and was probably taken advantage of), and what’s important is that the need be acknowledged and get met, not that there was a time in my past when it wasn’t met. (I mean, that’s important too, but I have done enough healing to hopefully not stick a rock in that wound to keep it open.)
Whew. That feels like a lot, but it feels like a relief, and like I’ve hit on something important.
One of the things about the ways that I work, and the ways I grow and change and get over capitol-i Issues that plague me, is that generally, as soon as I can articulate what’s going on for me and write—that’s the key here, WRITE—out a possible solution, or at least a path to try, I often find that I can rewire myself through that process. By time I articulate it, by time I name it and label it and say OH that’s what’s going on, and OH here’s what I can do to do that differently, those skills and awareness have kind of already integrated. This isn’t a 100%-true-always theory, but I have noticed that this tends to be true, and that too feels like a relief.
Okay so: how about y’all? How have you addressed this problem of past hurts in your current relationships? Any tips for me? Any tricks to keeping your own mindfulness and awareness up while dealing with things that are triggering and hard? Anything I might be missing here? Does this make sense? Can you relate to it? Or does it seem like I’m way off base?
PS: A teeny colophon note: I’ve been making some changes to this site’s sidebar and structure in general. A little bitta spring cleaning, if you will. And as such, the category formerly known as SSU has been renamed Critical Theory. It might change again, there are an awful lot of C categories over there in the list, but that works for now. Do not be alarmed, it’s still there.
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