How Do I Let Go of a Past Hurt?

March 11, 2010  |  journal entries

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:

  1. I have a reaction to something that’s happening in my relationship (usually a negative, bad, “unreasonable” emotional reaction)
  2. I realize where my reaction is coming from (usually a past lover, wound, broken heart)
  3. Let go of the old reaction, be in the present (instead of gripping onto and explaining myself through the past). How to do that?
    1. 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?
    2. 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?
  4. 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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17 Comments


  1. I have very much this same issue; mostly, for me, it's about being openly supported and validated. It's a basic relationship need for me, and in the only other serious relationship I've ever had (that lasted over two years and ended in 2008) it was REALLY not met, to the extent that I felt pretty invisible to her. So now, I'm reeeeally sensitive to any situation in which I feel like maybe I'm being ignored or spoken over, even though it rarely comes up and when it does, it's not her *intent*, but more just thoughtless on her part, or maybe she's preoccupied with something else. So I tend to have highly emotional (and pretty unreasonable) reactions to situations that trigger that feeling of invisibility in me.

    I think you've hit on the main ways I deal with that trigger (and a few others, too). It's mostly just talking it through with myself before I bring it to her, because I've learned by now that bringing it to her in that highly emotional state just makes her withdraw and even get defensive. Which makes me feel even MORE invisible, so it turns into a huge overescalated situation that can take days to climb out of. But each time we do climb out of it I feel more solid and safe and sure that we can do this, that *I* can do this. And so I'm learning how to check in with mySELF first, to see what's going on. And when I bring it up with her, I'm learning how to say not "you're doing x and it's making me feel y" but rather, "I feel y and I think it's related to the fact that you're doing x, and I just wanted to let you know that, and check in with you to find out whether there's a particular reason you're doing x, and I'm also wondering whether maybe you can do z for me right now because I think it will help me not feel y." That's wordy, obviously, and I don't just blurt it all out like that, but it's just a way of communicating with her what my feelings and needs are without making it HER job to fix them. And then later, once my highly emotional state has subsided, I can go back and evaluate whether there IS something I need her to do differently to make sure my basic relationship needs are being met.

    I'm rambling. Also just wanted to say that WOW I really relate to this: "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." I often need to remind myself not to get frustrated with her for the fact that she just doesn't analyze herself quite as much as I do, and that's fine. I think it's such an element of my Healer soul that I want to use my knowledge of her (and others') emotional landscapes to try to FIX them, or HELP them somehow, but honestly? That's not for me to do. So I'm trying to let go of that, too. Trying to tease out the difference between *wanting to know* and *wanting to fix*. It's not an easy line to pick out, but it's an important one.

  2. This is, for me, one of the most beneficial and timely entries I've read on your site. I am in the process of trying to work through some things with a wonderful woman. I may have destroyed our really loving relationship by not letting go of baggage from past wounds. Similar baggage to what you've described. Thank you for writing so eloquently and thoughtfully.

  3. Perfect timing! *laughs*

    I recently started seeing someone. I thought that I'd uncovered all the big bads hiding in the closet, but I think there are some things you can only work through while you're actively engaged in them, instead of reflecting on them.

    My first relationship was two years of mothering someone who really had no sexual desire for me at all and I tend to be super sensitive to the physical chemistry in a relationship. I also have a high sex drive, so I tend to think about sex more. The first worry I tend to have in a relationship is about making sexual advances to my lover and how they're going to be received. Intellectually, I know it's okay for my to have a higher sex drive, to want it more often, and for my lover not to want it when I do. Emotionally, I can feel myself shut down if that trigger is pulled. If I feel I'm being rejected, I doubt myself the next time I want to make an invitation. In extreme cases, I start to not make casual or affectionate physical contact because of my anxiety.

    Her history has a lot of abuse in it, including physical and sexual abuse from a woman she was with for five years. She was forced when she didn't want to and her signals about sex are a bit mixed up too. This makes for a potentially volatile situation.

    I was talking with one of my friends about my fear about this and we started sorting my concerns about the relationship into my stuff, her stuff, and my stuff masquerading as her stuff. The idea that my stuff could masquerade as her stuff has been hugely helpful. If I'm afraid to initiate sex, my brain might tell me it's because of her history and what happened to her… but really, that's my cuddly little demon wanting to hide itself in plausible lies. My fear about initiating sex is my fear. No matter how she responds, I have to let myself take that chance and express my desire. If she doesn't want to, she doesn't want to and I'm free to pursue it elsewhere. But not pursuing it because I'm afraid of being vulnerable and what might happen is not a solution. :)

  4. I'm recently out of a 5 and a half year relationship that we both thought we were going to be in for life. My partner left for a need to be single and live on her own, so my hurt is very fresh; made harder by the fact that we still love each other and see each other regularly. I'm not sure how I will react when I enter into a new relationship but it's good to hear someone else's perspective on how to let go of a past hurt. I also resonate with the ability to share feelings in a relationship, as my partner was not always forthcoming with her feelings. We both analyzed ourselves continuously; I tried to discuss my feelings with her, while she would keep most things to herself even after she had worked through them. This was difficult to deal with, as I've had the same issues as alphafemme in feeling a need to fix or help my partner's emotional state, which cannot always be done, and at times was frustrating. I find that writing helps immensely, being able to get out of my head and actually see my feelings laid out has allowed me to try and come to grips with my pain. Thank-you for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

  5. Nice work there, Z.

    I-statements … it makes sense you would get to work on those in *this* relationship. ;)

    Oh, and you meant capital-i with an A, in the penultimate paragraph.

  6. I read this blog from a distance, and I am hesitant to provide feedback because that ruins the beautiful, voyeuristic sleaze of the internet. Still, in this, and a few recent posts relating to your current relationship, it sounds like you are making excuses disguised in emotional maturity. Whether or not they are dealt with more productively/positively than ever before, why do these "snags" present themselves so often? In my (humble, far-removed, and unsolicited) opinion, there will be a point at which some insurmountable button-pusher will come about, and you will realize what no one inside a loving relationship ever realizes: y'all straight up aren't compatible.

  7. I often try to find other ways of expression to sort through triggers. I like to write out my triggers and then burn them up. I imagine being held in some eternal kind of cosmic love( for me the Goddess) and I trust her power to transform. Or, sometimes I plant my fear in the ground ( lierally. I dig a hole) and then I do a walking meditation to strengthen my voice of healing and comfort. I think wordy boys and girls can wear ourselves out sometimes so finding a physical ritual is healing. Candle lighting, letting the fear drain out of your body like your bath water, etc. All can work.

  8. My own biggest break-through in situations like this was to realize that any and all meanings were products of my own brain, ie stories I made up. So, since I'm going to make up meanings for things anyway, I might as well make up ones that bring me freedom and power.

    Example:

    I'm a straight girl, and my first several boyfriends later came out as gay men. So whenever a later partner would turn down my sexual advances, I would immediately make that mean that he was gay/not attracted to me/thought I was too forward or too sexual (ie, all things those first few partners had told me). But in reality, all that had happened was a current partner turned down my offer for sex that night. So now I can make it mean that I just have a rockstar super-high sex drive and it's time for solo fun, or that it's a good night for both of us to get some sleep. Those are meanings and explanations I enjoy; they're stories about a "no thank you" that empower me.

  9. Well, being someone who very much lives in her head, I approach myself like a computer. Input new command, delete old file.

    Or, on a more visual level, I try to personify my fears, try to turn them into horror movie characters and then recruit them to work for Me, Inc. (because, really, is there anything less terrifying than working in an office? Soul-deadening, yes but gut-churning, no) They get a keycard laminant, a breakroom with a microwave and new fears get the office tour from old fears that I've long since broken in. Sounds bizarre but it helps me to put everything where I can see it.

  10. Having helped others through this type of thing, the simple answer is you've done it. Identify subconscious triggers so you can consciously address them. Then simply make a change in your behavior. We all react to others, so react differently and you'll find your partner will respond in a new way too.

    Then a recurring theme of these posts is the height of emotion you are reaching… WAY before that point is when you need to become conscious–to get your head before your heart.

    Meditation is a great mechanism to accomplish that. You can minimize the hormones (adrenaline) that cause your panic.

    I was with someone who was emotionally unaware, but I could see her distress. I'd point out to her that she was feeling something. She had NO idea what it was. She'd have to think about it, explore it, and then she wouldn't necessarily have the words to express it even hours later.

    However, practicing that, years later now she is very expressive and more self aware.

    So perhaps turn your innate ability to feel another's emotional state upon yourself? Notice not when you've gotten to critical, but when the seed has barely been sown.

    I know this has gotten preachy, but I'm even going to go a step further. It's doing your current partner and yourself a severe disservice, some might even say it's disrespectful, to carry unhealed past hurts forward to afflict them.

    If you REALLY want to have a healthy relationship, split now, heal yourself and become emotionally healthy and a complete person, THEN enter the relationship responsibly.

    The obvious problem with that is the bitter pill and temporary hurt now to reap the wonderful rewards later…

  11. I hear you on these hard triggers – often I feel tough, and it's easy to forget the lines of influence of old hurts – then a lover's joke will make me /flip out/. It's been difficult to convey how much something, meant lightly, can fuck me up.

    Like, one time: my boyfriend teasingly threatened to walk out of our apartment, saying 'well I'll just go if you don't like me'. He was very much joking, but it triggered echoes of my mother's neglect/ abuse and I freaked the hell out.

    When I explained that, he sounded put off – asking if now he couldn't joke around? I felt weird about it, like my freakout was unjustified and I ought to be a Big Girl and get over it. Or something.

    What helped was talking him through my triggered memories, 'til he saw how much I'd been hurt by emotional manipulation and abandonment. Then we deconstructed his joking words & intent, and I walked myself through the situation rationally. It was /hard/, really really hard, to forge new logic pathways with my triggers on high alert.

    I think mindfulness is most important. That, and being very very gentle as I re-interpret triggering situations. Sometimes I talk to myself like to a scared 5yr old, with small words and simple connections- those are easiest to process when I'm freaked out of my skull..

  12. Can i suggest a book? You may have already read it, "Written on the Body" by Jeanette Winterson. The opening sentence of the book, "Why is the measure of love loss?"

    Here's a NYT review of it:
    http://www.nytimes.com/1993/02/14/books/loss-is-t

  13. Thank you, thank you, for writing and sharing your thoughts on this. I have been doing eerily similar work in my relationship–my girlfriend and I have been together a little over two years, and several months ago we started to notice that we were doing this really horrible "trigger dance." One of us would do something that unintentionally set off old reactions of defensiveness in the other. This reaction inevitably triggered an equally unhealthy response in the first person. We were totally aware of what was happening, after a while. We would be in the middle of an argument/long-ass processing session/emotional stand-off saying, "Why the hell are we doing this? This is stupid. This is just me acting out what I did with and that is so not appropriate here."

    But even though we could articulate what was going on, it took a minute (a very scary minute, for both of us) to figure out what to do about it. I don't really know what mental process my girlfriend uses now to let go of her old wounds, because she shares stuff like that in bursts and in her own time. I really relate to your struggle, though, with constantly analyzing my own and others' emotional landscapes. As soon as something happens, I've already looked at it in three different ways, gauged my reaction, tied it to my past, and want to talk about it. It became clear to me that this was not a way to proceed with a girlfriend who is incredibly insightful, but takes much longer to put her thoughts and feelings together. It also occurred to me that wanting to hash stuff out immediately is a defense mechanism in itself–it gave me intellectual control over the situation, it removed me.

    So I just stopped. I started silently recognizing triggers and then immediately focusing on grounding myself instead of "fixing" the situation. I breathe; I feel the pain in my chest, the bristling of my spine, the twitch of my eyes that accompany feeling threatened. I breathe again. I ask myself her intention, and it's never what I'm afraid of. That doesn't make it stop hurting, really, but it puts me in a different mindset–I'm able to own my fear. It makes me feel open and vulnerable.

    Something shifted in my girlfriend around the same time, which I am so grateful for, and we both started dealing with things differently. When something happens, we take a minute to not talk or we change the subject. One of us may acknowledge what's happening, but briefly and broadly–like "Hey, look, we could totally get in a fight here. This area is tender." We nod. We shut the hell up, lest we dive into super-emotional waters. We make a point to touch– like a hug, or a long and soft kiss, or a hand in hair. Yesterday we got through a tense moment that months ago would have gone south, and afterward we actually high-fived each other. File that under both cheesy and awesome.

    And I'll tell you what, this shit is working. For the last couple of months, instead of doing the stupid trigger dance, we've gotten closer. It's like when I'm feeling threatened, for instance, I'm able to just feel the old hurt without reviving it, and she's there touching me, witnessing my moment. The mindfulness and steps you laid out resonate strongly with me. They have made my relationship deeper and more peaceful, for sure. And really, you're already doing with Kristen the number one thing that has made my relationship work so far–you look at your relationship as an art, and you keep striving to get better. That's the mindset that allows for real growth and connection, at least in my experience. Thanks again for sharing this, and sorry for the super long ramble.

  14. Again, great timing. Getting into a new relationshp after being really burned by my last one has brought up a lot of these sorts of triggers.

    But a lot of the best way I try to handle things are exactly as you laid out. First, recognizing that my reaction is not as much about her, and what is currently going on, but what has happened in the past. Then, working through what the issue was in the past, how that is both similar and different from what is happening now, and with talking to her about it. Then, actually addressing the situation as it stands now, and focusing on that though recognizing that I may still have lingering associations from the previous experiences. But most imporantly, and finally, I talk to her about it. I tell her if something bothers me, and why.

    The best way I've found to be aware of my own triggers is to continually go through what they are, and which ones are no longer there. Knowing which ones I know longer have also really helps to know what I've healed, and what is left to heal.

  15. You are spot on when you say you must communicate. In my experience it really helps when you have a partner that is willing to listen and the triggers they have are not the same as yours. It has been my magic key. I have experienced the whole, "lesbian bed death", and it was indeed completely traumatizing.

    Great post!

  16. I find this discussion and topic really interesting so I keep coming back to read the comments :) And I can't keep my mouth shut… (or my fingers still?)

    I really, really disagree with the people that suggest that you either aren't compatible (and therefore should break up) or that you need to heal yourself before you can have a good relationship (and therefore should break up).

    For one thing, what IS compatibility anyway? My own musings have led me to this conclusion: for some people, love is simple. And if two people for whom love is simple find each other and have a peaceful, loving, conflict-free relationship (I know some of them! Really!), then that's fantastic. I've wasted way too much time thinking that THAT'S what I need to find: a conflict-free relationship, a relationship that does nothing but make me feel happy and safe. And I've finally come to realize that that's just not the kind of relationship I can have, or even want to have. Love, to me, isn't simple, and compatibility has MUCH more to do with commitment to hear each other and support each other than it has to do with somehow "matching" in specifics. I'm a complicated person, I'm highly analytical, and I'm very self-aware, which means that any relationship will challenge me and make me think and push some buttons. It's just the way my successful, healthy relationships are.

    And second of all, it's exactly that kind of conflict that BUILDS my relationships. I can't do all of the healing by myself, as one commenter suggests, because many of my triggers don't surface until I'm in a relationship. And if we were to break up, the triggers would go away and so always would the opportunity to heal from them. The notion that we can only be good partners if we're somehow whole, pre-healed, a pretty package with a perfectly tied bow … that's just nonsense. I'm sorry, but it's nonsense. Yes, it is my responsibility to do the healing work myself, but I will *always* be doing healing work, for the rest of my life, and my partner will support me through it (NOT do it for me, but she will support me) and there WILL be tension, and panic, and fear, and withdrawing, and accusation, and all of that nasty stuff, but it's the nasty stuff that helps us realize where our deepest injuries are, and that's when we can begin to heal those wounds. And most of all have forgiveness towards each other and ourselves for the fact that we're imperfect.

    And based on everything you've written, you and Kristen HAVE that. You have it times 1000.

    I think pocketfemme has it right … and I LOVE how she talks about owning the fear. You don't have to shoo it away, but just recognize where it's coming from, take a moment to step outside of yourself and recognize that it's not coming from the other person and her intentions, but it's coming from YOU, and then you can just sit with it and own it. And talk about it when you're ready. Everything she said I was like "YES, THAT." So, what she said :)

  17. I want to print this out and post it somewhere where I can see it regularly. Thanks.

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