Emotional Resilience: The Unfinished Business of Your Past
By David Viscott, M.D.
Complex emotions can be reduced to a simple formula, simple emotions can seem incomprehensible when you are embroiled in your own difficulties.
When you hold on to a painful feeling, rather than express it spontaneously, you begin to distort it. The longer the feeling is stored, the more distorted it tends to become. While the event that caused the original injury is probably a discrete incident, storing the feeling is likely to make your recollection blurry.
For example, even though a person might have been terrified when he was lost in an amusement park when he was five years old, he would find it difficult today to recall the exact emotions he felt then. He might be able to remember some facts, but the memory of his old feelings would be altered both by recent history and the opinions he later formed about the event. He may have found being lost so uncomfortable that he would now find it difficult to remember any feelings and would hardly remember the incident. Most likely, being lost was a hurt that was allowed to heal. He learned to trust his parents again and realized that being lost was just a mistake. He was not being abandoned.
On the other hand, imagine that the person who was lost in the amusement park came from a home where he suffered serious neglect. His retelling of being lost in the amusement park would likely include some other unexpressed old hurts too vague to be remembered. The incident of being lost would become a symbol for being neglected, and the emotion he felt would be exaggerated in support of his belief.
In this way the memory of a painful event can stand for many stored emotions.
Hidden feelings are always trying to make a case in exactly this way. When you are hurt and retain the feeling, the hurt is converted into anger, and the anger grows. Your mind continually collects other examples of your being hurt to justify your feeling angry. To feel angry without knowing why is extremely disruptive. Eventually, you turn the anger against yourself and begin to doubt your goodness. After all, if you can be this angry for no reason, you may well begin to wonder if you might be a bad person. This is the dilemma that causes suffering in depressed people. Without a good reason for being angry, people beat themselves up emotionally.
When your mind searches forward and backward trying to justify your anger, it is not especially accurate, only approximate. The hurtful memory you locate is likely to be distorted, contaminated by many feelings. Should you decide to express yourself, your story may make sense to you but will be highly slanted and may bear little relationship to what others remember. Both your and others' recollections will be self-serving. You will be trying to prove you were injured, and they will be trying to show that they were innocent and you are mistaken.
When you are in Emotional Debt, you always suffer. Because unresolved feelings live inside you, you feel as if you are trying to contain a powerful negative energy that is continually seeking to be discharged. As a result you feel unsettled, jittery, off balance, or fearful of losing control. You look for a safe release valve, but when you find a way to express your feelings, you often tend to overdo it and hurt others.
When you are in Emotional Debt, you may not even be aware of the specific hurt that is troubling you, although it is common for people to target an obviously neglectful or wanting parent, spouse, or boss as the source of all their problems. There is much more to your hurts than what you choose to remember or whom you blame. You are always responsible for some part of your problem. The reason you suffer is not because you have been hurt, but because the way you choose to deal with the hurt has kept it from resolving naturally. You need to take responsibility for the part you played.
The essence of Emotional Debt is that hurt is stored as an amorphous merge of anger and guilt. The feelings in Emotional Debt are usually expressed as Toxic Nostalgia after being triggered, and so they are displayed suddenly and often seem overstated. Therefore, when people in Emotional Debt do blow up, instead of relieving their pain, they frequently make it worse by hurting others.
This only undermines their self-esteem. Fearing that there is something wrong with them for being so angry, they repress even more feelings. Typically, the person in Emotional Debt begins to doubt himself and his stability. This is understandable, because while anxiety, hurt, and anger are all accompanied by physical sensations, guilt - which is anger turned inward - is dealt with primarily by the mind. The mind reasons and makes arguments for and against the self, depending on how much stored anger or guilt there is to rationalize.
When the anger is slight, it is easy to blame others for hurting you. However, when withheld anger grows, you begin to accuse yourself for having such dark visions of revenge. From time to time everyone has retaliation fantasies. They are generally excused as being justified by the present situation, but to a person in deep Emotional Debt, these sinister internal dramas can be disturbing, seen as proof that the sufferer is evil, which only produces more guilt.
It is in this caldron of self-justification and self-vilification that feelings stored in Emotional Debt churn. Additionally, because strong defenses are already in place to contain feelings, a person in Emotional Debt immediately seeks to conceal new hurt when it occurs, thus adding to the volume of unexpressed feelings. The discomfort of being in Emotional Debt is aggravated both by the added weight of each newly concealed hurt and by the sufferer's growing fears of losing control.
It is common when you are in Emotional Debt for old hidden emotions to seek opportunistic expression by joining in with the expression of a current hurt. This leads you to overstate your case and become sarcastic or hypercritical. You may even seem petty or mean-spirited, and should you hurt others, you now become the villain. This is why people in Emotional Debt tend to shy away from being open and instead pull further into their shell and obsessions, endlessly vacillating between self-condemnation and justification.
A story that made headlines a few years ago illustrates the extent to which reasoning can be distorted by stored pain. An old widower, reclusive after the death of his wife, was annoyed by some boys who stole apples from his orchard. When the boys ignored his warning, the old man shot into the trees and killed two of them. As he was taken away, he explained pitifully, "But I warned them," as if that were enough to justify his actions. Obviously, he had so rationalized his actions in his own mind that he lost touch with reality.
Although this example is extreme, it reflects how all feelings stored in Emotional Debt undergo distortion. As new hurts are held in, they are combined with the old, adding to the pressure and the potential for discharge as Toxic Nostalgia. If the feelings are allowed to build to intolerable levels, they can be triggered by a symbolic emotional event and be released without sufficient consideration of the consequences, as in this tragic case. The old man felt robbed because fate stole his wife from him - his inner struggle. When the boys stole his apples, they reawakened the feelings of outrage and powerlessness that he felt when his wife died. He was highly charged to protect himself from the next robbery and to avenge the old one by proxy.
Even when you are in Emotional Debt, most people remain in far better contact with reality than that unfortunate old man. Although you may distort the truth, you generally reconsider putting your angry feelings into action. You question yourself and wonder if you played a role in your misfortune. So although your old hurts and frustrations prime you to express yourself, your self-doubt and discretion keep you from acting.
Have you ever found yourself in an emotionally confining situation, feeling as if you would burst? Many people have experienced the pain of being trapped in an unhappy relationship, pursuing the wrong educational path, tyrannized by controlling parents, or locked in an impossible financial situation. You may feel like a prisoner in a thankless job, a marriage of diminishing convenience, or enrolled against your will in a cause you do not support. In such confinements, you suffer the most when you discover you can make a good case for hating yourself. You despise your powerlessness and negativity.
Although initially your doubts hold you back, the longer you conceal your true feelings, the stronger the case you make for taking action and the more likely you are to do something you'll regret. You want to do something about your situation. You want to act but fear the consequences. At some point your self-justifying logic becomes inflexible and unable to contain your discontent. It is then that you are most likely to be pushed into trouble by some seemingly trivial event and say things you wish you could take back or jeopardize your position by acting impulsively.
Your precipitous actions are usually awkward, embarrassing, and self-defeating. You hurt others most when you find yourself propelled into action. The words are out of your mouth before you have a chance to think about what you are going to say. You struggle to hold yourself in check as an overwhelming fear of losing control sweeps over you and clouds your reasoning. You find yourself defending an indefensible position or rash action. You can barely remember what started it all. You just try to hold on.
Toxic Nostalgia describes the symptoms produced when concealed emotions are triggered. Typically something in the present so strongly reminds you of some unfinished emotional business that it reawakens those old feelings and brings them to life again. Those feelings can lead you to take action before you are even aware of them. At other times you can be plagued with a sudden painful feeling that holds you captive. Even if your recollection of the event that caused the feeling is lost, the persistent emotional echoes make it feel like the past is happening all over again.
Toxic Nostalgia often feels like a mystery. You ask, Why am I feeling this way? What does this disturbing occurrence mean? Am I crazy? There are many pieces missing from the puzzle you are trying to solve. Many facts are hidden or distorted. The explanations you give for your symptoms are highly personal and usually reflect your defensive style, your blind spot.
Where Anger Goes
When you direct your anger outside, you act self-righteous. You review the evidence, uncover more hurt, and add it to your slanted argument. It makes no difference what the truth is. How you feel makes you believe you are right. You're out to prove others are bad and that you have been hurt by them.
When you turn your anger inward, you wonder, What is wrong with me? Why am I this vengeful? As your self-esteem falters, your doubt grows. The people who hurt you don't seem so bad. You feel guilty and fear you may have been wrong to accuse them. You wonder if you even provoked them to hurt you. Even worse, because you feel so guilty, you begin to feel you deserve to suffer.
When you hold anger inside, you try to reason your pain away - not a good plan, for the mind is not designed to feel. You need to feel pain before you can accept it. Accepting pain means putting what you have felt into perspective, a function of reason. However, if you place your pain in perspective too quickly, saying, "Everything works out for the best," when it clearly has not, some pain is excluded from being felt and still needs to be mourned. So the mind has the power both to heal you and prolong your suffering. Until you feel your pain, the mind can grant only limited relief.