How Old Are These Feelings?

Consider that hopelessness can be triggered by unhealed pain from the past.

Posted Sep 11, 2019

Humans are relational beings. We need each other. Having even one person that cares can make all the difference in someone’s life. It certainly did in mine. Feeling connected and experiencing a sense of belonging can directly contradict the isolation and aloneness that causes so much pain in this world. Consciously creating support around ourselves, particularly when we don’t have family, can be very healing. This is one reason I encourage people to join a group. 

The pain of loneliness can be so intense that it causes people to do anything to not feel it, whether it be alcohol, drugs, indiscriminate sex or jumping off a bridge. The necessary first step to overcoming feeling hopeless and alone is to make a decision that you want something different. The next is learning how to reach out for help. To feel part of something, it almost doesn’t matter what, can make all the difference in whether people flourish or go off the deep end. Feeling connected, even if it is to your therapist, having just one person who cares, can make the difference. This is ultimately about self-worth and self-love. 

Everyone has painful experiences in their childhood. It is a matter of degree about how bad it was. Consider the possibility that that feeling of hopelessness you are carrying around might actually be an artifact left over from your childhood. There were so many ways that we expected big things back then, like being the center of our parent’s universe or feeling so treasured that we knew we belonged. When those big needs didn’t quite get met, feelings of hopelessness began to set in. The hopelessness that has been sitting there all those years can get re-stimulated when situations happen in the present that reminds us of or triggers those early disappointments.  This is not to say that whatever you are upset about in the present is not real. It may be, but what happens is that the current situation and the old feelings get mixed together making it difficult to differentiate what is old and what is not. When this happens, it can cause us to respond in a much more dramatic way than the current situation may rationally call for.  In other words, we overreact.  And that gets us in all kinds of trouble.  

Once we understand what is happening, the work is to begin separating out the old feelings that are getting triggered in the present time.  If we can learn how to do this, our responses will become more appropriate to the situation at hand. It takes a certain amount of soul searching and reflection to begin to understand, for example, that the boyfriend you are upset with for being late is actually not the father that abandoned you– that your anger at your boyfriend was maybe more intense than the poor fellow deserved. 

Truth is, we are not our feelings. Feelings get attached to us, but feelings are not reality. We come into the world with the ability to express deep feelings. It is part of the equipment we’re born with. I think of it as our natural healing process. Human babies cry, scream, shake and laugh naturally and without shame. I believe that if we were not shamed, humiliated, and berated for expressing feelings, many of our early disappointments and hurts could have been healed along the way.

On top of the pain caused by whatever it was that happened to us long ago, we were not given ways to appropriately express deep-held emotions. There was no outlet to express our grief, rage, and feelings of hopelessness, so we learned to stuff our feelings and pretend that we were okay. Humans can become very effective at looking good on the outside but feeling deep pain on the inside. This is a recipe for depression, or worse. 

When we have the opportunity to express our feelings in appropriate ways, we feel better.  If you have ever had a big cry, you will remember how much better you felt afterward. We can think more clearly and make better decisions when we get a chance to clear out some of those old feelings that have taken over our lives. When we no longer need to pretend, we begin to feel better. 

 Feelings are simply meant to be felt.  It is not wise to allow feelings to make important decisions on our behalf.  When we do, life can get very messy. This is not to say that intuition is to be ignored. I am not saying that.  But sometimes we need to stand up and push against a feeling and do something difficult or uncomfortable, even if we would rather, for example, do nothing. Change happens when we gather the courage to try something different. To learn more about this work, check out my website at www.therapygroups.com.

Ilene English, M.A., LMFT, is a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and the Clinical Director of GroupWorks in Sonoma County where she leads therapy groups, as well as sees individuals and families in her private practice.  

Ilene’s personal memoir, Hippie Chick: Coming of Age in the ‘60s will be released on September 24, 2019, and is available for pre-order on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers.