The clock was approaching the 45-minute mark when the couple sitting on my overstuffed loveseat asked, “How do we stop getting so angry with each other?” I thought that was a good question. How do we be less angry with others? Learning to love yourself is the first step.
Is the bear really angry?
Back to the couple in my office. Me being me, I told the couple this story to help them understand…
Let’s pretend it’s a beautiful day and I’m hiking down a path in the woods. The leaves are spread out overhead giving me an umbrella of shade with the sun lighting my path. All of a sudden, I notice a large brown bear! This bear seeing me rears up on its hind legs stretches it arms out and with all the ferociousness in the world, roars at me. I think to myself, wow this bear looks very angry. But is it really angry? It sure looks like it is.
I walk up to the bear and ask it, “why are you so angry?” The bear explains that it is not angry, but rather scared. The bear tells me that it sees me as a threat to itself and to its cubs, who are just over the embankment playing on a fallen tree. And — even though I didn’t know it — I had just walked into its territory and crossed an invisible boundary.
Wanting to clarify I said, “I am a threat to you, I am a threat to something important to you, and I crossed a boundary you had.” The bear replied yes to all three. The bear continued with I am scared. What you are seeing is my natural fear response. This is me trying to feel safe and protect what is important to me.
I looked at the couple and asked, “What if instead of asking how to be less angry we asked the question, how can I more safe with you?”
If a person feels safe in their relationship, then it can grow. Safety is the foundation of trust, vulnerability, emotional connection, love, and all the other wonderful things often found in a relationship. But, is it possible to feel safe with someone who has hurt you emotionally?
There are unhealthy ways to overcome this obstacle by alienating (ignoring) parts of yourself, but is there another way? Maybe the ultimate question is how do you heal emotional wounds? Sometimes in life, the emotional wounds rooted in the past cause you to feel unsafe in your relationship, resulting in anger. (See how that came full circle?)
I have had many individuals and couples come to me with this question, “How do you love the source of the pain?” The dilemma of being wounded by the person you love, yet still wanting a deeper connection, but feeling limited by the fear of being hurt again.
Healing Emotional Wounds
When our partner, friend, or loved one does something that “smells” like past wounds, our defenses go up. The fear of repeating the past comes out looking like anger. Even though we are wanting to be close with our loved ones (spouses, children, friends, and neighbors), old wounds — both emotional and physical — often stand in the way. And, at times, they rear up on their hind legs, throw out their arms, and roar.
Now, when I was 5-years old, I was playing hide-and-seek with some neighborhood friends. After hiding awhile, I decided to come out and look around (like any curious kid would do). Unsurprisingly, I was spotted by the person who was “it.” I found myself stuck with no where to run so I climbed a fence and when I jumped down my arm got cut open by a metal post. My parents rushed me to the hospital as fast as they could. After many stitches and several years the wound completely healed.
I still have a scar — a badge of an adventurous childhood — but it doesn’t hurt anymore because it’s healed. Our emotional states get wounded too. But, sometimes rather getting the proper care like I did when I was taken to the hospital, the wounds are pushed away and never heal properly.
Our bodies typically know how to heal themselves as long as the conditions are right. There were things I had to do allow my physical wound to heal every day. Why should it be any different for emotional wounds? What if we were to give as much attention to our emotional wellbeing as we give to our physical health? Cleaning our emotional wounds and using “emotional first-aid” can help us feel more safe with ourselves and others.
How Do you Heal from Past Trauma?
So what is the answer? How do we heal from past trauma? How do we allow ourselves to let down our guard? Building love and healthy connections to others and to the world around us is the answer. Doing this isn’t always easy. Stitches hurt (especially when you are five) and healing emotional wounds can also be painful.
Taking the first step to healing can be especially hard. Therapy is a good place to start. The safe space therapy creates can be the launching-pad for you to find yourself and heal from wounds that hold you in the past. When I said Love is the answer, that’s what I meant. You first have to care enough about yourself to take steps towards healing, that is love for self. Taking the time, energy, and resources to grow is loving others. With a trusted therapist that will care for you and walk beside you your journey of healing, you will be loved too.