Friday, June 29, 2007

Emotional Flashbacks

First, let me explain that I believe EVERYONE has emotional flashbacks. That’s what I call it when something in the present resonates with something in the past intensifying the emotions we would otherwise feel. Or we’re thrown back into the emotions of a past experience triggered by sound or smell or person or place or situation.

Example: Someone says something that feels like disrespect and it throws us back into the emotional memory of a time when it was always that way and we felt helpless to change it and we react with rage all out of proportion to what’s actually happening. Or we lose someone and it resonates with every other time we lost someone. Or we meet someone and something in that person resonates with something in another person who was important to us in the past (often our parents) and so we feel an intense attraction to or perhaps dislike for that person without knowing why.

I believe everyone has emotional flashbacks—and that people rarely realize that’s what’s happening to them. I believe that any time we feel truly intense emotion—good or bad—it’s useful to ask ourselves if an emotional flashback is part of our reaction.

If we realize this is happening, we can step back and choose to respond only in the context of what is appropriate NOW and look at the emotions triggered from the past later.

Emotional flashbacks are on my mind this week because I’m here in the town in which I used to live, in the house where I raised my children (but no longer live), and seeing people I used to know. (See previous post.)

I found myself feeling out of place, not belonging, wanting to run away, and starting to feel overwhelmed and unhappy. It would have been easy to believe this is how I feel now. But the moment I realized I might be having emotional flashbacks, I began to recognize that much of this was what I used to feel all the time and it was creeping me out because it was such a contrast to how I feel NOW about myself and about my life.

Once I realized it could be emotional flashbacks, I could begin to see the layer of emotions from the past superimposed on the emotions of the present. I could begin to regain the sense of strength and resilience and optimism I feel most of the time.
I could begin to evaluate my experiences differently. I could both respond to what is happening NOW and also begin to process those emotions from the past.

New emotions got kicked up too, of course. And they are intertwined to some extent with these emotional flashbacks. I feel at times as if I’m trying to untangle a huge ball of knotted yarn. Recognizing what’s happening with these layers of emotions lets me do so in a methodical way. I can see someone and think: ah, this is where the relationship is going and that’s what it was and oh, here are emotions I didn’t know I used to have and here are new emotions I didn’t know I could feel, etc.

Emotional flashbacks, I believe, happen to us all the time. They are far more common than physical sensation or full blown memory flashbacks (and for me always preceded any of those anyway).

I share all of this because I believe emotional flashbacks are so common and because I believe they are profoundly important (often the key to how we act and react)—almost like huge flashing red neon signs pointing to things it might useful to look at. (There are probably other and better ways to explain this but the term "emotional flashbacks" makes it concrete for me in a way that lets me grasp exactly what's going on and how to use that understanding.)

So...the next time you feel intense emotion, especially if it makes you feel a way you don’t want to feel, maybe stop and ask yourself if part of your reaction could be an emotional flashback.

Sending blessings and safe and gentle (((((((hugs))))))),

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Losing My Sanity (whatever little I had...)

Up at 5 am, getting to the airport and discovering all flights delayed, sweet talking a gate agent into rebooking me on an earlier (still delayed) flight, sprinting through an airport so that I can make my connection with 2 minutes to spare, being told the house has been cleaned and walking in to discover it’s still a disaster zone, luggage arriving at midnight, sitting on a pile of blankets as I type so my son (Down syndrome) can’t go back to bed and has to get ready for his program, thinking that maybe it’s a good thing there’s no whiskey in the house because drinking at 9 o’clock in the morning probably wouldn’t be a good idea.....

Well, that gives you some hint of how the past 24 hours has gone for me. (And oh, yeah, as we head toward 10 am I’m not sure my son is even going to make THAT bus! (Tomorrow morning I start sitting on the blankets at least an hour earlier...) (Why, you ask am I not helping my son get ready? Because anything I do he undoes and then redoes it himself. Ever tried wrestling a 30 year old into compliance about anything?)

Hmmm, maybe whiskey at 9:30am wouldn’t be such a bad idea....

No, no, must re-focus! What’s good about all this? Well, the good thing is that I did make it here, did get my luggage last night, did still have disinfectant wipes (left over from my last visit) to clean with, and THIS IS NO LONGER MY LIFE ON A DAILY BASIS!

Ahem. Sorry about that. It will (I hope!) get better as my son and I re-negotiate the ground rules.

Blessings and gentle (((((((hugs))))))),
April_optimist (desperately clinging to the illusion of sanity I pretend to have....)

Monday, June 25, 2007


I suppose I feel a bit like an alcoholic when it comes to self-pity and that's why I'm so wary of it.

All of us feel self-pity at times. Almost everyone does—traumatic experiences or not. It’s an absolutely necessary step for those of us who were traumatized and who told ourselves for years: It wasn’t so bad. Necessary because it’s part of saying to ourselves that we mattered, that we didn’t deserve to have that happen, that we don’t ever have to let it happen again.

The trap is if we get stuck in self-pity. The trap is that we may believe it always has to be this way, that things will always go wrong for us, that we will always get hurt. And as long as we are trapped in this mentality, we increase the odds that it will happen because predators will see us coming a mile away. If we see ourselves as victims, that’s the role we’ll play out. If we begin to see ourselves, instead, as thrivers, that’s the role we’ll play out and we have a real shot at creating the lives we want to have.

The other danger is that if we’re been unhappy for a very long time—as so many survivors of childhood abuse are—unhappiness becomes our default emotion. Unhappiness feels “normal.” If we start to feel happy it may be so uncomfortable that we push ourselves back into the emotions we know so well.

I know, I know—that sounds crazy. But...I remember the moment, on a gloomy, rainy spring day years ago, when I suddenly caught myself doing just that. I realized that if I started to feel happy, I’d put on music or read a book or pull up a memory that made me cry. That realization shocked me so much that I made a vow to ride out the weirdness and the discomfort until happiness became the default mode for me.

I didn’t know then that being happy was exactly what would give me the strength and resilience to be able to handle memories and process them more easily. I didn’t know then that the more I could let myself laugh, the easier it would be to heal. What I did know was that it was crazy for me not to celebrate every moment of laughter and happiness.

As I said, I feel like an alcoholic when it comes to self-pity. I'm afraid that if I sit too long with it, I'll slip back into letting that be the default mode again.

In a way, I suppose it’s like self-harm. It would be understandable if I did it. But there’s a part of me that’s too stubborn and too angry. There’s a part of me that says: Hey, the people who were supposed to love me when I was a kid didn’t. They hurt me badly. And I am sure as *$^#%$)*)#%@*^ NOT going to continue to do their work for them now!

There will always be moments when I feel bad. And I’ll sit with those for a bit and see where they lead me. At the same time, I’ll always also ask myself what good could come out of whatever situation is causing me pain and I will remind myself that now feeling happy and optimistic is my default mode. Like an alcoholic, it's hard for me to believe it will ever be safe to do anything else.

Sending blessings and safe and gentle (((((((hugs))))))),

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


I hate staying in a negative state of mind and worse, I hate encouraging anyone else to do so. Those of you who saw my previous post on Father’s Day may notice that I’ve changed the title. The other title was just too negative.

My father was a man who was hurt. So much so that in turn he hurt me. I am blessed that I can choose not to be like him. I am blessed that I could find a way to let go of my hurt and pain and actually be happy.

I was feeling vulnerable when I wrote that post, as I have been for a few weeks now. In part it’s because I’m going back soon to stay with my son again. The one with Down syndrome. The one whose behavior is totally out of control. And I’m going to stay with him so that my ex can go on a trip with his girlfriend. I’ll be seeing my friend who is finishing up chemo and radiation for her breast cancer.

Obviously all of these things have been stirring up some intense emotions.

When I think about this trip, I have to stop and remind myself that even if things don’t go the way I want: a) I can cope, b) I will learn from it and c) things may be different in the future as all of us continue to change and grow.

Anyway, contrary to how some of my posts may have sounded, I haven’t lost my optimism. I haven’t stopped being able to smile and know how blessed I am. I haven’t stopped believing in myself—or in all of you. I’m simply... processing... things that need to be processed before my trip and acknowledging the feelings that hurt or scare me as well as the ones that make me smile. Being optimistic doesn’t mean I never feel negative emotions. It means instead that when I do I’m able to sit with those emotions and then let them go knowing that I have the tools I need to not only cope with life but to thrive as well.

Sending blessings and safe and gentle (((((((hugs))))))),

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Father's Day

I almost forgot this Sunday was Father's Day.

Maybe it’s because it still hurts to think of my own father and who he was compared to how I wanted him to be.

I know he was in his own private hell. And that it was out of his own pain that he hurt me.

He didn’t want to be that way but he couldn’t bring himself to risk anyone knowing who and what he was and he didn’t know how to stop on his own. I don’t think he believed it was possible.

And yet, a part of me remembers, too, the good time, the moments when he could be loving and kind.

I remember being a tiny child of 3 or 4 and talking softly to him when he was in a rage and violent—and getting him to calm down because something I said was able to reach past his pain and anger and touch him in some way. (I remember the times I couldn’t reach him, couldn’t stop his anger, too.)

I remember believing he was my hero and would protect me from everyone (except himself). And I remember seeing him back down and help my mother lash out at me instead.

I remember knowing he hurt inside, knowing he was afraid—and thinking that if I could just ease his fear, just stop the hurt then he wouldn’t have to hurt me or anyone else ever again. Only his fear and hurt went too deep. Just like my mother’s did.

In a way, I was lucky. Things were so bad that even as a kid I could see that my father (and mother!) were screwed up. I could know that I had to find other role models for how to love and how to be a parent. I knew I would have to find ways to survive.

Even so, on days like Father’s Day (and Mother’s Day) I’ll stay home. I’ll avoid the sentimental sermons and greeting cards and everything else.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m so very happy for everyone who has a loving father or is a loving father! I’m thrilled that there are men who can support and love and encourage their children and help them feel safe.

It’s just that days like Father’s Day reminds me of what I didn’t have—though he played the role oh, so perfectly in front of other people.

As happy as my life is now....well....if you’re reading here, odds are you already understand why I didn’t want to remember that this Sunday is Father’s Day.

Sending safe and gentle (((((((hugs))))))),

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Lesson Learned

I sometimes feel as if the Universe throws experiences my way to teach me things. Yesterday I had an epiphany: The Universe seems to be giving me experiences that will teach me I can do things I think I can’t.

The additional and far more important epiphany, however, was this: Wouldn’t it be easier to just learn the #($(^%^&* lesson than to have the Universe keep trying to teach it to me?

Think about it. What if we can do lots of things we think we can’t? Wouldn’t it be easier and take less energy to simply do them than to spend endless amounts of time and energy a) worrying and b) trying to avoid doing those things and c) the Universe could then stop having to prove it to us?

Okay, that last one is a bit facetious. Seriously, though, I don’t know about you but I know intellectually that I’m a reasonably competent person. People tell me all the time I’m far more than just competent—some even use the word amazing. I get that on an intellectual level. On a gut level, though, I seem to keep believing I’m not.

That’s why yesterday’s epiphany was so powerful. I “got” it on a gut level. I could imagine myself doing things that moments before would have scared me. (And sometimes it feels as if I spent most of my life afraid of way too many things!)

Anyway, I toss it out there for all of you. What if YOU can do the things you think you can’t? What if YOU really are—or could be!—far more capable and competent and strong and resilient than you have let yourself believe—in EVERY area of your life? And what if the Universe didn’t have to keep proving it to you?

Sending blessings and safe and gentle (((((((hugs)))))))),

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Relationships Part 3

How do we see ourselves?

That’s not an idle question. How we see ourselves often determines the quality of our interaction with others.

If we see ourselves as helpless, we are going to cling to defense mechanisms that may get in the way of a healthy relationship. We aren’t likely to ever risk the kind of discussions that would give the people in the relationship a chance to actually work out issues between them. We are likely to look for caretakers (which rarely results in a healthy relationship!) and we are unlikely to recognize our own strength.

If we see ourselves as the rescuers, we may never stop talking long enough to hear the wisdom the other person has to share.

If we see ourselves as unlovable and/or unlikable, we won’t trust people who say they care about us. We won’t risk the kind of honestly that allows a healthy relationship to grow.

If we see ourselves as doing everything for everyone else, we may never recognize the ways that we are selfish or what others are doing for us.

If we see ourselves as...

Well, you get the idea. We need to make a conscious effort to step back and look at the roles we play in relationships and how we see ourselves. We need to recognize that we can rewrite those roles for ourselves. We can choose to ACT AS IF we are how we would like to be.

We can also choose to throw away the old filters through which we have been seeing the people around us. If we do, we give ourselves, the other people, and our relationships a chance to grow in new and wonderful ways. Or we may finally realize that the best thing we can do is walk away.

---What if the person we thought we had to protect doesn’t need protection?
---What if the person we thought was arrogant and powerful is really shy or a scared kid inside?
---What if we have been making assumptions that aren’t at all true any more—if they ever were?
---What if the person we’ve been pretending to ourselves is wonderful and loving isn’t?
---What if the person we thought was smarter than us isn’t?
---What if the person we thought was a fool is actually very smart?
---What if....?

The most powerful tool we have is questioning things we’ve taken for granted and assumed were true.

---What if we don’t have to continue to play out old patterns?
---What if we don’t have to repeat past mistakes?
---What if it’s okay to want what we want and the other person not agreeing doesn’t make either of us bad people just different?
---What if we neither we nor the other person have to be perfect for a relationship to work out?
---What if we can learn to recognize and walk away from unhealthy relationships because we can be happy on our own AND there are other people out there who will love and/or care about us?
---What if we can survive the loss of relationships we wish could go on?
---What if the new relationships in our lives can be healthy?

If we change our assumptions about ourselves and the people in our lives AND we change our behavior, we will inevitably change our experiences.

I’ve made more than my share of mistakes in relationships. Sometimes I was well intentioned and/or didn’t know better. Sometimes intuitively I knew I was making a mistake and chose not to listen to that inner voice. Sometimes I knew darned well that what I was doing wasn’t a good idea but at the time couldn’t do anything else. Sometimes it was the other person doing some or all of these things. And sometimes the situation was such that either inevitably the relationship was going to come to an end or it was best that it do so. Sometimes I still catch myself acting from the fear that knowing me will cause people I care about to get hurt.

We are doing the best that we can. All of us. We have a choice when something goes wrong in a relationship—to choose to focus on blaming SOMEONE (ourselves or the other person or both) or to focus on what good could come out of what’s happening. We can ask ourselves how we can use the experience to grow. We can choose to focus on recognizing that we—and the other person—were doing the best we could and on whatever was good in the relationship for as long as it lasted.

I know I’m repeating myself and I know this kind of change doesn’t happen instantaneously. It’s a process. It takes time and it takes consciously choosing to do things differently than we always have in the past.

My marriage ended after 28 years. I’m the one who filed for divorce. I could have been angry and at times I was. It would have been easy to wrap myself in a cloak of victimhood—and there were times I fell into that trap. But because I was able to step away from that trap—for at least small stretches at a time—I was able to work out a settlement with my ex that left me in far better shape than most women who go through a divorce under these circumstances. Because I was able to set aside my anger—most of the time—our interactions go better than most people would think was possible. This does NOT mean I ever want to get back with him! It was not a relationship that could or should have been salvaged. It does mean that I choose to take the energy that could have gone into anger and use it to create a new life for myself.

I’m spending so much time on all of this—relationships—because connection with others is such a profound need for us as human beings. It affects health—emotional and physical, it affects how we see ourselves, and it affects our opportunities in life. Finding a way to trust enough to form relationships and work to make them healthy ones is an important part of the healing process.

There is also tremendous power in realizing we are not helpless. There is tremendous power in knowing that we do have the power to choose to stay or go and what we will and will not accept in our relationships.

It begins with choosing how we see ourselves. It begins with choosing to recognize that we are strong, resilient people who have the ability—and the right!—to have healthy relationships in our lives.

Sending blessings and safe and gentle (((((((hugs)))))))),

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Up Side of Changing Relationships

Last week when I wrote my post on relationships I was having one of those weeks that make you want to scream with frustration (and I did actually lose it completely with a representative for one company I was trying to deal with). Suffice it to say, between those frustrations and remembering the hurt and grief of relationships that fell apart I wasn’t feeling particularly cheerful or optimistic.

Anyway, I woke up today realizing there’s a lot I left out about changing relationships—the good part about relationships ending or changing.

Any change like any challenge is also an opportunity. I’m not dismissing the hurt and grief when a relationship falls apart. Some memories still have the power to cut like a knife taking my breath away. At the same time, today at least, I am able to be grateful for the changes that came out of those losses.

How can anything good come out of the loss of a relationship?

1) It’s a chance for us to grow.

2) It’s a chance for new people to come into our lives—people who don’t have preconceptions about us.

3) It may be a chance for us to go new places and do new things and be happier.

4) If we have been in an abusive relationship and it ends, we may finally be safe.

5) When we stop seeing ourselves through the filter of someone else’s eyes, we may be able to see ourselves in a new way, a more positive way, one with possibilities we didn’t think of before.

How can we maximize the likelihood that something new and good will come into our lives when a relationship falls apart?

1) Write out what our ideal relationship would look like—both what we wish it had been like with the person we lost (or fear losing) and what we would like if someone else were to come into our lives to fill that role in the future. When we know what would be healthy and make us happy, we are far more likely to find it. AND we are more likely to see how we could have played our part differently as well. If we are trying to salvage a relationship by altering the dynamics, then this exercise is essential!

2) Look honestly at ourselves. What part did we play in whatever went wrong? Are there different choices we might make in future relationships? (Or in this one if we are able to rewrite it.) Note: I do NOT mean beating ourselves up about mistakes!!! If we are too harsh with ourselves, we may refuse to face the mistakes we've made and/or the role we've had in how our relationship(s) played out--and we cannot change what we will not face.
The key is to try to set aside our filters and neither blame ourselves nor the other person but rather try to see what went wrong and why so that we do not keep repeating the same pattern in the future.

3) Work to make changes in how we see ourselves and the world and other people AND IN HOW WE INTERACT WITH THEM so that we can have new patterns in the future—either with the same person or with new people who come into our lives. At some point, we need to forgive both ourselves and the other person—understanding that we did our best. We can ask ourselves what are the good things we bring—or could bring—to a relationship? We can see the best in ourselves and build on it.

4) Celebrate whatever was good in the relationship that we’ve lost. When we remember the good, we have a starting point to build on for what we want in the future. Note: I am NOT talking about romanticizing the relationship and obsessively grieving for it! I am talking about focusing on a sense of gratitude that this person was part of our lives and helped us become who we are now IN A GOOD WAY.
It is tempting to demonize the person to try to lessen our hurt and loss but we hurt ourselves by doing so. For one thing, when we let ourselves see the good in others, it is easier to see the good in ourselves. It’s healing to remember that we are ALL doing the best we can in the moment we are doing it. If we (they) could have done things differently we (they) would have.
When we allow ourselves to see and remember whatever was good about the relationship, it is easier to risk trusting again in the future. It’s also part of figuring out what we like and don’t like, want and don’t want in a relationship. It gives us the starting points to build upon.

5) Cut ourselves some slack! As we change and grow, our relationships will inevitably do so as well—or end. That doesn’t mean they were necessarily mistakes in the first place. Any given relationship may have been the right choice at the time we made it—even if at some point it ends.
We will all make mistakes at times. If we can forgive ourselves and others for being imperfect, we have the best shot at creating healthy relationships. This is especially true if we remember that respect and kindness are fundamental—both to treat others that way and to not settle for less than that for ourselves.
The bottom line for me is this: When we see ourselves and others with love, when we look for and acknowledge and reach out to the (genuine) good within each person we are far more likely find love and to see that good manifest. (At the same time, it is perfectly rational and wise to protect ourselves from abusive behavior!) When we let go of anger and grudges, we let go of a deep drain on our energy and ability to be happy. When we see each loss as an opportunity for something good to come into our lives, amazing things can happen.

Sending blessings and safe and gentle ((((((hugs))))))),