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))))))),