Instead of being stuck in the past, let go and move on
"It took me years to get over what my sister said to me. I just couldn’t let it go.”
Shani is like that. When something unpleasant happens, it lands deep inside her, where it sits and festers, growing darker and heavier with the passage of time. But not by itself; Shani actively helps it along.
“Every time I hear her voice, I replay the whole scene in my mind and my blood starts to boil. I can’t look at her without dredging up the whole story.”
Shani’s response is typical of those who’ve survived traumatic events. The sight of the place of the trauma, the smell of the place, sometimes just the mention of the place, all trigger flashbacks of the terrible event. All these cues are the starting point of complex neural pathways fueled by the emotion of terror. They’re seared into the fabric of the brain where they operate without conscious intention or desire.
However, Shani’s bad experience with her sister wasn’t a traumatic event. There was no life-or-death struggle. There was no terror. The “flashbacks” to the incident in question are not those that travel unbidden along trauma circuits in the brain. Rather, they’re simply the product of practice and repetition. Shani consciously brings the story to mind each time she sees or hears her sister.
“Yes, I think about it. How can I not? When somebody does something to hurt me, it haunts me for years, sometimes decades. For example, after my aunt made a cutting remark in front of the whole family, I never spoke to her again. That was 20 years ago.”
Why Do We Hold On?
Negative feelings produce stress that lowers our mood and compromises our health. When something bad happens to us we feel a range of emotions such as hurt, upset, anger, disappointment, loss, betrayal, abandonment, and humiliation. One would think that a person would want to “lose” such feelings as quickly as possible, but in fact, many people — like Shani — intentionally hold on to them. They think about what happened again and again, causing their hearts and their bodies to be refilled with the toxic emotions each time. They aren’t doing so masochistically, in order to harm themselves. Rather, they’re trying — in their own, unhealthy way — to help themselves.
The Role of the Replay
How could replaying the “crime” be helpful? Well, seeing it again and again can help a person process the loss. What did the perpetrator say and do? Did he/she really say and do that? What parts of me got wounded in that process? Let me check the damage, and let me remind myself to never let that happen again. Ahh, I see what they did — the insult, the disrespect, the mistreatment. I see what it did to me. I’m feeling that pain now. And I feel the anger. I promise I’m never going to make myself vulnerable to that again.
Revisiting the injury helps strengthen the commitment to protect oneself. Just ask Shani:
“Listen, if I just forget all about it and make up with her, she’ll do it again in a heartbeat. I know her. And I’m not going to let that happen. No way!”
Shani is protecting herself from further wounding.
But some people replay events that cannot be repeated. For instance, Devorah thinks of her hometown nonstop. She’s married now and she’s not going back. But she cannot settle into her new life because she’s busy missing her old one. She’s been doing that for five years already.
Because we’re unhappy about what we lost or about a situation that occurred, we refuse to move forward. It’s as if we’re saying to Hashem, “I object to what you have taken from me and I’m not going to just ignore it. I’m not moving on.” The lack of emunah that everything that Hashem does is good, can cause us to remain stuck in our complaint.
The cure for this kind of holding on is usually good grieving. We have to accept, experience, and mourn a loss before we can put it behind us.
No matter why we review painful material, the cost is the same: our own wellbeing. Paying attention to the way we feel when replaying our injuries can help us commit to stopping the habit. If we want to be healthy and happy, we must choose positivity. And the more we do so, the easier and more natural positivity becomes.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 706)
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