Have you ever noticed, when you look back on a past event, that you feel much differently now looking back on it than you did when you were going through it? When all is said and done, what counts most is often not how you were feeling while the event was happening; it’s the flavor of the film that plays back in your head about the event – how the event gets filed in your mind.
There is no way to reliably tell, when you are going through something, how you will feel about it later! For example, a lot of us, as children, had to go through things that felt weird and horrible at the time, but gave us valuable experience later on, such that we become grateful later for what these events taught us. Or, there’s the happy couple that goes on a wonderful vacation together, and then one of them seriously hurts the other somehow – and all the joy of that vacation becomes at best bittersweet, and at worst, something that one might even desire to forget as much as possible.
What all this points to is that our mind not only remembers what we’ve been through; it also flavors these memories based on what came afterward. Now, while it is true that you can never be quite sure of your immediate reaction to a situation (how it hits you), you do potentially have some power over what flavors a situation has when you look back on it.
I remember watching an interview with the reggaeton star Daddy Yankee. Before his music career, he was a promising baseball athlete, with potential of making it big. Baseball was his life. And then he got shot. And that was the end of baseball for him as a career track. Now, this interview happened long after he had made it to stardom in reggaeton music. When the interviewer asked him how he felt now about being shot, his response was “I thank God for that bullet” – a vivid example of how a bad event became something so good that it actually turned into a good memory.
Of course there’s no guarantee that good things are going to happen right out of the gate after something terrible has happened. Often, unfortunately, more terrible things happen. It’s not easy. “Thanking God” for something bad is not usually a person’s default response.
But what this is really saying is that you can also positively affect your memories of not so delightful past events; in other words, turn bad memories into not so bad ones, or even good ones sometimes. But it’s not always so simple to know how to get to this point.
There is the thinking that, when you are bouncing back from a hardship, you’ve got to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep moving. This perspective is definitely not without its value; sometimes, the best way to get through a hardship will indeed be to just move on to bigger, better things. However, there are times when the hardship is so great that you may not know where to move on to – in which case, when you try to burn rubber so that you can put some distance between yourself and the hardship you’ve gone through, you only spin your wheels.
At times like this, you have no choice but to deal with the fallout; you must confront it and engage it, or else it will lie there festering in the back of your mind, never really going away. The best choice that you can make is to dive into the pain, figure out where it’s coming from and why, and figure out what you need to do in order to integrate it harmoniously into the next phase of your life – a phase you may not yet be able to perceive clearly. But the only way that you will get to the point where you can perceive things clearly is by not running away from the things that are calling at you from the inside.
Often, the things that hurt most are the things that we think could have been prevented. If we believe that we could have acted differently and prevented the hardship, then a sense of tragedy and pity is often attached to the situation. Sometimes, however, the part of the reality that we don’t see is that we didn’t prevent the situation precisely because we didn’t know how. We needed to learn something – often several different things – in order to even have the sense later on that something in our past could have been prevented. Thus, the truth often is … it could not have been prevented.
When we see ourselves as we ideally are, instead of who we really are, we set ourselves up for repeated disappointment because we block ourselves from learning the thing that most needs to get learned – the thing that we most want to believe we have learned. If we cannot accept, looking back, that we needed to go through a hardship in order to learn a lesson that we now understand, we miss the opportunity to see progress, and thus the positive outcome, coming out of the difficulty – to see ourselves change for the wiser. When self-blame dominates the picture, any hurt that we are already feeling gets compounded many times over, and it’s hard to dust yourself off and move forward when you are still kicking yourself.
Feelings are very powerful forces. Sometimes, they’re so powerful, that even when they’re bad for us, we feel like there’s no way to escape them, and give in. We’ll even take a strange pleasure in wallowing in negative, destructive feelings. The brain will know all along that something different must happen, something must change, and yet, the heart stays in the same place, too comfortable to accept such change. Perhaps this is why we settle on feelings that are unhealthy and so often stick with them for a longer time than we think we should; because when something hits you really hard and knocks everything into confusion, at least a consistently bad feeling is… consistent. Something to hold onto.
From my own perspective
Those times when my brain is no longer able to redirect my heart, I let my heart have time to feel what it needs to feel. Not too long ago, while going through the throes of a tough period, I had a moment like this: my brain told my heart, “it’s ok if you need to hurt for a while, if you can’t love at the moment like you usually can. I’ll take things over from here. I’ll steer the ship, and I’ll be there to see you through your hurt. I believe in you, and you’re gonna be ok.” This was a tremendous breakthrough for me. I gave myself permission to be somebody I didn’t identify with being: somebody who is not strong enough to love. I let my heart have the space that it needed in order to heal. I took an honest look at all the places where things went wrong, and found a lot that I could not truly see before. I even found a few things that made me sick to my stomach to think about, things that I have always feared about myself that, in some way or another, came true.
But at the same time as my brain gave me permission to feel things that I did not want to feel, it also gave me permission to feel much differently in the future. And that is where I am now – no longer sick to my stomach, because I’ve let myself think those pressing, unthinkable things for a while, and now, well… it’s not so unthinkable anymore. Sure, I’m still afraid sometimes, but this is a manageable fear, one that no longer overpowers me.
Feelings are not only very powerful; they can also be very scary. When I was feeling completely trapped by the depressing thoughts I had taken me over, I have no way of truly seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, even though I knew in my brain that this light existed. But how was I going to get there? What did I need to do? Which way was the right way? I had no idea. And that felt awful. I had to live on my mind’s faith that the relieving, positive feelings that I couldn’t see, couldn’t imagine existing … actually did exist.
That is what I mean when I say that you are not feeling everything that you really feel. For the things that you feel can change – sometimes quickly - and you really don’t always have a good idea of what they are going to feel like in the future. Even if your feelings about something don’t change sharply, very often, subtle changes in the way you feel about something happen; you look back on a past event, or you examine a present relationship, and you noticed that your feelings are no longer quite the same, even though they haven’t changed all that much. If the change is not too extreme, we tend to forget that anything has changed at all. Because change can sometimes be scary, especially when such a change happens inside you without you having a choice, as is so often the case with feelings! So it feels better to think as though no change at all has occurred.
But such change in feelings does happen. All the time. Sorry, but that’s fact. And that is why you must give yourself permission to feel things that you don’t feel right now. To remember that what you are feeling now is not all that you really feel… that the range of emotions that you have about something important to you is too great to be experienced completely in one moment in time. If you consciously give yourself the choice beforehand to feel things that don’t seem possible to feel at the moment – then you have empowered yourself with an element of choice in this realm of life in which we often feel so powerless. And giving yourself this choice is one of the surest roads back to a sense of self-empowerment when things get out of hand.