Last year, my husband Jon wanted me to do something I didn’t want to do. Jon promised his father they would speak on the phone at a certain time. So I had to leave Connecticut earlier than I wanted (to find cell phone reception), cutting short my lovely Sunday afternoon in the country. I felt myself get “tight” in my body, angry at having to make the accommodation.
I am not proud of my selfish reaction. Nevertheless I was powerless to stop it. My body tightened and I pushed back, asking Jon in a complaining voice, “What’s the big deal if you talk to your dad later?” But Jon insisted, claiming he made a promise he wanted to keep. So we rushed out the door.
My body was still rigid as I huffed and puffed my way into the car with a disgruntled look on my face. That old familiar tightness was ready to pick a fight despite the fact that I deeply value and respect Jon for honoring his promises. But my anger had the best of me and wanted to blame and criticize Jon for anything and everything at that moment.
Feeling “tight” was a familiar state going back to my teenage years. When I was hurt, I simply got mad. Now I know that deep down I wanted someone to notice my suffering and ask me, “What’s the matter?” My parents were busy with their careers, and I had a younger sister who needed time and attention. At times, I felt like I literally had to fight to be seen or heard.
Getting angry made me feel like I was petty and ungrateful. I suffered a backlash of guilt. I knew I was a lucky girl in so many ways. So why did I react like such a brat? But, also, I needed my loved ones to know they hurt me or else I’d feel like a doormat that could be pushed around. What a difficult dilemma for my angry side and my guilty side!
Those same exact feelings were triggered by Jon’s taking care of his dad that day. This time, however, I wanted to manage my tight feeling more skillfully, in a way that did not cause a fight with my kindhearted husband or leave me feeling guilty. So I tried something different.
I was in the passenger seat, stewing. But, I wondered, what would it feel like not to avoid what I was feeling? Maybe I could learn something about the meaning of this tightness just inside my skin. I turned my attention inward and tried to stay curious and compassionate to my experience. You know how it felt? Not good! Still I waited, breathed, and then something shifted. It took about two minutes.
All of a sudden, I felt very young. The words “It’s not fair!” came into my mind. I started to cry.
Meanwhile, Jon was driving, unaware.
I flashed to a memory of me as a lonely 6-year-old wanting her mommy’s attention. And then I understood a lifetime of this tightness. I understood why this feeling was there and what it meant. A narrative formed that went like this:
When I was a little girl, I felt at times alone and unimportant, which made me sad. I couldn’t show my sadness to anyone. Perhaps I didn’t feel justified. Maybe I didn’t know how to ask for what I needed. My reaction was to get angry. That was the only way I showed my upset.
There in the car, I cried for my little Hilary. It was she who was upset that Jon was taking care of his father — that touched something very deep and meaningful in my past. I imagined my “Big Self” giving my “Little Self” a big, loving hug. I gave compassion to my Big Self, too, for having to struggle.
Then something huge happened. The wave of sadness ended and my anger melted away. My whole body softened. This was a transformational moment in my life. The only way I can explain it is that the young Hilary must have healed when I imagined hugging her and my true feelings were able to flow. I sat there quietly next to Jon, not yet ready to share my epiphany. It was mine, and I enjoyed my peace.
People heal from the everyday wounds of childhood in many different ways. Sometimes we need help. And, sometimes all we need is our Self, some curiosity, some impulse control and all the compassion we can muster.