Last year, my husband Jon wanted me to do something that I did NOT want to do: cut short my weekend away and return back to the city early. Jon had promised his father they would speak on the phone at a specific time, so we had to head out early since there was no phone service where we were. I felt my body tighten, rigid with anger at having to make the accommodation.
At that time (and still now as I write) I felt my shame rising. I judge my response as “selfish.” Nevertheless, I could not help my emotional reaction. I pushed back asking Jon, “What’s the big deal if you talk to your dad later?” But, Jon insisted, saying he made a promise he wanted to keep. So we rushed out the door.
I huffed and puffed my way into the car, puss on my face, sighing with agitation and disappointment. I was angry. Tight. And my anger wanted to criticize Jon. Typically at this point, I would pick a fight.
Another part of me had a thought: I really value Jon’s integrity. He is a man of honor who keeps his word. These attributes serve me well too. So, I summoned my impulse control and held my tongue until I could sort out my feelings.
Feeling “tight” was not a new experience for me. In fact, I had felt this way thousands of times since I was a little girl. For example, I remember many birthdays ending with a feeling of disappointment that I didn’t get enough attention or the birthday gift I had wished for. When I did not get what I wanted, I got mad. But deep down I really needed someone to notice me and ask, “What’s the matter?”
Jon taking care of his dad instead of me, triggered these childhood feelings. This time, however, I wanted to manage my angry tightness more skillfully; more in line with my current values. So, I tried something new: though I had been a student of emotions and defenses for years, for the first time I became curious about this tightening while I was experiencing it.
We were now in the car. Jon turned on his favorite radio station and, clueless to my struggle, drove towards I-95 where his phone would work. I was in the passenger seat stewing. I turned my attention away from Jon and into my deepest emotional self, trying to stay curious and compassionate. I focused on the rigidity. The sensation felt terrible! Like a full-body wall just inside my skin. Still I waited, breathed deeply 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. A wave of sadness came over me and I started to cry. I flashed to a memory of me as a little girl. I felt about six-years-old. This “little Hilary” was sad because she wanted Jon to care more about her than his dad.
At that moment I understood a lifetime of this tight feeling. All at once a new narrative formed that went like this:
When I was a little girl, I felt at times alone and not a priority. That feeling of aloneness and not mattering made me very sad. I couldn’t show my sadness to anyone. Maybe I didn’t feel justified. Maybe I was too proud. Maybe I didn’t know how to ask for what I needed. Whatever the reason, my response was to get mad. I guess that was the way I found I could show my parents that I was upset.
There in the car, unbeknownst to Jon, I quietly cried for my “little Hilary.” I imagined my “Big Self” giving my “Little Self” a big loving hug, just like I help some of my patients do when their young selves need comfort.
Then a huge thing happened: my wave of sadness moved through me and with it my anger melted away. My body softened. I sat there quietly next to Jon, not yet ready to share my epiphany. It was mine and I enjoyed my peace.
That experience – about 5 minutes, in a car – changed me forever. Today, I feel both softer and stronger in a deeper, more grounded way. My ”little Hilary” needed to be seen, validated and comforted. A young part of me healed in the moment when I imagined hugging myself. That’s the only way I can explain it.
People recover from the everyday traumas of childhood in many different ways. Sometimes, we need someone to help us. Sometimes all we need is a few minutes of quiet, our wise Self, curiosity, some impulse control and compassion for what we have lived through.
In the words of Wilfred Peterson, author of “The Art of Living,”
“The art of being yourself at your best is the art of unfolding your personality into the person you want to be. . . Be gentle with yourself, learn to love yourself, to forgive yourself, for only as we have the right attitude toward ourselves can we have the right attitude toward others.”
These words ring truer than ever.
Photo: Me at 6 Years Old