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 accommodate by leaving Connecticut earlier than I wanted (to find cellphone 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.
At that time and again as I write now, I feel my shame rising. I am not proud of my “selfish” reaction. I judge myself for it. Nevertheless I could not help my emotional reaction. My body tightened and I pushed back asking 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, puss on my face, sighing with agitation and disappointment. That old familiar tightness was ready to pick a fight. I was angry and my anger wanted to blame and criticize Jon for anything and everything. Typically at this point, I’d pick a fight.
Another part of me had another thought. I actually valued the character my husband was displaying. He was a man of honor who kept his word. Those attributes served me well as he treated me with the same care and respect he showed to others.
So, I summoned some impulse control and held my tongue in the car for the time being, until I could sort out my feelings. Being a student of emotions and defenses, I noticed, with a newfound clarity, the rigidity I felt in my being. For the first time in my life I became curious about this tightening simultaneously as I was experiencing it.
Fighting To Be Seen
Feeling “tight” was not a new experience for me. In fact, I had felt this tightness thousands of times since I was a teenager. When I was young, I didn’t reflect on my emotions. My emotions simply were things that happened to me. When I did not get what I wanted, I just got mad.
But deep down what I really needed was to be seen, for someone to notice my suffering. I wanted my parents to ask, “What’s the matter?” My parents were busy with their careers and I had a younger sister who needed time and attention as well. At times, I felt like I had to fight to be seen.
Feeling alone and angry made me feel badly about myself. I felt guilty. For example, I remember many birthdays ending with a feeling of disappointment that I didn’t get enough attention or the present I wanted.
Getting angry about not getting what I wanted made me feel like I was petty and ungrateful, which was not how I wanted to be. 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. Oy! What a dilemma between my angry side and my guilty side!
All those same exact feelings from my childhood 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 husband or leave me feeling guilty. So I tried something different.
Impulse to Lash Out
We were in the car. Jon turned on his favorite Satellite radio station and, clueless to my struggle, drove towards I-95. I was in the passenger seat stewing. I felt my tightness and my impulse to lash out. I had curtailed my impulses to lash out in the past but never moved beyond the tightness and the anger. This time, for the first time ever, I wondered what it would feel like to NOT avoid what I was feeling but instead pay attention to this tight feeling that felt like a head to toe wall just inside my skin.
I turned my attention away from Jon and into my deepest emotional self, trying 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 2 minutes.
I felt very young all of a sudden. 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 little girl wanting…no, craving attention. I sensed myself as a little girl, about six-years-old, and very sad. This little Hilary was sad because she wanted Jon to care more about her than his dad. 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 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 didn’t know how to ask for what I needed. For whatever reason, my response was to get angry. That was the only way I could show my upset.
There in the car, I cried for my little Hilary. I cried for big Hilary too because Jon was taking care of his father in that moment and not me—that touched something very deep and meaningful. I imagined my “Big Self” giving my “Little Self” a big loving hug. I gave compassion to my big Self. Then something huge happened!
The wave of my sadness ended and with it my anger melted away. My whole body softened. This moment was a transformational one in my life. I sat there quietly next to Jon, not yet ready to share my epiphany. It was mine and I enjoyed my peace.
That experience changed me forever. Today, I feel both softer and stronger in a deeper and more grounded way. My little Hilary needed to be seen, witnessed, validated and comforted.
Getting love and compassion for not getting attention was the response for which young me had always longed but could never figure out how to get. That young part of me must have healed in that moment when I imagined hugging myself. That’s the only way I can explain it.
People heal from the everyday traumas of childhood in many different ways. Sometimes, we need someone to help us. Sometimes all we need is our Self, some curiosity, some impulse control and all the compassion in the world.
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.
Anger picture on Shutterstock.