I had a pretty profound emotional reaction a couple of weeks ago that didn’t match the situation in front of me. It was intensified by the fact that I didn’t feel like I was at the helm. To say I felt out of control at that moment is an understatement. I was being visited by some painful ghosts of my past and I was having a hard time deciphering what was real and who was who. I am being dramatic in that I was still tethered to the planet. And my all-knowing self was also in the room reminding me that I was overreacting and that the supercharged emotions were not about the situation in front of me. However, I was being triggered by unresolved things from my past. The emotional charge diminished and was nearly gone within the hour.
Instead, in the spirit of one of my teachers, Michael Brown, author of the Presence Process, I decided to accept this very loud, abrupt and explosive invitation from the ghosts of my past and reframe it as a gift.
So why am I accepting this invite? Because I know from past experiences that our ghosts will continue to haunt us through people, places and things until they feel acknowledged and felt. This is why we keep repeating the same godforsaken patterns over and over again. This is what contributes to the stuck realm.
Our ghosts will boo at us until they are acknowledged and felt. They continue to creep up on us until we are able to face them head-on. As Brown says, “we can’t heal it until we feel it.” I have done a lot of this work in the past and yet I understand that this most recent invitation tells me there is yet another layer. As difficult as it is to open the door and invite the ghosts in and feel all of those not so fun emotions, I know that the process allows me to step closer to living a more conscious life. Offering me an opportunity to have a deeper understanding of how I am showing up in the world. How I am impacting everyone and everything? Allowing me to be a more conscious and present wife, parent, daughter, sibling, friend, life coach, citizen, earthling, etc.
My favorite book and movie is The Christmas Carol.
For me, it is a must see and read this time of year. It’s a brilliant perspective as to why Scrooge was indeed a Scrooge. A visit to his past allows us to see that our history shapes us.
Until we come to terms with our past and feel those unfelt emotions we will be unfulfilled and Scrooge-like.
In the past, I have had a few people interview me as their potential life coach carrying the fantasy that they can bypass their history. They have it neatly tucked away thinking they can escape it. And that somehow that can feel fulfilled without sorting through their past. It’s impossible. Clearly, I wasn’t the right coach or them 🙂 So how do we figure out what is reality and what are remnants from our history?
Signs That You Are Being Visited by Ghosts of Your Past:
- You hit zero to sixty emotionally
- Your emotional response far outweighs the situation in front of you
- You find yourself reacting rather than consciously responding
- You find it very difficult if not impossible to step out of the situation at hand and hold a bigger picture perspective
- You may feel a strong emotional charge or you may check out/shut down – otherwise known as fight or flight
- You experience certain people and/or situations as a trigger you and you find it uncomfortable and extremely difficult to be present
Once you understand that when you hit zero to sixty a ghost is in the space you might be able to start identifying patterns. For example, I shut down 100 percent around angry men (hello Daddy). I am normally an assertive woman but I can tell you about many situations where I literally lost my voice when in the presence of an angry male. In fact, I am unable to share any details of what was said because I was that checked out.
As a child of the ’70s and being raised in a family of six where we are all less than a year apart, being accepted and embraced simply was not part of our family system or my experience in part one of my life. Ongoing rejection was the norm for me because who wanted to be around a “baby” or yet another kid. And so the ghosts that can still linger and moan a bit louder appear when there is a hint of rejection in the air. Of not being wanted. Because of the deep personal growth work I have done over the years, these ghostly visits were rather rare….until I had a teenager in the house. Ding!
My teenage son is working overtime trying to survive his first year in high school. As he is attempting the developmental stage of fitting in and merging with his peers, he is also confronting other factors that make this mission a bit more challenging…transitioning from a tiny independent grade school, being a adopted and probably the only student in his high school born in Guatemala, as well as being part of a multicultural family. The last thing this newly fifteen-year-old needs is a 51-year-old mom with dreadlocks who wants to talk about feelings and connection. My mere presence can irk him to his core.
Which brings me to my surge a few weeks ago. I go through long phases where I at the helm and hold empathy for what my son navigating. I am able to hold that his not wanting to talk, be around me in public, or his unpleasant tone at times with me are indicative of his own stuff. I have boundaries about the expectation to be kind. I remind him and give him feedback on his tone. And then there are others times where the ghosts take over. They steer the ship.
All of sudden my teenager reminds me of my father who never once took an interest in me. He never talked to me. I used to have contests with myself in the rare moments we were in the car alone to see if he might ask me questions about my life. He never did. And then my teen becomes the siblings who always put me down, the ones who didn’t allow me to talk, and when I did talk, told me I was dumb. And then I can’t see straight. In those moments I feel like the rejected child. And I want to respond in a childlike way. And sometimes I do! In those moments I want him to parent me, to tell me I am smart, cool, interesting. I want him to accept me and tell me I am doing a good job as a mom. That is not only unhealthy it is also unrealistic. In those moments I can’t see that my son needs a mom a the helm. One who is firm, who is in charge, who sets boundaries and shows him love and acceptance. He needs an adult steering his sometimes very rocky ship. In fact, he needs me to be the captain more than ever at this point in his life. My ghosts don’t serve me…and they definitely don’t serve him.
Taming the Ghosts That Bind You
Step One: Hanging out in the Awareness Realm
Emotions are the portal into ghost awareness. The more dramatic the response (emotional surge or a complete check out) the more powerful the ghost. Ghost hunting ain’t as easy as it sounds. We might be so conditioned to ignore our feelings or are knee deep in blaming others for feeling certain emotions that we carry. Sometimes our lives are super busy with work/family that we barely have time to think straight, let alone be aware of our emotional responses. Or perhaps we have become so good at distracting ourselves that we aren’t even aware that we are engaging in numbing tactics. Know that you might hang out in this realm for a long time. Sometimes uncomfortably long. The key is to be gentle with yourself. We cannot make any changes until we aware. Often the act of awareness automatically opens the doors to new insights and a free pass to change.
Step Two: Practice the Art of Containment
Whoaa….this is a tough one. At least for me. As Michael Brown says, “don’t kill the messenger.” In other words, refrain from reacting to the emotional surge. Refrain from distracting yourself. For example, there have been many times that I have wanted to tell my teen off. To shame him. Tell him that he is wrong for making me feel that way. But when I am practicing the art of containment, I refrain from saying a word. I know, hard right?
It’s important to note that the art of containment is not forever. It might be a few minutes, a few hours, a day, or maybe even a week. The key is not to make any remarks or moves until we have gained some insight, feel more clear, and can consciously respond in a way that is respectful. Maybe your partner does something that creates an emotional surge within you. And maybe what they did isn’t cool at all. However, when you are doing this practice you do not fight back. Do whatever you have to do to make this happen. Perhaps remove yourself from the scene telling your partner you are going someplace to gather your thoughts and cool down. This also goes for distractions. Perhaps a co-worker sets you off, a project has gone south or you are stuck in a traffic jam. If your go-to is a cigarette, a candy bar, an all-you-can-eat buffet, a beer, a joint, see if you can hold off and then move to the next step.
Step Three: Breath and FEEL
If you are able, see if you can stop and breathe and allow the feelings to arise. Can you identify the feeling? Where does it live in your body? Does it feel like you just got kicked in the stomach? Is your heart aching? Are you sweating? Do you feel like you can lift a car? Are you feeling vulnerable? Helpless? Alone? Without judgment, get curious about what is happening. And allow what is happening to surface. Perhaps you will be tearful. See if you can stay in this place for as long as you are able…even if it is for one minute.
Step Four: Does It Feel Familiar?
Once you have identified the feelings, go back in your mind’s eye and see if you have ever felt this way before? If yes, when? Does this feel familiar? Is this a pattern? Spend some time journaling. Thinking about it. Replaying the past. And sift. Is this really about my partner or is there something about how he/she handled the situation that reminded me of how I was treated as a child? In my case, is this person really leaving me out or am I just making up a story because I am sensitive to being left out because of my history?
Step Five: Consciously Respond
Once we have taken a step back, allowed ourselves to feel (even if it’s only for 30 seconds) and perhaps carry a new awareness, we are much more likely to move from reacting to responding. When we really sit with the ghosts and have a conversation, we are able to sift out what belongs where. So when we have a conversation with our partner we are able to let them know how their actions impacted us and what would be more helpful in the future. We are able to see our partner for who they are, not as the ghost they represented in that moment. You may even choose to share your ghosts with them: “When you said that, I felt like I was five years old again being scolded by my teacher. “
At the end of the Christmas Carol, Scrooge was a new man. He was joyful, light, positive and connected. He walked this world with a heart of peace rather than a heart at war. He was able to hold kindness and empathy. This is exactly what happens the more you are able to grieve your unfelt emotions. As Michael Brown says, “it is essential that our adult selves travel back in time to free our child selves that are stuck in time.” It may be helpful to consider working with a therapist or life coach to support you in this process. It is a lifestyle change and it can be helpful to have a sounding board and someone who can compassionately hold the space for you as you travel back in time.