When I was 20, I went to a party in my hometown. Sitting between some people I didn’t know, there was a girl. She was short, had dark hair, and a beautiful smile. Somehow, I felt drawn to her.
The feeling turned out to be mutual, and we instantly connected. We talked, we laughed, and by the time we all left and drove to a club, she held my hand and wouldn’t let go. It was magical.
Whenever I grabbed the lever to switch gears, she put her hand on top of mine. I let it rest there for the entire ride. Her touch made me feel warm and fuzzy. At the club, we danced through the night. Before I left, she gave me her number.
Over the next few days, we chatted a lot. We spoke on the phone, and I had fun getting to know her. I was back at university, but she said she’d be in town and asked if she could stay with me. Feeling even warmer and fuzzier, of course, I agreed.
I believe honesty is my best trait, but it’s also the one that has caused me the most pain. Whether it’s ultimately good fortune or just self-sabotage, I tend to unload big pieces of baggage early into a relationship. I feel like I owe people transparency, like they should know what they get into with me. In this case, I told my crush I was a virgin.
At first, she seemed to take it well. When she arrived on my doorstep, however, it was without an overnight bag. She said she’d changed her mind. While we were getting drinks at a rooftop bar, it dawned on me that she was rejecting me for being inexperienced.
The more stories she told about past lovers and ex-boyfriends, turning our beautiful connection into a buddy-like confessional, the more painful emotions seeped into my system. It was as if someone had broken a test tube full of poison, the liquid slowly inching forward, infecting my heart and brain.
I’m not sure why she flaunted her sexual encounters, knowing I had nothing to show for, but when I later asked her if she was willing to teach me, she snapped and asked if I was calling her a slut. I wasn’t, but I realized it may have come out wrong. I tried to rectify my choice of words, but, unable to calm her, I decided it was best to let go and move on from the whole incident.
I spent the rest of the night sitting in my chair, listening to Far East Movement, and somewhat successfully raising my spirits. The next day, I woke up, and, as always, life went on.
I’m still not sure I understand this whole encounter, but it taught me at least one valuable lesson: When we cause emotional damage in others, it’s always a reflection of our own, unaddressed pains.
Why do we hurt ourselves and others?
Emotional damage is what follows any event or perspective shift that causes a rift in your self-image.
When someone calls you fat, you suffer emotional damage. When someone leaves you, whether it’s by breaking up with you or dropping out of a project at the last minute, you suffer emotional damage. Even when you go to class in seventh grade, see two of the other kids wearing new shoes and think, “I wish I was cool,” you suffer emotional damage.
For a brief period in life, we all hold a complete, unbroken self-image. Until we’re 2–4 years old, we don’t think of ourselves as individuals at all, and so we accept whatever happens in its most literal sense, without trying to add meaning and creating psychological complexity. Once self-awareness kicks in, however, we treat ourselves and the world as separate entitities — and with the contrasts we draw between the two, the first cracks begin to appear.
When your parents lie to you and you notice it, your self-image cracks. When another kid pushes you in the sandbox, your self-image cracks. Many of these scratches are so tiny as to be innocuous at first, but they add up quickly. Each cut glows like an active volcano, waiting to erupt — sometimes because it’s pressed upon, sometimes because it simply flares up.
Eventually, you’ll arrive in the real, imperfect world and call the other kid stupid for calling you fat or hurt people with what you might think are innocent remarks. Often, we don’t even realize we’re committing emotional hit and run because we’re unaware of the issues that make us lash out, but each action leads to an equal reaction over time.
Emotional damage always relates to people one way or another. I felt inadequate being a virgin at 20 not because people told me so, but because I looked at society and decided to hear that message. No one criticized me, the comparison I made was enough. The emotional wounds we inflict on ourselves are the hardest to heal because we’re the ones who opened them.
Like everyone, I’ve doled out my share of emotional punches over the years. I blamed my family for a lack of support when, really, I was lacking confidence. I told girls they were wasting my time when, actually, I was just incapable of handling their rejection. I regret these things, but they’re just part of life.
As for that girl, maybe she was hurting from a breakup, the totality of all her breakups, or using sex to compensate for a lack of love in her past. Whatever it was, our actions couldn’t contribute to each other’s healing.
I don’t think anyone can offer you a perfect solution to mend all your traumas, but I do believe making an effort to deal with your issues leads to less pain for yourself and others.
Here are three ways to do so.
1. Make time to look for your unaddressed pains
Handling emotional damage is hard because it forces you to look in the mirror and see a battered, bleeding version of yourself. Unfortunately, the only fractures we can heal are those we’re aware of, which is why making time to uncover them is a crucial first step.
As with emotions in general, this can be as simple as sitting in your living room, preferably alone, while listening to some music and having a cup of tea. Usually, quiet solitude is enough for feelings to emerge from the depths.
If you want to be more deliberate, you can try basic journaling — just noting down your thoughts — or a light meditation practice. As you progress, you might want more elaborate forms of self-analysis, and you’ll discover those naturally as you go along.
The point here is not to become an expert in psychology but to make room for spotting holes in your psyche. Find your emotional fissures so you can ask why they glow.
2. Make time to process your unaddressed pains
There’s a difference between finding an emotional wound and healing it. Acknowledgment is a great start, but, ultimately, the goal is to reduce your number of unresolved pains so you’re less inclined to further project them onto yourself and others.
Doing so will likely require more of the above — sitting, thinking, meditating, writing — but now you can also include people you trust in the process. Sharing your fears and inadequacies can provide a great sense of relief if done in a safe environment, and if they’re met with compassion, understanding, and non-judgment.
Making sure you have such an environment is your job, not anyone else’s. Don’t overload people with your emotional baggage. Wade into relationships slowly, give trust first, and offer that safe space you long for to others. Find out when, how, and with whom you feel comfortable sharing, and always let them know how much you appreciate their support.
We suffer emotional damage from people, and we can heal together with people. Shared humanity is the most powerful concept in the world.
3. When you feel like lashing out, pause
When your instincts tell you to fight someone with words, usually, there’s an emotion you’re not allowing yourself to feel. It’s not that they meant to hurt you but that they happened to put their finger on one of your scars.
It’s natural for your wounds to want to spit fire, and, sometimes, they will. If you do manage to tune in to your impulses for a second, however, you have a chance to pause. Instead of acting just by reacting, hold off on self-judgment. Practice curiosity, and probe your anger, frustration, and sadness.
Before you decide whose fault they are, go back to the first step. Make time to sit. See if there’s something you’re missing; an unaddressed pain you never knew was there. Often, you’ll find there is. You’ll see you need compassion, not fury, and the only way to attain it is to offer it to someone else.
You won’t always catch yourself in time, and that’s okay, but always try your best to be kind.
All you need to know
Everyone you know is suffering from emotional damage. It’s a universal experience. We can’t avoid having cracks in our self-image, and we’ll never fully heal them all.
We can, however, do ourselves and others a service by practicing emotional maturity. We can be self-sufficient and learn to handle whatever life throws at us.
By giving ourselves a chance to understand, accept, and share our emotionally taxing experiences — even just in our own heads — we gain freedom, relief, and a sense of calm. In turn, we can extend these courtesies to others.
Before you fight people on the merits of something you don’t fully grasp, listen to your inner rumble. Make time to find the sources of emotional turmoil, and be bold in facing and resolving them, whether you do it with some help or all by yourself.
Sometimes, you fall in love with a stranger, and the spark you share blows up in your face. There’s nothing you can do about that. What you can do is pick yourself up, heal, and then try again. Until, someday, the magic won’t fade.
Thanks to Jordan Gross, Barry Davret, Stephen Moore, and George J. Ziogas.
Previously published on Psiloveyou.xyz.
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