cn: moving on, trauma, anger, self harm, suicidal thoughts
It’s almost the end of the year, and I am sorting through the past, picking through what to keep and what to leave behind. I tend to carry a lot with me and it has been a daily inconvenience, with bitterness and sadness tugging me back like gum stuck to my shoe and pulling me back through old footsteps. Superficial Instagram feminism tells me to just cut the ties and run free, but oddly enough, liberating myself from all my collected little traumas* is more complicated than reading a pastel coloured quote on my phone screen.
Letting go isn’t just moving forward; to me, it feels like leaving something behind, and when that something is a younger version of myself going through really hard times, sometimes it is just too difficult. But I am learning that moving on can take more than one form, and I am figuring out ways to hold onto some of that past pain, but in a way where I am in control of it, rather than being overwhelmed by it. Empathising with my past selves and allowing myself to acknowledge the continuing effects of past experiences in the present, rather than reincarnating into a fresh and untarnished new woman every year.
I’m bringing these thoughts into the new year, hoping that they will allow me to live with the past with a little more peace. So far, it seems to be going alright 🙂
I have a fairly early memory of being in the school playground, which has had a disproportionately powerful influence over my core beliefs and how I see my place in the world. Suspecting that I didn’t quite fit in with the other girls in my class, I did what any normal child would do and conducted a social experiment on my lab mice/peers (side note: I used to think this was a really weird thing for a small child to have done, but my therapist says that actually, it’s very normal for kids to do little tests to work out how the world around them works).
Hypothesis: I am an oddball and no one wants to play with me.
Test: run away and hide. If the other girls don’t notice, I will have proven my theory correct.
Result: nobody turns around to see me peering from round the corner at the back of the playground; the game goes on.
There and then, with my four or five years of worldly experience, I decided not to be too fussed with the concept of friends.
(Second side note: it took 15 years for a different therapist to point out that small children rarely recall anything that isn’t right in front of their noses, so my methodology may have been somewhat flawed and my results more of a reflection of developmental psychology rather than an irrevocable life sentence of social ostracisation. Who would have thought?)
Although I don’t remember feeling particularly hurt that morning break time, whenever I look back at that memory and picture myself so small and apart from the crowd, I’m struck by a really forceful pang of sadness. It’s not just the first-hand sadness of feeling left out, but also a very strong sense of feeling sorry for that little girl. It is a sadness that is usually reserved for other people, not self-pity; it feels more like I’m looking at someone else and wishing I could hold their hand and tell them that everything is okay. Which is confusing, because that hand is also my hand, and that girl is me?
I think it is a nausea that comes from knowing that some things are out of my reach, geographically or temporally, and that means that I am not a part of them, which means that I. cannot. fix. them.
Observing my past self in the third person gives me the same queasy feeling I get when I hear about awful news stories – I close my eyes and scrunch up my body and wish that I hadn’t heard. I can’t even look at old photos anymore – I cry and cry and cry when I look at childhood holiday albums and think about being small. I think it is a nausea that comes from knowing that some things are out of my reach, geographically or temporally, and that means that I am not a part of them, which means that I. cannot. fix. them. (Interestingly, this is true even if it’s a happy story and there’s nothing to fix. Just knowing that the whole situation is completely out of my control is enough to make this control freak’s insides turn upside down). It is a moment that is lost to me and if I try to get my hands on it, I’m just grasping at smoke.
This did not seem to be an ideal state of affairs, so I’ve been working on processing that core playground memory and the thoughts that flow from it, with a type of therapy called EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing). After a few weeks, the distress I felt when picturing that moment miraculously started to fall. My therapist and I were all smiles – it was working! But as with many positive developments, after a little more reflection, it began to make me feel uneasy.
I recall memories very clearly, can watch the scene like a short film in my head. So it was very off-putting to find that, as I went back to that playground scene in each therapy session, not only did I start feeling the memory less intensely, but the image itself seemed more distant in my mind. It was like I had zoomed out and the picture had faded – it was fainter and greyer and I found it harder to focus on reliving each moment of it than I used to. It was so disconcerting, like I’d found myself in a different place from where I’d expected, lost and displaced from a formerly familiar memory.
I was reluctant to let go of that little girl’s hand, to stop clinging to that distress and let it fall back into the past. Allowing myself to stop sharing that pain with my younger self felt like a betrayal, as if I was telling her that we weren’t quite the same anymore, that I now fit in where she didn’t. Like as much as five year old me felt left out from the other kids, at least she belonged to herself – as if every time (and there have been so many times) I have felt out of place since then has been a reassuring nod back to her, a promise that I see her and that we stand together on common ground when we feel rejected from the crowd. I held a fear close to my chest that if I allowed myself to move on from that pain now, then we would be one degree apart, and that by looking back and saying that I’m in a better place now, I was somehow leaving my inner child alone in a place that was worse.
I do worry when I write these things that I sound properly unhinged – of course, I do know that my past self is not an entirely separate entity to myself now. But I feel a responsibility for her nonetheless.
Allowing myself to stop sharing that pain with my younger self felt like a betrayal, as if I was telling her that we weren’t quite the same anymore, that I now fit in where she didn’t.
So, to counter this feeling of self-abandonment, I did the exact opposite. I’ve been sitting down with all my younger selves who have felt ignored and alone (and also with my therapist), carefully prying at their pain to work out where it might be coming from.
I have found that a common theme in the situations and memories that bring the most bitterness is feeling dismissed or disrespected or unheard or invalidated – because this is something that makes me ANGRY. And when I’m around people who have done something to make me angry, I tend to run away – physically, by storming out of the room and slamming the door; emotionally, by dispersing the anger into sadness or depression; or personally, by turning the anger inwards, in the form of self-hatred, self-harm, suicidal thoughts.
I don’t think I’m totally unequipped to deal with anger, but airing it in the moment and waiting for time to pass is not enough. I need the other person to take the time to understand how hard they’ve hurt me and to make an effort to do things differently. I believe this is what one would call my apology language. It takes a slightly different path to reach each individual’s forgiveness, and this is what it takes to reach mine. Anything less translates into a dismissal of my feelings and my importance, because it seems that the other person has judged my response as an overreaction, incorrect and not worth trying to understand and accept. It makes me feel small and stupid and invalidated – and there multiplies the anger.
With no resolution to dissolve it, I carry some form of that anger twisted into pain into bitterness into fear with me for years and years and it makes me feel crazed, always so noisy and sharp.
I believe it is a brave and beautiful thing when someone truly apologises, but also a rare thing. This isn’t anyone’s fault – I don’t think we are ever taught how important it is, or even how, to say sorry with more than a single word. But I am learning to accept that this is the case and that I will never get many of the apologies that I seek. While peaceful resolution and mutual growth is maybe the ideal, sometimes it is just not possible – too much time has passed, or the other person is simply never going to make the effort (and I am willing to admit that to make a proper apology to me does require a lot of effort). And just to be clear, I’m not putting this all on the notional ‘other person’ and painting myself solely as a victim – I am ashamed of the many apologies that I know I should have but didn’t give, and of the many more that I don’t even realise were needed.
I was a bit afraid (surprise, surprise, because when am I not?) when I first properly acknowledged the weight that an apology carries for me. If I need the other person to apologise in order for me to move on, then my long term sanity is beholden to them, and if they’re never going to apologise then I am stuck! Not really the conclusion of the empowered modern woman who I strive to be.
I carry some form of that anger twisted into pain into bitterness into fear with me for years and years and it makes me feel crazed, always so noisy and sharp.
But it seems there is another way. I have spent all this time thinking that I should be Over It by now, and I’ve been searching for some key within myself which will show me how to move on. But I think I have to accept that, for now at least, I just don’t work like that. I feel a lot, and I am as sensitive as I was when I was five; I cannot simply brush off being invalidated by someone. All these inspiring Instagram quotes preach to move on, let go, stop giving any more attention to those who never gave me any at all. But how? What does that mean? Not much to me, to be honest.
As much as I envision myself snapping my fingers, flipping my hair and strutting off in the other direction without ever a glance back, in reality whenever I’ve tried this, a few months down the line I’m crawling back, willing and desperate again to take a hit if it means another chance of acceptance by this other person. When this inevitably fails, there is then always a niggle at the back of my mind and a bitterness that I can’t shake, and as I said before, even if I could completely clear that feeling, it would feel like a betrayal to my younger self. How I feel has always been so strongly tied to who I feel I am, and I don’t think I can let that go.
Instead, I will (try to) no longer resist the fact that I am still upset/angry/bitter. I am willing to look my past self in the eye, hold up my hands and acknowledge that I had good reason to be pissed off. I can take her hand and tell her that the things she’s going through do get better, but at the same time, those things still bother me now.
If I can understand that I can’t dig up all my triggers and disarm them by reaching a resolution with people who won’t realise they’ve hurt me, I have to accept that all that upset/anger/bitterness is not going to magically dissolve into forgiveness and indifference. I will continue to be stung by those past experiences, but if I can accept that, then I can stop fighting the pressure to get over them, and feel those old stings in peace.
This is a form of self-validation, as backwards as it seems. This hurt I hold with me comes from feeling invalidated by others, and I don’t feel I can truly heal that hurt unless they apologise to me. That means I continue to hold onto that pain, but with so much judgement – feeling that the cause of the pain was too small, too long ago, too unworthy of my attention that I shouldn’t be hurting anymore. But in being so judgemental, I am doing the very thing that hurts me the most – dismissing myself and how I feel. So when I feel that I am healing from the pain of my five year old self, it also feels like I am dismissing her, and that is something I cannot do.
I will continue to be stung by those past experiences, but if I can accept that, then I can stop fighting the pressure to get over them, and feel those old stings in peace.
I think I’m learning not only the importance of acknowledging the hurt I felt in the moment, but also accepting that those past rejections are still triggering an active anger in me now, rather than just a memory of anger I felt then. If I accept this, then I am listening to myself in the past and in the present, accepting that my emotional reaction was an appropriate and valid reaction, and showing myself that I, and the way I felt/feel, are important and worthy of attention, even if some other people think otherwise. It is convoluted and circular, but here, in my cloud of overthinking thoughts, is the validation I have been looking for.
This is moving on, albeit not in the way I had imagined. I have not been reborn into a new woman; I am not the bigger person who has found it within herself to forgive and forget. I have not tied the past and its straggling ends up in a neat bow, never to be bothered by them again. Instead, it feels like I have scooped up all those straggling feelings to carry with me, accepting that they are not merely relics of the past, but dynamic emotional responses for me to still feel freshly every day.
Moving on is hard because it feels like leaving the little girl in me behind, which I know is the thing she fears the most. But growing up is realising that I am not exactly that little girl any more. And processing that has been learning that it isn’t a case of me or her, and that moving on isn’t really about letting my younger self go after all. It is about holding her hand and inviting her along for the ride.
How do you move on? Can you draw a clean line under hurt you’ve felt, or do you hold some with you? Would you prefer to be able to move on in a different way? As you can see, I’m very much a work in progress in this area, so would love to know your thoughts in a comment/message 🙂
* FYI, I am fortunate not to have experienced major trauma in my life. But psychologists have an idea of ‘little ts’, which are little things that have big effects on a person, even if objectively, they are a neutral or even positive event – it is the effect of the experience that makes it a little trauma. Everyone has little traumas, and that is okay!
This is the final part of three essays I’ve written about moving on and letting go. The first is about the sensation of realising a moment has become the past (you can read it here), the second is about moving on from people (which you can read here), and this has been about trying to find peace with moving on from past pain.