As a psychotherapist, I often hear something along the lines of “I feel so stupid, this is such a little thing, but…” My ears perk up because this sheepishness tells me we are about to get into some very crucial stuff. Most of the time what follows has something to do with another person’s hurting their feelings, along with a sense of helplessness over what to do next. It may seem a little thing, yet my client can’t stop thinking about it.
We are bothered by these “little things” because they reenact painful experiences from childhood that caused suffering then and are causing suffering now. Someone treats us with disregard, we are deeply hurt, and then we obsess impotent fantasies of what we’d like to say or do next. But we also sense that our intense reactions of hurt and anger are too extreme for the present relationship, and so we hide them. Once buried, they become those insoluble obsessions that burn up our daily thoughts and keep us awake at night.
If we look closely at these times, we will see that a child part of our personality has taken over. This part has intense emotions, few verbal skills, and no idea at all of how to resolve things. The sensation of regressing into a helpless child makes people embarrassed to talk about it. As adults, we know we should be able to figure out a way to resolve the problem, but our childlike emotions won’t let us. “Why does this upset me so much? I know it shouldn’t bother me!” is our appalled reaction to being taken over by a wounded inner child. But the truth usually is that the incident would have felt bad to most people. The problem is not that the inner child feels wounded, but that the child felt it was stupid for feeling wounded.
Instead of immediately rejecting these reactions as unwarranted, we could invite that hurt inner child to come forward and share her story with us. We could see our reactions as attempts at a healing process, similar to the way our bodies will eventually bring an old splinter to the surface to be removed.
Too often we learned in childhood that hurt feelings were a sign of our aberrant sensitivity, which was suspiciously overdeveloped. We felt bad about ourselves for being that way. So now as adults, we get upset and yet are ashamed of being upset. It is as if we grew up in a foreign culture where no one was ever bothered by what other people did, a land where only the very young or the morbidly oversensitive would spend any time at all thinking about hurt feelings.
This self-denying emotional style is often the outcome of being raised by parents who didn’t know how to deal with their children’s emotional experiences. These emotionally unaware parents couldn’t conceptualize emotional situations very well and didn’t know how to use words to help their children think of solutions. These parents instead felt uneasy and uncertain about what to do and so ended up shutting down their children’s attempt to communicate emotional injuries.
These dismissals teach children to feel sheepish and oversensitive if they are hurt by how others treat them. This leads to a powerless view of relationships, in which their instinctive emotional guidance is humiliated and they are unsure about their right to feel what they feel. This internal confusion can also lead to their being exploited in adulthood. They don’t stand up for themselves out of fear they will look oversensitive if they complain.
Because these clients have been made to feel ashamed of their true reactions, they cannot go on to process the problem and find a solution. They have been taught by socially unskilled parents not to take action, but to keep their feelings inside. But this approach weakens instead of strengthening. It promotes helpless passivity, a feeling that there is nothing we can do without seeming like a baby. This approach erodes self-esteem and makes it seem that relationship problems are impossible to manage.
If you weren’t encouraged to work with your hurtful emotional experiences as a normal part of life, you might worry that it is too late to find another way to deal with them. But it is never too late to change your approach to hurt feelings. You just need to see them not as senseless overreactions, but as information-loaded experiences that can be addressed and solved with ingenuity and action. The first step is always to take your inner child’s reactions seriously, welcome the feelings without shame or self-blame, and ask for inner and outer guidance about what right action could make the situation better.
Take these little things seriously and you will be moving toward feelings of efficacy instead of helplessness. Move into your compassionate adult self, and take seriously that inner child from the past. That child is trying to reach you for a long overdue healing of her loneliest and most helpless times in childhood. When this happens, please don’t call it a little thing. Use it to become whole.