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All of us have felt stuck at one time or another in emotional pain, in reaction to childhood wounding or as a response to our brain having imprinted a traumatic memory. We all can stop hurting in the present, however, through understanding why the process of intense emotion happens, how it effects us, and what we can do to eliminate its impact.
Emotional pain—all pain—occurs for one reason: to spur an animal to do something, eg, to avoid getting hurt again. When my cat charges around and barrels into a cabinet, pain warns her to slow down to avoid a repeat performance. This cause-effect imprint immediately gets laid down neurologically in our brains. Similarly, if your parents shamed you for eating more than they thought you should, you may have an imprint of overeating and shame (pain). The difference between you and my cat is that, because her brain can’t do higher-order thinking, she can’t make meaning of her pain (eg, she’s stupid or unlovable), while you walk around believing that you’re bad and a failure.
The problem is two-fold: making erroneous meaning (see 8/8/11blog) and mistaking recall for reality. Say that in childhood, 1) the way your parents shamed you for eating more than they thought was the right amount of food for you 2) brought you emotional pain, 3) so that you thought you were bad for eating too much, and 4) your memory recorded this cause and effect with affective intensity in an easily accessible part of your brain (the amygdala), 6) so that you would not eat that much again and 7) now, in the present, you feel shame and believe you’re bad when you eat “too much” 8) even though you no longer need to feel shame because there’s no one to shame you and what you’re doing isn’t shameful.
One problem is making mistaken meaning of the event and confusing it with meaning you’ve made of it. An event takes place out in the world; meaning happens inside our minds. My cat makes no meaning of smacking into the cabinet, but wisely avoids repeating the behavior that caused it. You, on the other hand, erroneously have thought you were bad because your parents shamed you for eating. Now you can make new meaning of that interaction—you were hungry or anxious or they were trying to help you be healthy.
The second problem is that you feel purposeless pain (remember, pain’s function is as a prompt to do something to be safe) now from your brain imprinted memory. No need for it, though, because you’re already safe and because you can’t go back and change what already happened. Reacting to recalled events is like reacting to events in a dream—unnecessary and non-productive, in short a waste of your precious time.
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