See this sweet kid? It’s me. I think I was about four in this picture. This locket was something that my Grandpa kept in his lunch pail until he retired. Then, afterwards he kept it on his dresser. When he died my Nana gave her back to me for safe keeping. She still lives inside my body. In my memories (cognitive and implicit), in my muscles and nervous systems. And it’s my job to care for her now. In good times and in challenging ones like what we are facing in our nation today.
When I’m reacting to life in a way that is bigger than the trigger in the present moment...enraged by an ignored text message, despair over a slight work upset, feeling like a powerless kid rather than a grown woman with options, I know that she is present.
It’s normal for our old wounds and defenses to come crashing into the present moment and many of us don’t know this or see it when it’s happening. When we are in these implicit memory experiences we can forget how to be a rational adult and sink into our kid self...reacting to an unanswered text as abandoned child left all alone rather than knowing it is just an unanswered message. We can feel utterly hopeless and powerless to make a change, protest, or stand up for what we believe is right. What we’re not realizing is that these huge emotional experiences are actually old body and nervous system generated memories of being abandoned, hurt, or terrified from our past. It’s like a movie reel is getting played over present reality.
So how do we know when we’re caught? When you have that niggling sense you’re overreacting to a challenge pay attention and get curious. You can even ask yourself this, “how old do I FEEL right now?” Another way we can start to see this process is when a trusted therapist, friend, partner, or family member reflects that we may have overreacted during an exchange. To seriously consider what they’ve shared gives us an opportunity to grow and heal.
For me growing my awareness around really big feelings that don’t perfectly match current life circumstances has been a huge relief. When it happens now I imagine the part of myself panicking is this little girl. I’ve learned to be gentle with her, not judgmental. When she’s present I ask what she needs. I ask her what’s scaring her.
By caring for myself like this my emotions can now start to settle and feel more contained. Once I’ve supported my emotional needs there’s an important final step. I remind myself that I’m a grown woman who can sometimes feel like a very small girl. This extra step helps me return to the present moment. It reminds me that though I feel powerless, I do have options. I can protest. I can vote. I can make my needs known to myself and others.
AND this implicit memory stuff, it’s not all bad news…she doesn’t just live in my tears and terror. I experience that kid when I dance, tell jokes, and run. I feel her freedom and soul every time I teach. When that happens I know she is thanking me for taking such good care of her.