An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.
I tend to hold onto hurt. If someone or something has hurt me, impacted me, caused me trauma, it’s really hard for me to let that go. And when I talk to people about these things, the response is often something along the lines of, “It’s not happening anymore, so you don’t have to be upset about it.”
I don’t really know how to respond after that. I feel annoying and guilty about inconveniencing them with my inability to get over things.
I have a therapist for a reason, but you’re supposed to be able to be vulnerable with people who love you, and that’s really hard when they respond with brushing you off like that. I know that I’m kind of intense about things sometimes. I’ve always had really big feelings. But it feels awful when I’m trying to be open with someone about things that are hard for me, and they act as if they just wish I would shut up.
How do I manage these situations and my response to them?
Oof. This question gets me all up in my own big feelings. I know so many of the experiences you’re describing — having big hurts that last, needing to talk about them and feeling rebuffed, finding the reality of love with real, imperfect people often heartbreaking. It has taken me nearly five decades to get to any kind of peace with it all.
When my marriage ended I felt like I had died. Not all divorces are like that for the people involved, but mine was. It was like I had been flayed alive and still had to walk around in the world — take care of my kids, buy groceries, go to work — with no skin to protect me. It was raw and vulnerable and it lasted years.
My friends were incredibly kind to me at the beginning. They helped me move, watched my kids, reassured me that I would survive, and had my back with my ex. But fairly quickly it became clear that I was not great company for living people. I had lost any ability to maintain the basic social contracts. I was drowning in grief, rage, and fear of the unknown. My friends would ask me how I was doing and I would tell them, which, it turns out ironically, isn’t mostly what folks are looking for when they run into you on the street and say, “Hey! How are you doing?”
Remembering “waking up” over and over in the midst of a torrent of emotions pouring out of my mouth to find some friend or another looking like they wanted nothing more than to escape from me still makes me cringe a bit.
Some folks also went back to friendships with my ex, or at the very least stopped actively giving him the stink-eye when they ran into him in public with his girlfriend. “I know, divorces are hard”, they’d insist while shaking their head at me pityingly, “But he never did anything to me. He’s just always been charming.” The feelings of betrayal were a rusty knife in my gut that twisted.
What I came to realize slowly (very slowly) is that other people are always going to “get over” your traumas more quickly than you do. Which makes sense from a logical perspective, but not always from an emotional one. They don’t actually intend to leave you feeling abandoned or dismissed or alone, but when you’re still in the midst of hell their equanimity can have that impact.
It is also true, in my experience, that most people just don’t know how to sit with other people in their pain. It makes them too conscious of their own, and avoiding pain is like an extreme, competitive sport that everyone is taught to play in this culture. We’re like the high peaks mountain bikers of pain avoidance — doing wheelies on cliff faces just to prove we can cheat death, that everything is just fine, thank you very much. Confronted with other people’s pain we want to “fix it”, so we can get on with the constant task of avoiding our own discomfort.
Learning to sit with other people in their pain, without being carried away by how heartbreaking it is to witness someone you care for hurting or trying to talk them out of it to make ourselves feel better, is a skill set that comes with age or formal training. This is what elders used to offer (and sometimes still do), and this is what therapists offer. I’m so glad you have one. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without mine.
Here’s the other thing, from one big feeler to another: just because people love us, or we love other people, does not mean they are capable of giving us what we need on a regular basis. Love means different things to different people, and different people have different temperaments and capacities emotionally. We need our nearest and dearest to be aware of their own baggage, working on unpacking it, and committed to accompanying us as we process our own big feelings, no matter how long it takes.
There are people that I love who are not those people, but I recognize that about them and do not bring my pain to them. They are not good containers for it. It sets certain boundaries or limits on how close I can be to them, and sometimes that makes me sad. But I’ve come to accept that loving them and loving myself works that way.
Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously. — Prentiss Hemphill
For me, it is better to have a very small tribe of close friends who can be intense and real and present with me. I do my best to offer them the same gifts. These relationships take time and attention, but they give me more satisfaction than being more widely connected.
Within my small tribe, and generally as I move through the world with all my big feelings trailing behind me, I work to not take other people personally. I have hurt enough people inadvertently over the years myself to understand that other people’s behavior, even seemingly in response to me, rarely has anything to do with me. We’re all just working through our own stuff — running our own emotional scripts, and coopting the people around us into enacting the scenes that we’ve created inside our own minds to make the world what we think it is.
Being transparent with the people you love about the story that you’re telling yourself about their behavior gives them the opportunity to flip the script and tell you what is actually going on with them, which may not be what you think it is. If they’re not receptive to having that conversation, or you don’t feel safe enough with them to initiate that conversation, then maybe they’re not your tribe.
If you’re looking for rejection or dismissal because that underlines some story you have about yourself — that you are “too much”, or emotionally slower than other people, which must be a bad thing — then you will find yourself in that story over and over again. This doesn’t mean that you’re responsible for people being shitty to you, just that you get to decide who your tribe is and the story that you want to tell with your life.
Love the one you are, with your big feelings and your intense, loving heart, and seek out people who also love that about you. We are out here, my dear one, ready to joyfully play our parts in that story.
Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.
Do you have a question about relationships, sex, parenting, politics, spirituality, community? Send them to me at email@example.com with the subject line “Walk With Me”. Let’s walk each other home.
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