When those old emotions rise to the surface

“That’s him,” said Jerry, motioning with his head. “That’s the guy.” “That’s him?” replied Jerry’s wife. “That’s Dale? That’s the bully?” Jerry was attending his 25-year high school reunion with wife, Marion. She had hear many stories over the years about Dale, the vicious high school bully. In the telling and retelling, Dale had taken on an almost mythical quality.

“Our feelings are our most genuine paths to knowledge.”

— Audre Lorde, Caribbean-American writer, feminist and civil rights activist

“That’s him,” said Jerry, motioning with his head. “That’s the guy.”

“That’s him?” replied Jerry’s wife. “That’s Dale? That’s the bully?”

Jerry was attending his 25-year high school reunion with wife, Marion. She had hear many stories over the years about Dale, the vicious high school bully. In the telling and retelling, Dale had taken on an almost mythical quality. Marion had envisioned Dale as being a much bigger, gruffer and rougher man. In reality, he was of average build and seemed to have a pleasant demeanour. Marion watch as Dale laughed and shook hands with fellow classmates.

“He’s coming this way,” whispered Jerry, suddenly stiffening.

“Just relax,” said Marion. “He probably remembers you.”

“Oh, I’m sure he does,” said Jerry. “I’m sure he does.”

I’m sure we’ve all had the experience where old emotions resurface. This can be frightening and confusing, especially when they arise unexpectedly and with surprising intensity. For Jerry, the old adolescent emotions were still there and, once triggered, were as intense as ever.

Years ago, someone told me that we are each responsible for our emotions and that we choose the thoughts that sustain them. Though insightful, the statement did little to alleviate my many irrational fears and insecurities. In fact, I resisted the idea. Few if any changes occurred in my attitude until I began making a concerted effort to raise my awareness and build my self-esteem. Only then did I begin to see the connection between what I thought and how I felt.

I think many of us consider our emotional state — how we feel — to be something we have little control over. Something external causes us to feel how we feel. The event prompts the feeling, right? When someone criticizes us, we feel hurt. When someone offends us, we feel angry. When someone compliments us, we feel worthy. When someone bullies us, we feel intimidated. There’s only one problem with this logic: if we believe the source of our feeling is out there somewhere, then we are nothing more than the hapless victim of circumstances; busy yelling “It’s your fault!” and blaming everyone and everything for our current state of being.

I have discovered that our thoughts always precede feelings. When we recognize a particular feeling arising, it is important to pause and ask ourselves what thought preceded it. Here’s a power technique: evaluate the stories you tell and note the emotions you feel during the telling. In Jerry’s case, his story involved a bully who frightened and intimated him in high school. Retelling the bully story kept the emotion of fear alive in Jerry and supported the belief that he was powerless in the presence of an intimidator. Upon raising his awareness, Jerry soon discovered that this notion of being powerless and victimized was also operating in the presence of other bullies in his work and personal life.

It will help to ask yourself if the thought (once revealed) brings you peace or stress. If the answer is stress, the next question to pose is, “Who would I be without this thought?” There’s gold in honestly answering this question. You may discover you’ve held on tightly to a thought because it supports a disempowering belief that serves you in some unconscious way.

Ask yourself, “Can I let go of this thought?” If you encounter resistance, you may find that the thought has — in some way — come to define you as a person. In Jerry’s case, he was the perpetual victim. The fact that we won’t let go of a particular disempowering thought — despite knowing it would be in our best interest to do so — is usually the result of a deep-seated fear.

One of the biggest steps and often the most challenging is owning the issue, that is, taking full and complete responsibility for our thoughts and feelings. No blaming. No foisting the responsibility for our choices and actions onto others. While we may attribute the cause of the issue to outside circumstances, it is only by choosing to be responsible that we may truly take action and let go of the concern. This is, of course, easier when we feel empowered and capable. For me, the more I worked on my self-esteem building, the more confident I became, and certainly the more willing to look inside rather than outside for resolution. It remains a work in progress but it would have proved impossible without a better self-image.

“But feelings can’t be ignored,” wrote holocaust victim Anne Frank in her famous Diary of a Young Girl. “No matter how unjust or ungrateful they seem.”

Rather than ignoring feelings or hoping they go away, it is always best to own them and work through them. Remember, what you resist, persists.

Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His new book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca.

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