Jamie was on a museum tour with her husband. The docent was informative and entertaining and they were having a great time. Then one of the women on the tour began making comments about some of the artists and their paintings. With every comment she drew closer and closer to the docent until she was standing barely three feet from her. She dominated the conversation to the point that the other guests began drifting away to view the art on their own. Jamie said that the woman was knowledgeable and had an educated perspective but her energy was so intense that she didn’t leave room for any one else in the conversation. Not even the docent.
Emotions & Life Lessons
Nothing in life is random. When you repeatedly have experiences that elicit the same emotional response, that emotion is a clue that can lead you to an important lesson.
As Jamie and her husband left the group another woman approached her and said: There’s always one like that in every group, isn’t there? Jamie was so stunned and flustered, she didn’t know how to respond. Yes, the woman was annoying and had derailed the tour, but bad-mouthing her and spreading negative energy wouldn’t change the situation. What unnerved Jamie the most was: Out of the 50 or 60 people in the room, why had this woman chosen her to speak to?
I asked Jamie if this had happened to her before. Had she ever been singled out as someone who would be receptive to criticizing people? No, she insisted. She had grown up with parents who constantly criticized her and knew how demoralizing it felt. She said that even when people annoyed her, especially when they annoyed, her she made an effort to see something positive in them.
Several years later Jamie came to see me again. This time she was dealing with a friend who disliked a woman in their social circle. Every time that they were together, her friend went on and on criticizing the other woman. Her clothes, jewelry, child-rearing, job and even conversation topics were belittled.
Victoria: How did you feel after these conversations with your friend?
Jamie: Sick, emotionally drained, nauseous.
Victoria: Does this remind you of any other experiences in your life?
Jamie: No, nothing.
Victoria: Jamie, do you remember the last time that you came to me? Do you remember what we talked about? I could almost see the lightbulb go off as her eyes widened.
Jamie: Oh! The woman at the museum and my parents.
Victoria: People hear criticism all the time from social media, bosses or family. Why do think that these events made such an impact on you?
Jamie: It’s like a raw nerve. When I hear someone being criticized I feel powerless. I can’t do anything to protect myself.
Victoria: Is that how you felt as a child, powerless and unable to protect yourself?
Victoria: Is there anyone in your life now that criticizes you?
Jamie: No. My husband is always kind even when I don’t deserve it.
Victoria: What do you mean by you don’t deserve it?
Jamie: Well, sometimes I lose my temper and speak harshly. I get so angry with myself afterward that I can’t even stand being around myself.
Victoria: You really beat yourself up for losing your temper. What else do you beat yourself up about?
Jamie: Everything! My house isn’t clean enough, I’m not exercising enough, I’m not doing enough at work or for my family.
Victoria: It sounds as though you’ve taken up where your parents left off. They’re not around to criticize you so you’re doing it yourself.
Jamie became quiet as she struggled to absorb what I was saying. She thought that she had escaped the past by not allowing herself to criticize other people. She hadn’t realized that she had internalized her parents’ voices and that the voice in her head was continuing her childhood experience. Sometimes it takes decades to recognize that the voice in our head is not our own voice. Just the echo of behaviors and attitudes that we experienced as a child.
Jamie sincerely wanted to be happy and made a concerted effort to stop the negative self-talk. She wrote positive affirmations on post-its and stuck them all over the house. On mirrors, doors, clocks even in the fridge. This approach won’t work for everyone but she loved it. She told me that sometimes when she was at her grumpiest, she would unintentionally happen upon a post-it and it would start her giggling.
Emotions are not good or bad or random. They are signals. Just as traffic signals tell you to pay attention as you’re driving, emotions signal you to pay attention on your life’s journey. When your experiences repeatedly create a particular emotion, they are trying to direct you to an important life lesson.