“Your experiences sound like they’ve been very healing. But can we really ‘go back in time’?”
The question was a good one. It came from a dear friend on the heels of my sharing of a recent experience I had with my family.
In the past three years, there has been a plethora, a cornucopia, if you will, of opportunities to connect and explore with family that I never knew I had before 2017. Sometimes those experiences are full of laughter and learning about each other. Sometimes, they are seasoned with tears and reflections on what might have been. While we focus on making the most of our time together and creating new experiences that will become memories to reflect on with joy, at times, the conversation inevitably turns to experiences from my past that might have been different had we all known each other sooner.
Those can be difficult conversations to have from any perspective. Some would say that it does no good to talk about what “could have been.” It isn’t like we can go back in time.
Or can we?
When I was exploring my master’s in counseling, I came across the work of Dr. Dan Seigel. In his writing, he mentioned experiences that one can have which have an “emotionally corrective” effect here in the present, related to an experience that wounded us previously. In short, these new experiences challenge some previously held beliefs about ourselves, others, the world around us, or even God, that were formed as the result of harmful experiences early in life. (More on this in a minute.)
I found this concept to be fascinating. Up until this point, I had read and heard thin references to what would be considered corrective to our behaviors and/or beliefs, but more along the lines of things like guilt, regret, disappointment in self and the like. I had read that these “corrective emotions” (notice the slight variation of words here) would help to shift our behavior to something more appropriate and in line with our values. But those ideas never made much sense to me. How would that help people ‘behave better’ if they already felt tremendous shame about themselves?
Emotionally Corrective Experiences First…
Attempts to guilt and regret ourselves into different emotions and behaviors doesn’t seem to be corrective in a healthful way. Granted, it might move us to change a behavior in the moment, like gossiping or lying, but in the long run, the change isn’t permanent and we inevitably end up with more self-destructive behaviors and beliefs because of the shame we feel.
However, there is something that can be corrective in the best way. It’s those experiences Dr. Seigel wrote about in his book Mindsight, and they do exactly what their name implies--they offer us an opportunity to heal from something that happened in the past, here in the present, through an experience that counters our previous one. As I state in my book, Generations Deep: Unmasking Inherited Dysfunction and Trauma to Rewrite Our Stories Through Faith and Therapy, think of them as “emotional and relational antidotes to the toxic impact of our previous experiences.”
That might feel like a challenging idea to grasp. I know it was for me. At first, I wasn’t exactly sure what had happened in my life that would qualify, until a classmate and I began to explore the idea a bit deeper. To help you wrap your brain around the idea of emotionally corrective experiences, I’d like to offer some examples from my own life to help paint a better picture. (Additional examples of emotionally corrective experiences can be found in Generations Deep: Unmasking Inherited Dysfunction and Trauma to Rewrite Our Stories Through Faith and Therapy, along with ways to help you recognize them and create them for yourself.)
What Does An Emotionally Corrective Experience Look Like?
Take for example, the profound impact of growing up with a mom who, more than likely, suffered from undiagnosed (and consequently, untreated) Borderline Personality Disorder. I missed quite a bit of the necessary emotional and developmental support one needs to grow up well-regulated and adjusted. There wasn’t much room to feel safe in expressing needs, nor in expecting her to be there in the ways we typically think of moms showing up for their kiddos.
My mother’s emotions and needs came before my own. I knew from a young age that what I wanted to do with my life took precedence over the things she wanted me to do. I wasn’t free to “try and fail” in order to learn more about who I wanted to become. Questions and musings were an irritation, which was unfortunate, as I was an exceptionally curious child. I wanted to express myself through all things creative, which typically involved some sort of trip to the store for supplies, and consequently, a mess to clean up after my artistic experiments ended. And she didn’t have the patience for any of that.
Her words and tone of voice were often incongruent. Intensity of reactions were extreme and inappropriate-- either too big or too small for the situation. I never knew who she was going to be- which made it difficult to know who it was acceptable for me to be, as well. I worked very hard to keep her happy. Often that meant keeping myself invisible.
Fast forward to an experience I had in grade school with a nun who really “saw me.” Her name was Sister Debbie. As I write in my book, Sister Debbie understood my heart, my creativity, and my pain. She knew things weren’t good at home, so she found ways to keep me at school while helping me exercise my creativity. My questions never seemed to be too much for her. My desire to try things (and make messes), like, painting, drawing, writing, playing guitar, singing, or putting on a play (just to name a few endeavors), were encouraged and celebrated by Sister Debbie. She helped me believe that my gifts were exactly that—gifts. Not a nuisance to be endured.
Even after I left her class at the end of that school year, Sister Debbie would find ways to pull me in to different projects. She always asked if I was writing or playing guitar and always found ways to champion my creative side, including allowing me to play guitar and sing in church service twice a week.
Later in life, I could feel her encouragement come back to me in many ways- but most of all, in my need to write to express my feelings and to get my point across through story. When I decided to dip a toe in the waters of sharing my writing, I could hear the echoes of her encouraging words, emphasized by the opportunities Sister Debbie gave me to share my creative endeavors with others when I was young.
Seeds of Resilience
My experiences with Sister Debbie and others like her were the kind of experiences that helped me grow my resilience. They were like an oasis the middle of my desert. And they helped me heal. Not just from wounds of the past, but they help in the present, as well.
We can have these emotionally corrective experiences with anyone in our lives, provided they are trustworthy individuals. In my life and in those of my clients, those who have been powerful sources of emotionally corrective experiences vary from coaches, parents and neighbors, to teachers, spouses and even God.
But in recent years, as I studied and incorporated a therapy called IFS (internal family systems) in my work, I have made a very important discovery. We can even create emotionally corrective experiences for ourselves.
How We Can Be Our Own Emotionally Corrective Experience
A few months into the pandemic, it was clear that lock down was going to take its toll on our young ones if we didn’t come up with some fun and creative things for them to do. So, to aid with the chronic boredom of the neighborhood youth, I decided to create a hunt for painted rocks, offering prizes if the parents posted their children’s findings to our private neighborhood page and tagged me. It was an instant hit! I loved the photos parents were sharing and even the occasional bonus of a photo or message sharing what the kiddos decided to buy with their Amazon gift card prize. It was great fun to be a part of something that brought joy to kids and parents alike.
One evening, as I was a couple hours into painting the third round of rocks, I decided to take a break and clean up the kitchen. I wasn’t five minutes into rinsing dishes when this little, but sinister voice popped up in my head. “Why are you wasting time with those rocks? You need to hurry up and get this kitchen cleaned up. And why are you wasting time on something so trivial anyway?”
WHOAH. What was that about?
Instead of heeding the voice, I got curious and leaned in. In an instant, I was reminded of just how often that “hurry up” message infiltrated my life, and just how often I automatically listened as if it was of my own intentional orchestration.
But this time? This time I decided to slow down, take a deep breath and get curious about the message instead of automatically falling into compliance. And guess what I discovered?
Turns out, that wasn’t my voice at all. It was reminiscent of the caregivers in my childhood who were so terribly overwhelmed by what was happening in their own lives that they didn’t have time or energy for me to take the normal amount of time a child takes to do things. Things like homework, getting ready, going to sleep or even going to the bathroom. And because I recognized this, I had a new opportunity to do something about it.
I had a brief talk with the little girl within me who just wanted to take her time and paint rocks. So, I promptly left the dishes half-done and went to finish the thing that was more important to my inner-child--- Painting. Those. Rocks.
And just like that, I had created an emotionally corrective experience for myself.
What These Experiences Teach Us
First, these powerful experiences point to something important. While we are most often wounded in the context of relationship, we also heal best in the context of relationship. Including the relationship we have with ourselves.
Second, they point to how we are wired for connection. But also, how we’re wired for healing.
So, what about you? Have there been times in your life when you have had an experience, so counter to something damaging or painful that happened in your past, that it felt as if it had healed some of those old wounds while simultaneously helping you heal in the present?
Perhaps you’ve never thought about it before. If that’s the case, I would encourage you to reflect on the people who have had the most meaningful interactions with you. How have those relationships been the opposite of what you might have experienced in hurtful relationships? What changed in your beliefs or behaviors because of those interactions?
Once you discover some of these, I encourage you to rehearse them. Why? Because we reinforce what we rehearse. And we all want to reinforce our healing.
And while you’re thinking about emotionally corrective experiences, consider how you might provide them for others in your relationships through affirmations, empathy and your own vulnerability. Just remember to look for opportunities to create them for yourself as well.
Oh, Hey! I am so glad you kept reading! This is the part where I tell you that we are here to help. If you would like to learn more about emotionally corrective experiences, check out some resources that can help, including Dr. Dan Seigel’s book Mindsight at www.itsmyoutloudvoice.com/resources. You can also reach out to me through this blog. Want to learn more about Generations Deep: Unmasking Inherited Dysfunction and Trauma to Rewrite Our Stories Through Faith and Therapy? Check out www.GenerationsDeep.com. Happy healing! I am cheering you on!