November 18, 2013
“It is the law of life that each one of us has something in our heart, a problem that hurts the heart, so that we are all the same no matter how else it appears.” -Bernadette Rebienot, Grandmothers Counsel the World
“The deep, deep bruises and hurts from a collective past or a childhood past may make a blow or even a touch very, very painful in the present, may even make us respond to a gentle touch as if it were a blow.” -Gloria Steinem, Grandmothers Counsel the World
These wounds are the deep, hidden currents that emerge as painful patterns in our close relationships. We often see only what lies on the surface – the arguing, the blame, the withdrawal. The content of our conflict does not seem related to our past; we only see what is right in front of us. Yet, as long as these wounds remain unspoken and unacknowledged, they have power over us. If my partner says or does something that reminds me of my wounded story that “nobody understands me”, and I’m not aware of this, I will be likely be hurt, which may lead to withdrawal or lashing out in anger.
However, if I am aware of this, I may say to my partner, “I don’t think you understand me, and I would like for you to.” At this point, it can be very useful for my partner to have an understanding of the broader concepts in this article – that we are all wounded in some way, and that these wounds are active in relationship. Through this understanding, my partner can “hold” or “host” my woundedness. This doesn’t necessarily mean tending to my woundedness as though I am not an adult. Such understanding cultivates compassion and empathy, so that my partner will, hopefully, be more likely to be willing to attempt to meet my need to be understood.
Ideally, this is happening bilaterally (or multilaterally in the case of larger systems). Both partners are able to carry an understanding of the other’s woundedness, and their own. This is relational mindfulness. This understanding can change the way people engage in conflict with each other, moving from unhealthy or destructive conflict to healthy, intimacy-generating conflict. Conflict in this sense means being faced with opposing needs, drives or wants. Conflict may become a signal to us that we need to go deeper to discover our core needs.
Often times our wounds are about unmet needs: the events of our past have taught us to marginalize certain relational needs, sometimes to the point where we are unaware of them. They are still present in our psyche, and when unmet and unacknowledged, they make themselves known through anxiety, anger, sadness, and fear. Through this process of identifying and understanding these needs, we can more skillfully ask for them to be met in our significant relationships. Sometimes simply having these needs acknowledged by our partners can result in softening, in laying down our swords, letting our armor fall away.
Why is this so hard? One of the reasons we don’t see the deeper wounds is because they are so painful. They are difficult to hold in our conscious awareness. We are averse to touching pain in our hearts, to feeling our grief. So we shove these tender parts of ourselves into a closet in our psyche (the “long bag we drag behind us”, as Robert Bly calls it). It is precisely these parts that offer us a chance at connecting deeply in relationship. And yet it feels like a great risk to bring these parts forward. We have told ourselves many times that “I can’t let anybody see this part of me, because they will hurt me, or shame me, or run away”. So many times, in fact, that we no longer have to think about it or speak the words to ourselves – it has become an unconscious pattern. Yet, to live like this is unacceptable. We feel a great longing for those parts to be met, to be exposed to the light of day. We don’t want to remain armored.
And so there are two forces at work – a protective drive (Bill Plotkin’s “loyal soldiers”), and a deeply human drive to be known fully. While writing this, I paused and sat with my awareness of these forces. After a moment, I felt a surge of grief flow through me, followed by a sweet sense of my heart opening. There is an awareness of sadness around these lifelong patterns of hiding, and a joy in experiencing my willingness and desire to live differently, more openly.
Thinking back to the work we do in our community grief rituals, I am reminded of the second gate of grief: grief for the places that have not known love. We speak of the challenge in addressing these parts of ourselves. To do so, we much touch on the grief of those parts, which often feels like approaching a bottomless pool of grief. We are afraid to even dip our toes in the waters, in fear that we might drown. This is where the power of compassionate witness comes into play – when others can be present with us, grieve with us, we have a lifeguard who will save us from drowning, perhaps even teach us to be better swimmers. This requires a safe container: grief rituals, or individual or group therapy, just to name a few options.
The hard work of welcoming back the marginalized parts of self starts with you, supported by a compassionate container. You come to know yourself better, and began to see knew possibilities for your life and the way you occupy it. You can then move into the domain of personal relationship. This work becomes a co-creative endeavor. It requires both partners to participate in this process of discovery. It involves seeing how we trigger each other, how one partner’s defensive stance may cause the other partner to want to protect their wounded inner child. When we can slow down our habitually conflictual styles, we can begin to invite in those wounded parts.
Sometimes one partner is ready to do their work, having heard the call of the promise of a healthier, happier relationship, while the other is not ready. This can present as a crisis point in relationships, where one partner is ready to work on the relationship, and the other does not want to, or does not know how to move forward. This is a great opportunity to practice compassion, and, perhaps, discernment. It can be difficult, because it is precisely our partner’s woundedness (and ours) that presents challenges to having our needs met. Seeing that wounded place in our partners allows us to hold it, even when they cannot. Simultaneously, we can learn to hold the parts of ourselves that are longing to be met in relationship, when they are not being met or acknowledged by our partner. Rather than screaming at someone, “I need you to be more vulnerable!”, we might express our desire to be met in a way that can be heard, and acknowledge how hard this is for the other, without judgement.
This is not a linear process. It is an unfolding, a gradual deepening of trust in the process. It starts with a voice inside you that says something else is possible. Listen to that voice. Invite those wounded parts of yourself back into your life. Trust in that longing to be met deeply and fully.