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When others get to that unhealed wound inside

“That’s their stuff, not yours”, you might hear someone say to you. Someone’s just said or done something hurtful, and despite your best efforts, it’s really got inside you. Perhaps it’s something that brings up an old hurt, something that you have tried to get past but you know, deep down, is still there. Perhaps they’ve triggered something painful inside that, despite your rational brain saying, ‘That’s just not true’, has punched an emotional bruise and you’re in pain, ready to lash out, or to shrink back, angry and sensitive. There are many psychological theories that speak about this process in different ways. The actions or words of another reach through your defences all of a sudden, often when you’re not expecting them, and the pain inside is acute. You don’t know why it feels that way, as the comment, the insult, or the accusation might be something that you feel you ought to be able to dismiss. And yet, you can’t. Some people are more susceptible to this happening than others. If you are carrying an emotional or psychological wound inside – the unresolved pain of something that happened to you earlier in life and that hasn’t been fully dealt with (it could be an awful event, or it could be years of them all piled up), then you might still be dealing with an unhealed, emotional rawness. It might be something that’s hard to spend time with mentally, something you’d really (and understandably) rather forget, or perhaps something that still contains some difficult and unanswered questions. Getting to the bottom of all this inside might hurt, so it might seem like the best thing to do is to try and just move on. One strategy in these situations is to protect yourself by trying to ignore the feelings inside. You might decide that as long as someone doesn’t reach inside and find them, then you’ll be ok. You retreat inside your own personal castle walls in some way, making sure that people don’t get to know you well enough to get close to the pain. Or you build a version of yourself that means they’d never guess that you are holding onto something like this inside (and a withdrawal from others doesn’t have to mean going home, bolting the door and never coming out. It can also be the creation of a self that isn’t really you at all too). If there’s a chance that someone might get inside…well, just add some more bricks to those walls, eh? Keep them out. The trouble with this strategy is, first, that its exhausting. You’re constantly on patrol on the metaphorical battlements, surveying the landscape outside for emotional threat, ordering up some new masonry to add more height to the walls if anything looks suspicious. And, second, it's probably not going to work. Unless you attend to this process constantly, one day, someone will get their grappling iron over that castle wall, inside and into you. The sudden comment, action, behaviour…and your pain, memories or self-hatred can flood back. It's like the grappling iron has got over those battlements and its lodged inside, right in that undefended, sensitive, personal, painful place… The nature of that intrusion, and its strength, can vary. One of the most powerful ways the grappling iron can get stuck into you is if you are carrying a voice inside that, despite your best efforts to shut it down, despite your brain trying to tell it that it’s wrong, says the worst thing of all: “They are right. Right, because you somehow deserved what happened to you? Right, because what people say about ‘people like you’, is actually true? Right, because it was your fault really? Let me be clear. That voice may well not be telling the truth, or anything like it. It might be a legacy of an event in your past when you felt powerless and so some strange inner process ended up blaming yourself for the events you went through. This might go back to when you were a child even (a time when we often feel powerless in a world of all-knowing, always-right, adults and when we might conclude that the reason we are being treated badly must be because it’s our own fault.) It might relate to a painful event when you made a choice, perhaps an entirely innocent one, or one which seemed entirely reasonable at the time, but after which the consequences were difficult (or worse). You wish now that you’d taken a different course…but you cannot. Or you might have absorbed the insults of others, been bullied, and finding no-one at the time to speak for you, come to an inner conclusion that the bullies were right and that the only way to avoid that pain ever again is to avoid the situations or the people where it might happen again. Each of these is an example of that grappling iron getting over the wall. There are many more. Therapy is a place where I often sit with my clients, inside those castle walls, with that raw, vulnerable, human, material. Some people come with a knowledge that it’s there and that it hurts and they want it to stop. Some have a hunch that there’s something in there that’s causing trouble deep down, but it’s hard to define. For some, especially the 'Master Stonemasons' who've spent years metaphorically raising the castle walls, the realisation that the pain is still there on inside can come as a surprise. Finding and gently healing it is the answer. Only when we can do that are we going to be defended from the pain of that grappling iron, thrown at us either maliciously, or unknowingly, as it digs into something soft and vulnerable inside and rips at us? Only when we can do that can we stop devoting ourselves to building up the walls ever higher and maybe start to think about leaving the castle itself, to be in the world, in our strength, as we really are. ******* Jo Shaw is a UK-based, BACP Registered therapist working in London and Kent. She can be reached via


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