When Your Emotional Injury Rules Your Life

When I was too little to appreciate the message, my mom read me the Hans Christian Andersen story  The Fir Tree.  It’s a story that drives its point home in a dark and visceral manner.  It left an ugly impression on me as a child, but as an adult I can appreciate the message in the way it was meant to be understood.  If you are unfamiliar with this story, it is about a little fir tree who was so obsessed with being like the bigger trees that he missed out on all the joys and treasures he had in front of him, while they were in front of them.  His entire short life is spent wishing to be how he imagines the bigger, happier, better trees are.  Every time he achieves the thing he’d been jealous of before, it is empty for him, it does not give him what he thought it would, so he craves the next thing.  Anytime someone like a little bunny reminds him, by jumping over him, that he is small and therefore hasn’t achieved his dream he feels enraged.  The sun tells him to feel the joy of the life he is living, but he does not listen.  He keeps striving for that thing that will give him the escape to the greatness that he is craving.  He gets everything that he wishes for, and still, none of it produces the joy, the magnificence, dignity, and splendor that he seeks. In the end, he dies in a fire having never understood how to enjoy his life, and as he burns up, he says “Oh, had I but enjoyed myself while I could have done so! But now it is too late.”  He couldn’t appreciate what he had until it was gone, because when he had it, he himself was gone, off in the future of his imagination.  Like I said, dark and visceral.

This fir tree could not inhabit his own reality. Sometimes, people can be like this tree, looking externally for something that they hope will make them feel better about themselves.  If you are like this, you might suffer from an emotional injury, one that would be very painful to feel if you were to stop looking outside of yourself and redirect your attention inward.  You might be afraid to look inside, you might not know how.  You just know that you are unhappy and you don’t want to be, so you look for the things that would make you feel better.  When you get those things and realize that you are still unhappy, you try to find bigger, better things.  The more you achieve or receive, the more intense the unhappiness becomes.  You might try fix your feelings of being unlovable by getting married; if you feel unimportant; you might think that a prestigious position at work will do it; if you feel unneeded, you might have a child; if you feel unsafe you might buy a gun.  What happens when any or all of these things that are supposed to make all the bad feelings go away don’t make any of the bad feelings go away?

Feeling unlovable, unimportant, unneeded, unsafe are all symptoms of emotional injuries.  Emotional injuries are internal: they cannot be patched with external objects, activities, achievements, jobs, positions of power, or relationships.  The more a person tries to do so, the more those feelings will grow.  Let’s say that you got married thinking that you would finally feel lovable.  The honeymoon passes, life settles into a routine, and you still feel unlovable.  Now you feel worse: here you are with The One that is supposed to have made you feel loved and you still feel unlovable.  When you thought that the answer was out there somewhere but you didn’t have it yet, at least you could strive for it.  But now you have the thing you strove for, and you are still unhappy.  Unless you start looking inside, you are going to blame your spouse for not making you happy in the marriage.  Your spouse might scramble and try to make you feel better, but unless you attend to your emotional wound, nothing your spouse does will feel like enough.  You can imagine what this will do to a marriage.

The solutions offered to the fir tree were too simple; impossible, really.  For the sun to say “rejoice in thy youth” would be the same as someone telling you, “enjoy your spouse, you are so lucky to have such a good person” when you are feeling miserable and unhappy in your marriage.  It is not a simple thing to stop with the striving and to sit with your emotional injury.  It is hard, ugly, scary work.  I don’t recommend doing it alone.  The first and most important step is to stop looking outside of yourself and accept that there is something inside you that no one else, nothing else can fix but you.  The good news is that, while it is only you who can go inside yourself and face the feelings that this injury holds for you, a therapist can help you find the map to that injury, and can help you to navigate all the pain and fear that comes along with feeling and healing it.  It is yours alone to face and heal, but you do not have figure out how to do it alone.  The other good news is that, while it is hard work, it is work that pays you back tremendously.  When you are no longer enslaved by the striving for the unattainable, you become free, your energy becomes yours, and the love and power that are borne from healing yourself are boundless.

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