Own It, Feel It, and Heal It

I like to go walking with my friend who has a dog. We hike on a trail that allows dogs off leash after a certain point, and so we meet tons of off leash dogs on these hikes.  It is off leash dog central.  Usually, we can tell which dogs don’t want to interact with my friend’s dog, and sometimes people tell us that their dog has had prior bad experiences. Recently, something very different happened. A man showed up at the trailhead at the same time as us, and commanded my friend to keep her dog on a leash. She responded that she would do so until the unleashing area. He then demanded that she keep her dog back while he got ahead on the trail, and off he stalked. His hostile manner was off-putting.  Later, as we hiked, we encountered him again. He was coming back down, and from a great distance, he yelled at my friend to leash her dog. Now, this was in the area where dogs are permitted to be off leash, but she leashed her dog at his request. Then he commanded that she step to the far side of the path from him, which she did. As he got closer, he said in an angry voice, “My dogs have been attacked, badly.” I’ve had a similar experience, myself, so I said to him, “Maybe you could lead with that before telling people what to do. Then we would understand.” My friend added something about how these hikes should be enjoyable, not stressful. He refused to look at us, and marched off angrily without acknowledging that we’d spoken to him.  This man did not want understanding; by coming here, he was looking for something else.

My first thought was that, while I don’t subscribe to the belief that we create our own reality, I do believe that we create our own interpersonal dynamics. This man was creating a hostile environment all around him. I assume that he treated all of the many off leash dog owners on the trail in the same manner that he treated us: expecting all of us to obey his commands while treating all dogs and dog owners as if they were culpable for one dog’s behavior from his past. Instead of walking his leashed, traumatized dogs somewhere where dogs are not allowed off leash, he went to the most high traffic place for dogs who are allowed to go off leash and then expected people to put leashes on their dogs to accommodate him.  There was something provocative in this man’s manner that had me thinking.  It seemed as if he was seeking out a negative experience by coming to this place and ordering people around from the moment he started his hike.

Years ago, my husband and I had a troubled dog who always needed to be leashed when out on walks, and who panicked when an unleashed dog or a fast-moving human approached us.  We never considered taking her any place frequented by off leash dogs.  It would have been hell. What I witnessed in this man was a self-created hell that he spread around to others under the guise of protecting his dogs.  In reality, he was exposing his dogs to a traumatic environment so that he could take his rage out on others under the official mantle of defending his dogs. The likelihood of him recreating the original situation he was claiming to try avoid was high.  Nobody on that trail is required to leash their dogs, and at some point he will cross someone who will refuse to obey his surly commands.

Sometimes people get attached to their hell, and rather than doing the painful work of feeling it and healing it, they throw it around at people, hoping to see their inner hell reflected on the faces of the people around them.  This man reminded me of people who do this. On my own journey, I have been like this man, and perhaps you have too.  One sign that you are creating your own hell and throwing it around is that you find yourself in the same situation over and over again, whether with an abusive boss, a certain kind of friend, or a romantic partner.  You’ll generally be able to find a recurrent “them” theme in these situations that makes you feel a certain way.  Using the example of this man on the trail, I imagine that he sees himself as the only one out there who keeps his dogs on leash and the trail is a dangerous place where everyone else feels like an out of control threat to his victimized dogs; a threat that he alone needs to control by shouting out his demands.

So, what can you do if you discover that you are throwing your hell at others rather than feeling and healing it?  The first step is opening to the possibility that what you believe about others might not be the whole truth.  It is one thing to have a bad experience with one person, or even a few, but if it seems like everybody is wrong, you might be not be perceiving the situation correctly.  Next, identify the theme that comes with every situation that creates the hellish feeling, every situation that triggers you to strike out at others.  Let’s say the angry dog walker hits the theme that everyone out there is out of control, disrespectful, unruly, unsafe and he has to make them behave to protect his dogs.  With help, he can learn to sit with those out of control feelings, and learn to tolerate actually feeling them rather than throwing them away.  This kind of owning is not a simple or easy process and I don’t recommend going it alone, but with guidance and support, the feeling will lead to the healing.  That need to control others dissipates when you realize that those others aren’t the source of your unsafe feelings.  When you find the source, you are in control of the fix.


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