September 17, 2018

Difficult and painful experiences with important others

Have you as a child experienced that those who were suppose to take care of you mistreated you or did things to you as a child that you shouldn’t have experienced? It is very confusing and painful for children to experience maltreatment from those who should love you and take care of you. It can create a lot of difficulties later in life, both difficulties when it comes to how to relate to other people and how to feel ok about yourself.

This exercise is about exploring and working with painful experiences with people who have been and perhaps still is important to you. For example, your parents may have neglected you mistreated you as a child. Or you may have experienced serious betrayal from a family member, a teacher, a preast, or others. The purpose of this exercise is to explore your own experiences with the other and the exercise consists of imagining a dialogue with the other. The goal of the exercise is to get to feel and express the difficult feelings that you carry with you as a result of what happened.

You should only do this exercise if you have available people in your life that can support you when you are in pain or struggling. If you have major difficulties dealing with life, you should rather consider seeking professional help. Still, remember that even the most painful experiences in life can be worked out and made into something manageable. However, it can’t always be done on your own, so find yourself a good helper!

Preparation – Write down what you want to adress with the other:

  • Is there one or more events in question? Describe one or more events.
  • What was the person doing or not doing that was so painful for you?
  • Is it for instance the way they treated you, that they hurt you, or that they left you to yourself?
  • Exactly how was this difficult for you when it happened? Write down what was painful for you.
  • How has it influenced you later in life, as a child and as an adult?
  • Look at the exercises Calming down strong emotions or Soothing yourself so you can quit and go to these exercises if your emotions become too overwhelming.

Ready to keep going?

You are now going to imagine a dialogue with the other. The focus is on addressing what happened that was so painful and difficult for you.

  1. Imagine the other. You can either imagine everything inside your head, or you can imagine that person sitting on an empty chair in front of you.
  2. Tell the other what you want to adress or talk about with him or her, and what it is the person has done to you. Feel free to use what you have written down in preparation. Say it out loud as if the other person is there. Say “You” when you talk to the other as if the person is there, and “I” when you talk about your experience of it and about your feelings and needs.
  3. Tell the other what was difficult and painful for you and how it has become difficult for you later on in life.

NB: If the other has only hurt you (and not someone who also at times cared for you), you don’t have to tell him or her about the vulnerable feelings. Rather, tell the person what should have happened instead.

  1. Tell the other that what happened that was not okay and why it was not okay. When you tell the other, how does it feel?
  2. Are you getting angry? If you can feel that you get angry, let the feeling reside. What do you want to say and do? Tell that to the other.
  3. B: Don’t you feel anything? If you don’t feel anything, go back and tell more about what happened and how this was painful and difficult.
  4. C: Do you get scared, sad or ashamed? If you get scared, sad or ashamed, then see if you can say to yourself that it is no wonder that you do, and say again why the thing that happened was not okay.
  5. Once you have told the other how you feel, write down the apology you needed to hear from the other person. The apology may contain what the other sees he or she has done wrong, what it must have been like for you, a sincere apology and what the other should have done instead or can do now. Read the apology to yourself and notice how it feels to hear it.
  6. Spend a few minutes summarizing for yourself and what you might want to do going forward in life.

Some people also need to actually confront the other person in real life. It is recommended that you only do so if you…

  1. Have worked through the exercises above and know what you want to confront the person with.
  2. Find that you have a good overview of the emotions related to what happened.
  3. Have good support in other people before and after you bring it up with the person.
  4. Find that you generally manage to deal with difficult feelings without getting into conflict with others or deal with emotions in a manner that hurts you (substance abuse, self harm and so on).

If you can answer yes to 1, 2, 3 and 4, then you may consider confronting the other using the recommendations below.

Confronting the other person in real life

Sometimes an imagined dialogue with another person will suffice to deal with the difficult emotions. At other times the imagines dialogue might give access to feelings of wanting to actually confront the person who hurt you. There are no absolute guidelines as to what is best, other than what you know is best for you. Maybe the exercise you did was sufficient for you at this time? Or maybe you need to talk to the person who’s been hurting you? The goal of confronting is to tell the other about your experiences of what happened and how that has been difficult for you. Perhaps the other can understand and meet you on your experiences, but this does not always happen. It may be difficult for the other to hear what you are telling them.

It is important to find an appropriate time and opportunity for an uninterrupted conversation with the other person. If the person is someone who has only hurt you, or even someone who can be dangerous to you (for example a violent person), it is better to just imagine the dialogue in the exercise above.

Some guidelines for confronting someone with your painful experiences with them:

  1. Tell the other about what has been difficult for you. Be aware that it is your experience, but hold on to it as you experienced it.
  2. Give specific examples of what happened.
  3. Tell the person how this became painful and difficult for you, both there and then, but also later in life.
  4. Tell the other that it was not okay to treat you that way and that you had deserved to be treated differently. If you actually want an apology from the other, you could let them know.
  5. Give the other some time to react. It’s not always easy to hear such things. Perhaps you can show understanding for this, while staying true to the fact that you need to tell them about your experience of it.
  6. Be prepared that you may not get the response you want. Remind yourself that this is the start of your change process. It doesn’t necessarily mean the other is going to change.
  7. If the other is trying to understand or ask questions, try to respond as calmly and honestly as you can, without trying to hurt the other.
  8. If the other only defends himself or will not accept your experience of it, hold on to your experience, say that you have told them what you needed to tell them, and that it was important to you that the other came to know about it.

Processing the exercise

It’s a good idea to spend some time summarizing how this has influenced you. Write down some reflections.

  • What happened?
  • How did it feel to you to tell your truth?
  • How did you perceive that the other reacted?
  • What do you wish had happened that didn’t happen?
  • What do you need to continue working on this?
  • How do you want this to affect you further in your life?