Monday, November 14, 2011

Overcoming Painful Echoes of the Past

They can linger in our memories as painfully close as yesterday, coloring our actions, our self-image and our view of the world.  My mother's anguish when a classmate ridiculed her because she had only one school dress. My own distress and tarnished self-image when a boy in elementary school called me "Fats". The lasting power of such early pain can be measured in decades.

In commenting on this recent blog post, a number of readers had their own stories of painful echoes from the past and asked for a follow-up: what do you do when painful echoes still resonate?

While those old words may always be a part of your life experience, you can defuse their power by considering them in light of present day reality.

Question the authority of the speaker.  A classmate from decades ago cannot judge you for life. You took in the pain of his or her words because you were young and vulnerable or in a situation that caused you to doubt yourself.  Look back over time. The 11-year-old boy who called me "Fats" was being an 11-year-old showing off to his friends. He was also observing, in his clumsy way, that my body was different. Indeed, it was. While I wasn't fat, I was developing curves at a time when every other girl in my class still looked like a child. My self-consciousness about that made me especially vulnerable to his careless cruelty.

Consider the mental health of the person speaking hurtfully: a critical parent may have been criticized relentlessly himself or herself in the past or may have been in the self-hating mode of addiction and was displacing this pain onto you.

Or a person may have a mental illness. Sister Claudine, my second grade teacher, who made fun of my partial paralysis as I struggled to recover from polio and rejoin my classmates in school, was very young, very far from her home in Ireland, and so depressed that, even as a 7-year-old, I knew that her words were coming from a dark place within that had nothing to do with me. In fact, she soon had what was then called "a nervous breakdown" and, before the school year was finished, was sent back to Ireland.

The realization that the speaker may have been mentally ill or emotionally damaged or simply immature doesn't make what they said not hurt. It doesn't make his or her words okay.  But it does diminish the authority of that hurtful voice. The person was speaking from his or her own pain or ignorance or immaturity -- not from fact.

And if what you were teased about was fact -- you were a chubby child or wore geeky clothing or stuttered -- the mind-set that made you an outcast then was an immature one. Chances are, those who teased you would not do the same today -- and if they did, there's some impairment there, some arrested development going on.

 Consider your strengths now. You're bigger. You're stronger. You have more resources now. You aren't limited to one dress. You look, more or less, slim or zaftig, like most people now. You don't have to take in someone else's garbage. You can walk away. You can dismiss the verbal abuse. You can question motives, telling yourself that this person is damaged, unhinged or simply an asshole. You can tell yourself or, internally, speak to that long-ago tormentor through time: "Yes, I do look different. But it's terribly unkind of you to point that out in such a hurtful way." If the person who caused your painful echoes is still in your life, still ready with critical remarks, you can stop the pattern with the realization that you are no longer a powerless child, that you can break the pattern and speak up for yourself, even if your tormentor is a parent or sibling. You may gain more respect --self-respect and respect from the other person -- in the process. And if it causes greater distance -- maybe that distance needs to happen for the relationship pattern to adjust to your new strengths.

If you've thirsted for revenge, remember that living well is the best revenge.  Living life as a loving, giving member of society is the best possible outcome from childhood pain.

When I was taunted or excluded by some classmates in elementary school, I used to tell myself angrily that "I'm going to be very famous and successful one day and they'll all be sorry!" I'm sure if any of those kids even knew of my later success, they didn't care much one way or another. I doubt that any of them felt a strong enough connection to me to be either sorry or glad. They may not remember being unkind. But I remember -- and being kind, being thoughtful, making an effort not to speak words that could wound another is my way of putting the past behind me.

Reconsider the words in the context of now. You can reframe your present. You are not chained to past victimhood. You call the shots now. If you spent a sad childhood feeling abused, left out, ridiculed, this doesn't have to follow you all the days of your life. Now you're in a different phase of life. If you weren't pretty or popular in school, this no longer has to limit you now as it did then.  None of us is likely to be as conventionally cute or pretty as we once were -- or yearned to be. But we've grown into our own beauty, our own power, fashioning lives uniquely our own.


  1. A very wise and helpful post. I like the way you say 'question the authority of the speaker'. My brother has another saying, which I also like, though cruder that you! "Everybody has the right to be an ass-h---!"

  2. Dear Kathy,
    Thank you for this helpful posting. When I moved here two and a half years ago I met a woman who found it necessary to criticize everything about me that was different from herself. This initially hurt and I became obsessed with it.

    However, a counselor helped me establish my boundaries and let go of the hurt by encouraging me to "feel" what I was feeling and to examine it in the light of my present life. One of the helpful things she said to me was that I have many, many other friends who don't treat me that way. So it is within this one woman that the problem lies. It is her problem and I needed to not let it become mine.

    And so, I've come to peace with this.

  3. Getting taunted by classmates is one thing, but what about when a teacher or some other authority figure says something hurtful. Granted many times it may be unknowingly, but, how does a child understand the difference?
    I remember when I first started to learn to write in cursive. My teacher told me my handwriting looked like "chicken scratch".
    And then there was my memory of what the school nurse said to me. In tears I told my mom, "the nurse said there must be something wrong with me because I am so small."

  4. What wise words! I have a friend who stuggles with issues from her past and she says it's always worse around the holidays. I'm going to share this with her.

  5. I really feel fortunate in that we moved a lot and I was always the new girl which gave me a positive edge, mostly with the boys.
    The most hurtful thing in my childhood came from my own mouth when in grade school. I told a young black girl that I could no longer play with her. Both my parents and my friends had demanded that I cancel this friendship. That episode when I realized how my rejection had hurt her, made me vow to never again listen to any heart other than my own. I learned a bit late. I can only hope she was not scarred by my weakness to pressure.
    Arkansas Patti

  6. My mother told me I was "selfish, lazy and disagreeable" all the time I was growing up. It took me until I was 50 to realize it was just her talking, out of her own emptiness and need. What a gift I got when I realized that just because someone told me I was this or that, didn't make it so.

    Thanks for this post.

  7. What wonderful advice. Also, By our works we are known, not by what others say of us.

  8. This was a very powerful post sweetie.

    Yep, this Ozark Farm Chick has had a few of those voices in her head.

    Once ya think ya got 'em conquered something happens and one kicks back on ya ever now and then.

    I think age helps us toss 'em out the window a little quicker. Heeehehehe!!

    God bless ya from the happy hills and hollers of the Missouri Ponderosa!!! :o)

  9. My mother used to say, "Stick and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me," whenever my brother tormented me. And, truly, he tormented me and made my childhood miserable. She let him get away with abusive behavior and put it back on me. The words were not able to hurt according to her.

    Thankfully, I never believed her. Words hurt. We heal much faster from the sticks and stones.

  10. I needed to come over here today, and for just such a post.

    Thank you.


  11. I read something once about forgiveness that helped me immensely. Most people are doing the best they can. "Best" is different for everyone, because it depends on their upbringing, their intelligence, their nature, and their ability to learn.

    Good post.

  12. You have so much meat in this post, I can't begin to comment on one part. I'm just saying that this should be printed out and shared with every parent who has to counsel a hurt child, every teacher, and yes -- every child. Child of any age, young or old. Bravo.