I have a four-year-old son. I spend a lot of time very consciously teaching him stuff. He spends a lot of time totally unconsciously teaching me stuff. Like how much simpler life is if you just get over things.
Throughout an average day he moves through a whole rainbow of emotions. I see joy, anger, sadness, excitement, frustration, confusion, happiness - all in a constant flowing stream of unconscious change. His baseline emotion is irrefutably happiness, but he soars and dives into all those other feelings and expressions with total abandon, freedom and self-confidence. And when he's done feeling one thing, he's back to happy - or on to something else.
I turn the TV off before bed, he's angry at me. Two minutes later (if I haven't interfered with his expression of emotion with my own anger, impatience or frustration - after all this isn't about me) the TV is forgotten and we're skipping up the stairs to choose a story. He doesn't hold on to that resentment he felt so strongly that he was stomping his tiny elephant foot a few moments ago. If I leave him to get on with his strop and don't let it affect the way I talk to him or the things I'm going about doing, he just gets over it and his natural baseline joyfulness returns.
He's finding lots of little things to get angry about at the moment. He's angry when I won't put his shoes on for him, though I know he can do it very well himself and with school looming in September is something he has to get used to doing alone. He's angry when I don't drop everything the second we get back from the supermarket and magically produce a peanut butter sandwich. He's angry when I take one of his Hot Wheels cars away from him because he just threw it at the cat.
For two or three minutes I'm the worst person in the world. And then it's all forgotten. He never brings it up again. He never reminds me about it the next day. He doesn't hold a grudge. In those moments, to his little 4-year-old brain, he is completely in the right and I am the big bad ogre standing in his way of happiness. But it never gets personal. I am sure there'll be plenty of "I HATE YOU!" coming my way in later years, but for now it's just pure emotion, emotion that passes and that he doesn't drag around with him letting it spoil his mood or cause him prolonged stress.
Somewhere along the way of growing up, we lose that special talent of not taking things personally and we get so serious about any little offence. We don't let other people off the hook with forgiveness easily, and we harbour ill feelings for a long, often unhealthy, amount of time. And we do this despite not really knowing what's going on for those other people in their lives. How nice it would be to have so much self-confidence in ourselves, so much belief in our validity and worth, that we could allow unhelpful comments, jibes, situations to just bounce off us. Or to pass through us learning what we can from them and then letting them go. Knowing with complete certainty that we are OK, that we will always be OK.
Somewhere along the way we also forget how to let ourselves off the hook too. How many of us still have moments and memories from our past where we cringe at the mere thought of them. We relive the shame, pain and embarrassment of the moment just by thinking back to it. We pass a judgement on ourselves: "I'm a loser", "I'm so stupid", "I'm worthless", and then suffer accordingly.
Of course, we have designed ourselves through evolution to hold on to moments that cause us a significant spike in emotion, just in case there's something we need to remember about that moment that might save our lives in the future. But these days, these significant emotional events don't tend to be life threatening anymore, so there's no need for us to hold onto them in our emotional memories.
So I'm going to try to be a little kinder to myself, and to ask myself, "Is this about me? Or is there something else going on here," if I feel that someone is trying to hurt my feelings. Before I jump to respond defensively, I'm going to take a deep breath and consider other perspectives. After all, I can choose how to react in any situation, despite what my brain might be urging me to do. I've also had the very good fortune to have worked with some excellent Cognitive Hypnotherapists on moments from my past that were lodged in my emotional memory, that were still causing my brain to drive unhelpful and unhealthy behaviours. The techniques they used for me - and those that I use with my clients - can totally drain the emotion from a memory so that it just becomes a non-emotional part of your life story.
And when I hear the voice in my head telling me I'm something less that fantastic, I'm going to ask myself: "Is that true? Can I absolutely know that that is true?" And if I can't, then I'm just going to let it go.
Try this at home
Next time you're feeling angry, hurt, stressed or any other negative emotion, find a place to sit quietly where you won't be disturbed. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing, taking a deep breath right down into your abdomen, and then letting it out slowly. Repeat this for a few minutes, and just notice how your emotional arousal level drops. Our brains and our bodies naturally seek to return to a state of balance, and if you allow your feelings to run their course without poking and prodding them, without analysing them, without questioning yourself with self-doubt, then they will return to that balance.