When we interact with others, we experience those interactions with a mix of feelings new and old.
By “old” I mean that emotions from long-standing relationships (like family) live on in our brain/mind as emotion-traces.
At times, these emotion-traces strongly affect our current interactions with others, but we may not always be aware of their influence. One way to become aware of them is to notice when we’re having powerful feelings.
Let’s take a look at a couple of examples where individuals are having a stronger reaction to another person than seems warranted. We’ll start with Jerry.
Jerry emails his friend, Don, asking for his help.
When Don does not write back, Jerry gives up, feeling hurt and angry.
Jerry tells me that the situation reminds him of something that happened when he was younger.
He remembers taking over a lawn-mowing job from a friend but not being able to get the mower started. When he asked his friend and his dad for help, neither would.
Jerry felt incompetent, hiding out alone in his room and embarrassed he couldn’t start the mower. Then, as now, he felt hurt and angry when he couldn’t get help, and his embarrassment made him give up.
As we talk, Jerry sees the present situation differently — he realizes that what is happening now with Don is different from what happened when he was a child, even though his feelings are very similar.
This is key — when the feelings you have now are similar to ones in the past, you are much more likely to assume the situation is the same when it may be very different.
After we talk, Jerry calls Don, discovers Don’s email was out, and Jerry gets the help he needs.
It’s not just unpleasant feelings from the past that remain important. Let’s consider Amy’s situation.
Amy, a woman in her 20s, is learning cello and loves playing. This surprises her because she thought she “wasn’t musical.”
Amy’s idea that she has no musical aptitude comes from her five years of piano lessons with a very stern teacher, a woman Amy always felt was exasperated with her and critical of her playing.
Her cello teacher is a very lively woman who readily praises Amy, who realizes that the cello teacher reminds her of her beloved nanny — an animated woman who repeatedly told Amy that if she worked hard at something she would be good at it and enjoy it.
Past (“old”) relationships that have been emotionally important to us, whether they were friendly or hostile, influence the way we experience present (“new”) ones.
Having prior relationship experiences that were generally positive and welcoming ease us into having warm and positive present-day interactions.
Past relationships that were hurtful or harmful will — if we aren’t aware — limit our potential for creating positive current relationships.
But don’t lose hope — if you know that your present feelings about others are influenced by the past, you can better separate the past from the present, freeing yourself to enjoy the relationships you have now.
Tony Hacker, Ph.D., is a Seattle area psychologist who sees individuals and couples in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org