When I recently read this line on an Instagram post, I quickly jotted it down, eager to share it with my clients as a succinct way to explain something we often discuss in sessions at my practice Center for Shared Insight in Denver, Colorado. As a therapist, I regularly see how clients are reacting to old wounds through their current behaviors, and this was so well-put: “you are not afraid of new love, you are afraid of old pain”.
When you are reacting to old pain in your relationships, you will often use protest behaviors, may be highly reactionary, and avoid trying to understand the root causes of your feelings. Instead, you may have the tendency to spin up stories about what you think is happening, use distancing techniques, or even find things wrong with your partner as a coping mechanism - to keep you safe.
In this post, we dive into the behaviors that you might exhibit if you are reacting to old pain, how you can build awareness, and, instead, embrace new love and possibilities.
When you think about the word “protest” you might consider a group of people who are looking to draw attention to an idea they feel strongly about. Or, you might automatically think about a child who is throwing a tantrum to get attention because they don’t feel heard or seen. Adult protest behaviors seek to accomplish the same thing, yet usually in a more subtle way. Protest behaviors for those reacting to old pain might look like establishing firm boundaries to prevent closeness, such as dismissing the opportunity to spend time together and creating space in the relationship as a way to protect oneself. These are coping mechanisms to overcome the fear and possibility that history could repeat itself and a new partner will hurt you in the same way that an old one did. These behaviors might include making excuses for closeness, avoiding intimacy, or sabotaging the relationship in an effort not to get hurt.
Reflection and Healing
Similarly, those who are reacting to past pain tend not to want to address it because it is so difficult to reflect upon. Take an emotionally abusive parent as an example. If someone had love modeled to them in an emotionally abusive way and that is bubbling up in their existing relationships, it might be too painful to look back, reflect, and work through that past pain. That might be too much for someone to address without significant support. If you know that you have past trauma that is still impacting you today, because there are common patterns in your relationships, it may be time to talk with a therapist about how you can address and work through past pain and trauma in a manageable and incremental way. Beyond therapy, there are other healing modalities that can help you overcome a tendency to react to current situations in the context of past pain. Ranging from yoga and journaling to corrective experiences and even opportunities like EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), the ability to work through and beyond past pain is often a multifaceted process.
At Center for Shared Insight, often clients don’t recognize that they are responding to unresolved trauma and pain and acting it out in their current relationship. Their partner might activate old wounds without even having a major disagreement. If you have ever been surprised by the reaction of a partner and felt that it was significantly more dramatic than necessary, your partner is probably reacting to an old wound or spinning up a story based on the past.
Our work as therapists first includes helping clients identify what they are truly reacting to, and then helping them better understand how they can address the core issues of their past without acting them out with their partner. Once that is achieved, most often the issues in the relationship go away or subside significantly because they are addressed at a deeper level.