How Old Wounds Can Influence and Damage Our Friendships
If you’re breathing then you have a whole lot of stories bumping around inside of you. When hard things happen some of us deal with them by shoving them down and ignoring them until we think they’ve gone away. Other times we work through them by talking about what happened, thinking each step through, and developing some sort of understanding about the whole thing. In either case we think we’re done. Like, “Nothing to see here, Folks! I’m perfectly okay.” Then a new person scratches at the old wound and you realize you’re not. You are SO not okay.
The earliest memories that you have are filled with stories. These stories influence how you think about the world and how you think the world feels about you. To be completely general, if you grew up in a safe, loving, supportive home you’re more apt to think that the world seeks to guide you. If, however, the opposite is true then you’re likely to think that you’ll survive a cruel world by being suspicious, guarded, and mistrustful. These early formed beliefs will become our filter for how we experience other people. The people that we’ve chosen will have their own preformed stories and we’ll keep bumping up against them until we learn how to untie the words with our own hands.
Story is very important for us. We are hardwired to survive by making up stories about people and situations. In Rising Strong, Brené Brown writes, “We make up hidden stories that tell us who is against us and who is with us. Whom we can trust and who is not to be trusted. Conspiracy thinking is all about fear-based self-protection and our intolerance for uncertainty. When we depend on self-protecting narratives often enough, they become our default stories. And we must not forget that storytelling is a powerful integration tool. We start weaving these hidden, false stories into our lives and they eventually distort who we are and how we relate to others.” Well, if that’s not enough to freak you out then I don’t know what will!
So let’s get to the juicy part. We’ve all experienced conflict with our friends. To be in a relationship is a set up for potential rumbles and disagreements. We’re all built differently (and have our own stories) so a flare up is bound to occur at some point. I’ve had conflict with girlfriends that was upsetting, but not earth shattering. I’ve also had conflict with girlfriends that resulted in the relationship ending. Each time I have chosen to end a friendship it was because the situation poked at an old wound. A wound that I thought I had cared for, bandaged up, and healed. My friend would repeat a triggering behavior and I would screech in horror at the wound being ripped open again. Oh gawd, someone call a doctor because it’s about to go down.
Part of the healing process is being our own detective. Holding the wound with both of our hands and asking, “What happened here? How are you feeling? Is this situation bumping up against an old memory?” To look at what happened, we need to write out the facts. Remember, these are just facts (not well she must have thought…so I figured…and she probably feels like – nope, just facts).
What are the facts?
5:55 p.m.: I was sitting at the restaurant waiting for my friend. 6:05 p.m.: Friend has not arrived at the restaurant. 6:07 p.m.: I check my phone to review the texts and to make sure that I have the correct date and place. 6:08 p.m.: I confirm I’m at the right place at the right time. 6:10 p.m.: I text my friend and ask if everything is alright. 6:16 p.m.: Friend calls and says that she can’t make it. She states that she’s sorry. She says that she had a fight with her husband and one of her kids has a cold. 6:20 p.m.: I leave the restaurant.
Next, we need to examine how we’re feeling without censoring ourselves.
Next, is this experience bumping up against an old story?
Uh totally…like that time in college when everyone cancelled one-by-one for my birthday celebration. My brother and my best friend took me out to dinner at the designated birthday restaurant to find one of the invitees already there with her friends and boyfriend (for her own personal get-together) and her telling me that she was sure that my birthday celebration had been scheduled for the following day! Whoops! (Sadly, this is a true story and I had to convince my bestie not to tell her off!).
Okay, so that birthday experience got to me way more than I let on. I felt humiliated and abandoned on a day that I had been really looking forward to. It dug into my body in a way that only a wound can. I knew that I had amazing people in my life. Cognitively, I knew that my life mattered and that I was worthy of attention. But my heart learned to avoid birthday celebrations and planning events that focused on me. I absolutely didn’t want to ever experience that memory again so I avoided it. However, some friends have a way of reminding you of previous heartbreak. Sometimes it’s in how they speak to you. Sometimes they trigger you with their actions. All at once it’s there. Suddenly you are feeling: unimportant, annoyed, angry, disappointed, mad, betrayed, small, abandoned, discarded AGAIN. The old story has made its way into your new relationship.
“Oh for the Love! I graduated college with that girl four years ago (plus or minus ten years)! It’s such an old and done story, right?” Well, apparently not. Look at your last major conflict with a girlfriend. What were the facts? How did you feel? What did it remind you of? If you spend enough time on it you’ll be able to recall a person or situation that influenced the belief that lives inside the wound. If we go back to the original scenario about the friend standing you up at the restaurant we all know that it was a crappy thing for her to do, but what we believe about the situation will influence what happens next.
Imagine that you’re collecting all of your memories in this one moment: your relationship with your mama, each girlfriend you’ve had from preschool on, all of the heartache that’s ever happened to you. Your brain is doing all of this work in less than the time it can take you to say the word, “story”. Just like that your brain gets a dopamine hit for figuring out the mess and how your friend really feels about you and actually (not actually) what happened that day. In a flash you choose to lash out, to shut-down, to talk about her to the rest of your people, to ignore her at future get-togethers, or some other unhelpful tactic to create disconnection between you and her.
We’re just trying to survive, Girls, really. We don’t mean to be hurtful or calculating. We truly don’t. We’re just trying to protect ourselves. That’s why we have to do the hard work of heartwork. We need to be brave enough to peer under the bandages and ask, “Hey, Love, what happened here? Let’s take a closer look and try to understand. Let’s heal this wound again.” This way is much harder. I won’t create an illusion that it’s all peace, love, and butterflies. Looking back at difficult memories is hard. Allowing the old feelings to surface and connect with the new feelings is even harder. It’s challenging, but I encourage you to do the work.
When we choose to avoid this part of the healing we’ll often re-wound someone else. We will repeat the old story and reinforce it. New situations that closely resemble it will be categorized and locked down. No questions asked. The old story wins and we lose the opportunity to really look at our own hearts.
If you’re brave enough to hold your wound up and ask the 3 questions, you’ll know yourself more deeply. You’ll be closer to understanding the layers of your heart and the type of people that it needs to feel safe. Maybe at the end of it you’ll choose to let go of that friend who stood you up at the restaurant. Maybe you’ll choose to talk it out and set new boundaries. The gift of heartwork is that you’ll be responding from a place of clarity, not bouncing off of the hurt from an old memory. We’re made for this. We will heal ourselves first and then share that healing with the people that mean the most to us. Wholeheartedly.
With Love & Backbone,
Did you catch my blog post about breaking up with a friend? Read it here.
Jen Padilla-Burger helps perfectionists heal. She supports overfunctioning perfectionists with developing self-care practices, meditation, hypnosis, and self-compassion. Jen is a lover of coffee, plants, and podcasts.