Ask Allison: My partner is convinced I have a deep-seated trauma because I cry when I hear anything nostalgic. What do you think?
Question: I am not sure how to frame my question as it is a bit unusual. I have always had a very emotional reaction to certain things - children singing, beautiful music, anything nostalgic. As in I get incredibly sad and find it really hard not to cry. I have the same run-of-the-mill problems that everyone has - working hard, bad work-life balance - but on the whole I am a solid, resilient person. My partner has been going through psychotherapy and is convinced that I have some deep-seated trauma. What do you think?
A Often when people say this 'is a bit unusual' there's a feeling of 'I shouldn't feel like this' - however, all that matters is that you do. So let's start there, from a place of compassion. In a society where we minimise our emotional wounds - whose function is to signal to us to be aware of hurt or past pain - our head and heart often fight between the frustration of rational over emotional.
If I asked you to write down the words 'rational' and 'emotional' side by side, what words would you write underneath? Maybe 'logical' or 'irrational' might feature, divided by a line in the centre of the page.
Why is this? When did 'emotional' get such a bad reputation, or at least castigated to irrationality? A major desire would be to challenge the prevalence of head over heart in our connected, yet deeply disconnected society and to become more fluent in the language and purpose of our emotions. Similar to the words like 'mental health', 'emotional' seems to carry its own unnecessary stigma.
'Incredibly sad' is the feeling that is coming up for you - what would it be like to stop fighting back the tears and to connect, sit and be with this feeling? With only the context of your words and not sitting in front of you I can only hypothesise. Looking at the surface emotions that are being triggered when you hear children singing, or beautiful music, or when you feel nostalgic, there may be a common thread, an inherent feeling of innocence or a nostalgia for a simpler time. Sadness as an emotion is felt when we feel loss.
You have somewhat minimised your adult life as having the same 'run-of-the-mill problems as everyone'. What were your hopes and dreams of being an adult? How does your child version match or mismatch the adult reality?
Reality's expectation can pack an almighty and disappointing punch. Hopefully you had a childhood where choices, decisions and responsibilities were cared for, or at least managed for you. Childhood, if you were one of the lucky ones, hopefully provided a sense of comfort deriving from having more certainty. Or nostalgia can be bittersweet as it can bring up mixed feelings of happiness and sadness, if you had a past that was difficult.
If you could sit with any gaps between the nostalgia of the past and the reality of the present perhaps you may glean an essence of why you feel this pain or loss.
Svetlana Boym says there are two types of nostalgia - restorative and reflective. With restorative nostalgia you will look back wanting to re-experience your past with a sense of the 'good old days'. Reflective nostalgia can make you feel sad as you sit with and reflect on the memories of how your past was. A directive that could bring solace from a dark past could begin by using one of your key strengths - resilience. To recognise how much you have grown, changed and if there's a bit more to do, perhaps exploring these triggers yourself, with your husband or with a professional, if you feel that would benefit you.
As a parting question I'll leave you to reflect on this: have you accepted a bad working 'balance' at the cost of yourself? As children we are full of hope and possibility. Don't get me wrong, life is hard, life is unfair, and I'm an advocate for positive psychology but, and it's a big but, are you living a good life, and if not, what would a good life look like for you?
On a new page, write 'my good life' - be specific about what you want more of and what you want less of. Sounds simple, and it is - putting it into real daily practice is the hard part. One I feel is worth pursuing though. These triggers are working hard to tell you something. Listen, learn and soothe your feelings. Be specific about changes you want to make and do one at a time.
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