At any age, in any life stage, you can change. Whether you’re 77 years old or 17, you can learn, grow, adopt new habits, and make new choices to create a life you truly love. It may not always feel that way, though. When childhood emotional wounds tether you to the past, it can feel like you’re being swept away by a fast-moving current; although there are branches on either side of the riverbank to grab onto, something is mentally blocking you from reaching out. That “something” is a tether point, an invisible string holding you back.
Your tether points originated with emotional injuries or traumas in childhood — experiences that were hurtful and damaging to your sense of self. The same event or experience will affect people differently. School-yard teasing that stays with one person for decades may be brushed off easily by someone else. Genetics, previous events, mindset, and beliefs can all affect which childhood events stay with you and hold you back, and which you shrug off. The social support you received in the wake of the trauma, the trauma’s duration, and the type of injury it is also can affect the tether-creation process.
Trauma generates emotions, and unless you process these emotions at the time they occur, they can become stuck in your system — negatively affecting you both psychologically and physically. The healthy flow and processing of distressing emotions like anger, sadness, grief, and fear are essential. You will never resolve underlying issues if you deny and run from your feelings.
Suppressed emotions don’t just go away; instead, they become toxic. They will keep showing up in your life, in some form of dysfunction or unhappiness, until you resolve them. Throughout life, feeling your feelings is one of the healthiest and most productive things you can do.
To reach out for that metaphorical branch and pull yourself from the current, you have to find what it is in your inner world that is tethering you to your traumas, restricting your movements and limiting your choices. You have to make conscious what is unconscious so that you can free yourself from your past and grab onto the life you want by making new, more empowering choices.
To find your tether points, you don’t have to go through every experience you’ve ever had and dredge up old sorrows. Instead, look at what isn’t working well in your life right now. What situations make you feel extra emotional—hair-trigger anger, deep despair, shame? Are there times where you think you should have an emotional reaction, but you feel numb? What do these feelings or lack of feelings tell you about yourself? The act of self-exploration and understanding will help you get to know yourself on a deeper level. It will help you to process and let go of any beliefs, memories, judgments, and regrets that are keeping you bound to the past and unable to fully engage with life in the present.
To free yourself from what is limiting you and unconsciously driving your actions, you need to observe yourself non-judgmentally. You need to bring your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs into conscious awareness. In doing so, you shift from using the fight-flight-or-freeze part of your brain to the less reactive and more analytical one, which can explore, discover, and create.
The qualities you’ll need in your self-observation spell the acronym COAL:
By using COAL, you create a psychological safe-space where you can let your guard down to reveal the sensations, emotions, and thoughts trapped inside. When you focus on your inner world, you are practicing emotional mindfulness. Self-awareness is fundamental to understanding and being happy with yourself, forming close relationships, and recognizing your motivations so that you can build your life based on what is true for you now, and not a response to past trauma.
You must feel your feelings; your emotions are helpful companions on the journey of life. You need to make friends with them, learn from them, and interact with them in a loving, not fearful, way.