“Good morning, your Honor. I’m Suzanne Gelb, representing [client name].”
When I think back to the very first time that I said those words to a Judge, years ago, it still feels completely surreal. Me? Appearing in court as an attorney? Somebody pinch me.
There I was in my crisp navy suit, with my attaché case in hand … looking so professional, so poised, sounding so confident. All those years of disciplined training — in ballet, public speaking, psychology and law — had brought me to this moment.
And yet, despite my considerable preparation, in that moment? I felt utterly terrified.
“The Judge is going to get mad at me for not knowing what I’m doing. He’ll see that that I don’t really belong here, and throw me out of his courtroom.”
Intellectually — in my mind — I knew I had every right to be in that courtroom. I was a strong, capable forty-something-year old woman.
But emotionally — in my heart? I was a frightened little three year old.
A girl who was terrified that my mom would look at me with disapproval.
A girl who was terrified that the South African authorities would come & “take me away” (that’s what I thought happened to my friends [nannies], who disappeared during the night).
So why, in that moment, did I feel like my former three year-old self?
Because — to borrow a psychological term — I was “emotionally arrested.”
That’s what happens when certain basic emotional needs — like feeling special and like we matter, and being listened to and praised — aren’t met, at a certain age. So a part of us can get emotionally “trapped” at that age.
Which may mean that sometime later, when we have an experience that triggers a similar fear (the situation & circumstances are different, but the feelings are similar), we tend to revert to that age. We relive those feelings from the earlier experience, again… along with the feelings from the present situation.
The result? An exaggerated emotional reaction.
Like a temper tantrum. A melt-down. Deep, deep fear.
Essentially: our heart has become frozen in time.
But the good news is …
No matter what may have “arrested” us, it is possible to set our heart free. @DrSuzanneGelb
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We can help it to “grow up” — to mature and become the same age as the rest of ourselves.
Here are two simple practices that were helpful to me:
1. Whenever I had an exaggerated emotional reaction to something, I would ask myself:
How old is the part of me that’s feeling this way?
Whatever age came to mind… I accepted it. I didn’t judge or censor it. I knew that my first intuitive hit was probably correct.
2. Next, I focused on comforting that part of myself, by asking myself:
What does that __ year-old part of me need, right now?
Sometimes my inner three year old needed reassurance that everything would be OK, that she was safe, and no one was going to yell at her.
At another time, my inner six year old needed a reminder that she would continue to receive unconditional love — even if she made a “mistake.”
Whatever my inner __ year-old needed, I found a way to provide it — sometimes I used a mantra, a meditation, a letter to myself, and / or a self-hug. Whatever it took.
These two practices worked for me when I was feeling over-the-top angry, frightened, ashamed, anxious or lonely.
In time, I started having fewer and fewer of those exaggerated reactions. Which to me, meant that my “emotional age” was catching up with my “intellectual age.” Until it got to the point that I didn’t have any reactions at all. Then my emotional responses lasted just ten or fifteen seconds. That’s natural. Essentially, my emotional responses were in proportion to what I was experiencing.
With self-awareness & love, it is possible to heal the parts of ourselves that are frozen in time.
And bring our whole self — every part, all grown up — into a beautiful future.
P.S. Is there a particular experience — like public speaking, being turned down for a job, or having to ask for a refund — that triggers an exaggerated emotion reaction for you? How old is your heart, when that’s happening?
Dr. Suzanne Gelb is a clinical psychologist, life coach and family law attorney. She believes that it is never too late to become the person you want to be. Strong. Confident. Calm. Creative. Free of all of the burdens that have held you back — no matter what has happened in the past. Her insights on personal growth have been featured on more than 200 radio programs, 200 TV interviews and online at TIME, Forbes, Newsweek, The Huffington Post, and more. Step into her virtual office at DrSuzanneGelb.com and sign up to receive a free meditation and her weekly writings on health, happiness and self-respect. You can also follow her on Twitter and FB.
Image courtesy of frankieleon.