Unfinished feelings

Unfinished feelings

Over sensitivity to others may be a sign of residual trauma 

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 10/24/2013

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Dear Patti,
My boyfriend and I recently attended an Oktoberfest event and found ourselves sitting near a man with his girlfriend or wife and their toddler. All of a sudden seven policemen came through the crowd and surrounded him. Although he looked scared, he kept reassuring his crying girlfriend he was OK. When the policemen started putting gloves on, I felt icy fear in my body. I don’t know police protocol, but I assumed this meant they were going to physically handle him. I fervently hoped he wouldn’t verbally smart off or fight them as I became deathly afraid something bad would happen. The police talked to him a while longer, then pulled him up and handcuffed his wrists and his ankles 

He looked down, his hair fell in his face and he looked so defeated. I felt immense sadness, fear and pain envelop me for him, his girlfriend and their baby.

The police scared me and seemed like bullies or thugs in uniforms with guns and batons. One in particular (who seemed to be in charge) looked like he was enjoying capturing this man and pushing him around. The police finally took him away with the girlfriend following behind, carrying their little son. I didn’t see the police do anything wrong and my boyfriend said the man could have been a dangerous criminal, putting everyone around us in jeopardy. That’s not what it felt like to me. I can’t help but worry this man might get locked up for a long time.

The reason I’m writing is because my reaction seems extreme, as if it has happened to me. I haven’t been able to relax, sleep or put this event out of my mind. While I don’t think it’s something I should seek counseling for, I wonder why it has affected me so deeply.

— Kimberly

Dear Kimberly,
To a large extent, your response may be quite normal. There are many who feel deeply after witnessing someone else’s traumatic slice of life — a car accident, heart attack, arrest — and your empathy for this young family is understandable.  

Another possibility is that you may be what is known as a highly sensitive person (HSP), estimated to make up 15 to 20 percent of the population. As an HSP, you’re more aware of subtleties than others and have a finely tuned nervous system creating heightened sensitivity to many things, including noise, bad news, media violence, repercussions of world events and other people’s feelings. Such over-arousal can leave you feeling exposed and vulnerable. While this tendency may often seem like a curse, HSP’s have vivid imaginations, intense emotional awareness and highly creative, dynamic minds.

This particular situation may have important sociopolitical meaning to you insofar as trying to make the world a better place. 
However, the fact your response was so intense and you have been unable to shake off your reaction suggests that this experience may be triggering an old trauma. Was there ever a time in your life when you felt seriously bullied, hunted or threatened? Were you or a loved one ever the victim of thugs? Was a family member ever split apart from you due to incarceration or being a casualty of war? If so, you may have unfinished, underlying feelings — feelings that were activated by the sad occurrence you observed. 

When there are unfinished feelings concerning a traumatic experience, one reacts to similarities first and differences second. For example, if a pedestrian gets hit by a car, seeing a car for the first time following recovery might cause him or her to become startled, reacting to what is similar to the original traumatic event — an approaching vehicle. It’s only after that initial startled response does a realization occur that the car is black, not white (like the original car), and the driver is driving 20 mph, not 50 mph. 

Therefore, if there are basic similarities between an original trauma and what you witnessed, your first response to the police might be a painful, startled reaction to a group of threatening men — even though the situation in the present may be very different from whatever occurred in the past. I don’t believe in arbitrarily opening up one’s old memories unless these repressed feelings are somehow interfering with the quality of your current life. If there’s some underlying, painful experience you have been unable or unwilling to face until now, this might be an opportunity to heal and become more whole.  

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.

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