How your ‘old pain’ defines you

“Hysterical is historical”

We’ve all been there. We say something that feels innocuous and a colleague erupts before us.

“WTF did I say?” we ask ourselves.

It’s down to resonance. Pioneering therapist Arthur Janov introduced me to the concept of resonance some years ago.

It’s based on the premise that when it comes to pain, we never forget, we only repress. Every moment of lives to until now, right back to our in-utero experience is stored up there in our noggin.

These painful memories live on in our subconscious – like a distance hum, whirring away just out of earshot. Our “gating system” keeps the feelings associated with these memories at bay, locked down in our subconscious.

When something happens that resembles a long-forgotten trauma, resonance kicks in.

Say The Boss slights us in front of our peers. The ripple of anger and discomfort in that moment resonates with a wave of hate and fear we might have felt when, say, being hit as a child. Or, as in my case, a difficult interaction with a female, perhaps being unresponsive to a request, might take me back to my natal experience when my mother wasn’t able to provide all the oxygen I needed during my birth.

Now I realise that I may have lost some of you with that last sentence. Really? Can you even remember your birth? Here it’s useful to distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic memory. Just because we don’t have visual recall of an event – an extrinsic memory – doesn’t mean we can’t remember. Our intrinsic memory – the sensations, body response, and feelings – is stored at a cellular level right back to our earliest moments. So, whilst our extrinsic memory may only go as far as early childhood, our intrinsic memories stretch back much farther to birth and beyond.

Back to that difficult interaction with The Boss; our present-moment annoyance has triggered a tsunami of early pain and we’re using every available defence to keep it in check: maybe it’s going quiet and acting nice; maybe it’s sulking; maybe it’s raging in protest; maybe it’s bottling it up before a cigarette or glass of wine at the earliest opportunity.

How does this understanding of resonance help us day to day? Well, I can have a little more empathy when I can see when someone is triggered – I may not know the precise nature of their ‘old pain’, but I can spot the signs that that is what they’re dealing with… I can also help others to see this for themselves.

Of course, what I can’t do, at least in a typical work culture today, is to spend time with people to really ‘go back there’ to the scenes and feelings from their past, to help to re-live and to heal. Right now, that’s the usually the job of the therapist for those of us willing to go there.

However, I do wonder whether deeper, healing conversations will become more commonplace at work – the notion of a company as an ‘healing organisation’. As our working conditions demand a greater unleashing of human potential for organisations to thrive, perhaps one day collective healing will be a key source of sustenance and growth for organisations.