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Learning to Sort Out Unresolved Emotions

Updated on January 28, 2016
The Fury of Athamas, by John Flaxman
The Fury of Athamas, by John Flaxman | Source

Triggers and Responses

Where do emotions come from? Why do we have them? As discussed in another article, emotions are neither good nor bad, but serve as a momentary indicator of an unmet need, a flashing signal to take action.

What happens if we ignore or suppress emotions when they first arise? The unmet need does not get met. The signal passes without the action being taken. The more intense the emotion of the original event, the deeper the subconscious carves a response for any discernible patterns to prepare for the potential of similar encounters in the future.

These patterns form the basis of a trigger. When a present day interaction matches these patterns, we are surprised at how strongly it can trigger unresolved emotions from our past, bringing up a surge of unexpected intensity into the present.

Why? Why do negative encounters leave such a lasting imprint?

Consider again the mechanics of evolution. Random mutations differentiate individuals of a species. Those individuals best qualified for survival and procreation carry forward the most beneficial mutations to future generations.

If emotions are a product of the need to survive, and if the negative emotions leave the deepest impact, then it stands to reason that the more negative an emotion, the more important the "lesson learned" is to the individual's future chances at survival.

Negative emotional energy remains, because it is somehow related to a mechanism for survival in previous generations. But how does this inherited trait apply to our current-day circumstances?

Metabolize - a meditation

by JDubya, 2011

Emotions should never sit idle.
Write them down.
Talk them out.
Exercise to exorcise.

I first sat down to improvise at the piano at a young age. I was the younger of two brothers, raised by good people, in a small community in the middle of nowhere.

Life goes on. A sister is born when I'm 13. We attend my brother's funeral when I'm 15. Many joys and sorrows marked my unique experience of growing up.

Life goes on. In some respects, I stand still. I'm well into my 30s, but I hold on to the loss.

Standing still. Emotions struggle for release. Rage replaces peace, and my relationships suffer. How many friendships grow cold? I must learn to express this sorrow in a healthy way.

Within my circles, I am fortunate to have good people who see past my baggage to something deeper. Leaning on the strength of others, I move forward to embrace peace.

Emotions should never sit idle.

Find the balance between expression and self-control. Stuff your feelings, and they will escape in unpredictable ways. Give full vent to your anger, and soon you will find yourself alone. Acknowledge the pain and find a healthy exit for it.

Write them down.

Learn to recognize an overreaction. Try to identify triggers. Understand that emotions are an indication of an underlying problem. You are not what you feel. You are who you choose to be. Write down who you are, who you want to be, and what holds you back.

Talk them out.

Find someone you trust and spill it. Hold nothing back. Trust is essential. So is humility. Take counsel to heart and commit to change. Own your flaws. Celebrate your strengths.

Exercise to exorcise.

Get up and get moving. Find a way to sweat. Your body will thank you. And you will find the intensity lessened. Your emotions must stay in motion. Put your body in motion to find unexpected rewards.

You are who you choose to be.

Choose this day to be you.

Only you can do it!


We humans are social creatures by nature. For the genetic basis of this social nature to pass to forward generations, some great survival pressure must have required deep social cohesion.

As it turns out, our increasing social interaction paved the way for increased brain capacity and greater intellect. From my training as a computer scientist, my first thought is of the need for greater sized state tables to keep track of friend-or-foe evaluations in daily social interactions.

These changes occurred over thousands of generations and millions of years. With our rapid advance from the dawn of civilization to the invention of writing, and now with industry and global communications transforming our world in mere centuries and decades, is it any wonder that we struggle to adjust? How can evolution and biology hope to keep up?

Over the generations, less of our survival was inherited through instinct, and more was passed on between generations via learning, whether from family or from other social interactions. Fortunately for us today, we have this feature of learning to give us the flexibility to adapt intellectually to the Information Age even while our biology struggles to emerge from the Stone Age.

To illustrate the move from instinct to learning, consider the time it takes for humans to mature from birth to adulthood. Observe how helpless our infants are. Can a 5 year old hunt? By the time a child reaches puberty, perhaps enough hunting and gathering skills could be learned to survive in a more primitive environment.

How many other species have so long a development before reaching physical maturity? And how does this affect us in our industrial- and information-age reality?

We find ourselves in transition. Our instincts of fear and anger quickly propel us into fighting for our lives, or competing for resources. But chances are, if you are reading this article, you live in a wealthy society with plenty of resources. Biologically we are tuned for scarcity. How do we cope with abundance?

To say it a different way, triggers are a vestige from our primitive ancestors' struggle to survive through harsh conditions of scarcity and intense competition. Left alone, triggers lie in wait for some future encounter, ready to serve up adrenaline for fight-or-flight.

Logically, I understand that these biological mechanisms served their purpose in generations long past, but such drastic measures are rarely necessary in my life today. Do I need to reach for a weapon every time I feel threatened? Do I have to dominate every interaction to secure my next meal?

Generally speaking, what conversation must I have with my body, this human animal I live in? I want to be the one responsible for my actions, but if triggers run so deep that I lose my power to choose a different response, then how do I root out these triggers to regain autonomy over my own decisions?

Where do you turn for trusted relationship?
Where do you turn for trusted relationship? | Source
Connect with a bigger picture.
Connect with a bigger picture. | Source
... because wildflowers just make me happy.
... because wildflowers just make me happy. | Source

My story

In my case, sometime in my mid-30s, triggers and overreactions became a regular occurrence in my workplace and in my home life. I soon became discouraged and distraught over the distance forming in the relationships I held most dear.

My own journey from emotional devastation to restoration didn't start in earnest until I found strength through abiding friendships with a few trusted individuals in my local church fellowship, my circle of trust.

Where can you find trustworthy friends? In your family? At your workplace? Are you involved in a faith community?

My first step was to set a goal for myself. Through conversation within my circle of trust, I began to recognize that the response I chose to the trigger of others' behavior did not reflect the kind of person I wanted to be. I asked my circle to hold me accountable to a higher standard of patience and understanding towards those whose actions triggered my overreactions. Over time, through regular conversation, I acknowledged my shortcomings and dared to hope for change.

Bathed in the encouragement and feedback of my circle of trust, I slowly moved forward. I learned to choose a different response. Looking back, I realize that the changes in my behavior were not revolutionary but incremental. However, from start to finish, the increments add up to a revolutionary difference. I became a different person through the process.

Your story is unique to you, but we're all part of the same human family. Our similarities allow us to form bonds of friendship across the lines of family, ethnic, national, or religious boundaries. Get connected! It's vital!

Each friendship brings a different perspective. Weave together enough perspective, and you have a chance to gain wisdom. I found strength in the bonds of community. Through the respect these friends have for my place in their lives, and my value as their friend, I learned to hold myself in higher esteem.


Each of these had their place in my road to recovery and wholeness.

  • Prayer
    My problems are bigger than I. Where can I turn? I look up and I cry out.
  • Journaling
    It helps to focus thoughts by writing them down. As an added benefit, your future self will look back with gratitude over your notes when you see how far you've come. Write it down!
  • Solitude
    Get enough space to fully (loudly!) vent emotions without fear of reprisal. Unplug. Step back. Own the consequences of the events unique to your life story. Acknowledge the pain caused by others, and the pain you have caused.
  • Forgiveness
    Press through towards forgiveness and acceptance. You owe yourself the freedom of forgiveness. Forgive others. Forgive yourself. I even had to forgive God, if you can believe that.
  • Wonder
    Get outdoors, get in touch with nature. Visit museums. Read science blogs. Listen to uplifting music. Meditate on the wonder of it all. Learn that you are a small part of a big world.
  • Activity
    Get up and get moving. Nothing releases pent up frustration like a body covered in sweat.
  • Accountability
    Set goals, share them with your trusted friends, ask them to hold you to a higher standard than you can reach on your own. Connecting with these friends on a regular basis gave me unexpected strength through the steady stream of their encouragement.
  • Reading
    Get your mind off your own troubles by sharing someone else's story. Whether fiction, scripture, or biographies, reading gave me space and perspective to examine my own story from a different point of view.
  • Give Back
    Commit to helping others with their emotional healing. Give your time with no expectation of return, beyond the joy of helping. We are social creatures - biologically, altruism is good for you!

I once read an analogy that life is like the writing of a book. The pages already turned are written, and can't be changed. They can be revisited and re-read as often as you like, but no amount of fretting over the past will rewrite the story written on those pages.

However! The pen touches the page in front of you. Today is a blank page. Who do you want to be today? Imagine that you're the hero of an epic story. (Because you are!) So the previous chapters have led the hero through terrible tragedy, heartache, and loss, or even juvenile or petty mistakes. But this is not the end of the story! The hero rises from the bitter ashes of defeat to a new day, and begins again.

Like the development of a character in a book that you can't put down, your life does not have to be the same mistakes lived out, over and over again. Choose what kind of hero the story of your life requires you to be, and go become that hero.

A lifelong pursuit

With patience, persistence, and committed friendship, I found my way out of brokenness. I didn't realize it then, but looking back, I can see how I "caught" my community's outlook. Over time, I traded my negativity for their positive opinion of me. I rose to the challenge of becoming the person they thought me to be.

The journey continues. I have not arrived. Every day is a new opportunity to choose between engaging in meaningful relationship or withdrawing to hide my wounds. I continue to make mistakes, but I'm leaning in. I choose life, and love.

Who do you choose to be? Start your journey by taking a first step.


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