– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Sleep is only beneficial when you wake up. That’s not only true in some funny way but it’s also a great metaphor. Our life and much that we experience may only be of value to us in terms of our psychological and physical health when we wake up to it.

The person who you are today is the lifelong interplay of your genetics and your life experience. This interplay shapes the workings of our bodies, minds and behaviour. We learn a mind-boggling amount and that learning is critical to getting by, surviving, coping, thriving. But it’s not all pearls and gems. Some experiences are more like slivers than gems. Some of these slivers are sharp irritants and others may be large and dangerously placed.

Our body ‘knows’ how to heal a cut. But a sliver keeps that healing from happening. When you have a sliver you have two ways to go – in or out. If you leave it in you’ll have to protect it from getting rubbed, which would feel like the original injury. A bunch of slivers left in your hand would require some pretty complicated changes in how you go about your daily activities. Just getting ready in the morning using only one hand would be a challenge best left for Mr. Bean, but over time you’d learn how to use your knees and elbows in whole new ways.

Removing slivers hurts for sure and requires some bravery, but afterwards we’re as good as new.

Many of the past emotional injuries in our lives are like slivers, sharp, deeply painful and still lingering. And if we don’t face them they continue to cause pain and complication.

We automatically change how we live so as to protect those ‘slivers’ from being rubbed, without even knowing it. We get anxious about all kinds of situations because our mind rapidly registers how close each situation might be to rubbing a ‘sliver’. When we’ve suffered loss or have been abused, bullied, abandoned, belittled, we might instinctively shy away from situations that have any similarity at all to the original injury. We may feel anxious public speaking, going to a new class or a party, being touched, returning a phone call, going to a family dinner, talking openly with our boss, asking someone out on a date. We get sick with stress and our life gets more complicated and smaller as our mind-brain automatically navigates around and away from all the possible brushes with past injuries. We get bent out of shape, make mountains out of mole hills, lash out or freak out or seem ‘sensitive’, and we may not know why. All the juggling and wiggling we do to keep our slivers safe can cause even more slivers through lost opportunities, embarrassments and uncomfortable questioning and challenges. And still the original slivers remain.

If we were lucky enough to have attentive and supportive parents, we received protection and comfort and were helped to work with our injuries, learning that we can face them and feel better. Even so, wonderful and attentive parents may miss things, like school yard jabs and our private worries. When we’re not so lucky, the world and our own families can inflict terrible injuries, and we may not learn how to face pain at all.

Any and all healing of life’s injuries requires that we pay courageous attention to them. That’s the way our experience can “come on line” in our mind-brain and get sorted out. It does hurt. It can sometimes be overwhelming to look with awareness at our traumas. The idea is to go slowly, respectfully, kindly, safely, with someone.