Talking without Tears about a Painful Past

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Reader’s Question

I have a boyfriend who is always asking me about my personal life, but I always start crying because I went through some bad experiences when I was a teenager (e.g., parents’ divorce, having to live alone when I was 16, fear of my father’s return, and similar things). I am 26 now, but I still cannot speak about it. How can I control my emotions while speaking about these things?

Psychologist’s Reply

At some point you may have encountered a description of Ivan Pavlov and his work more than 100 years ago conditioning dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell. Just before feeding each dog, he rang a bell. After several such experiences, simply ringing the bell prompted the dogs to salivate, just as they had when starting to eat. It was a simple experiment, but it has important implications for understanding how we are often conditioned to have particular emotional reactions to things.

Because your teen years were associated with negative feelings, things associated with those years are likely to elicit negative feelings even now. So, talking about your past may be just the trigger for elciting all those negative feelings, and the result is uncontrollable tears. Just as Pavlov’s dogs could not control their salivation at the sound of the bell, you may not have much control over the flood of emotions conditioned to occur when those events from your teen years are brought up.

There is good news. Pavlov found that if he continued ringing the bell but no longer paired it with food, eventually the dogs stopped salivating when they heard the bell. The association between the bell and food had been extinguished. Because your teen memories are unpleasant, it’s natural to avoid talking about them, and as a result, the ability of such talk to elicit crying has not been extinguished. However, multiple sessions of talking about your past will make it increasingly easier to do so without crying. You may want to explain this process to your boyfriend. That way he can expect tears at first and be the patient, supportive listener you need as you go about the process of breaking that conditioned association between talking about the past and crying.

Other research has demonstrated that writing about traumatic experiences can also be a powerful method of obtaining lasting relief. It doesn’t matter what the writer does with the finished product (it can be thrown away immediately afterward), and it doesn’t have to make sense or sound good. Apparently it’s the act of writing about it that’s the key. So, putting pen to paper may speed up the process of separating the events from your past and your emotions today.

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