Prisoners of the Past

past wounds and forgivenessLast month in the county jail we were working on healthy communication, but we had one of those sessions where we never got to the class material because some issues needed airing out.  This is where group therapy gets its potency.  The women’s honesty and courage in sharing their experiences raise everyone’s self-awareness and understanding.  Here’s what came out.

Lauren (name changed) forgave her abusive mother.  It happened in a worship service a local congregation provides for inmates on Sundays.  Lauren described feeling lighter, as if chains wrapped around her ankles had fallen off.  Her mother died years ago, but Lauren’s experience was as powerful as if she had spoken to her mother directly.  Without the blinders of anger and resentment obstructing her view, Lauren could see her mother suffered the same kinds of child abuse to which she had exposed Lauren.  Lauren can now see the threads of both victim and perpetrator weaving through the complex tangle that was her mother’s life.

Lauren said something I lingered over.  Seeing her mother as an abuse victim didn’t allow Lauren to release resentment.  Releasing resentment allowed Lauren to see more clearly the reality of her mother’s complicated situation, and finally, to have compassion for her messed up life.  Forgiveness came first.

Christa (name changed) had a tough week.  With several new inmates in the pod, the environment gets loud at times.  It’s driving Christa crazy, and she’s struggling to contain her anger.  In the jail we talk about anger as a secondary emotion, like the visible part of an iceberg floating on top of emotions hidden under the surface.  Christa had no hesitation in identifying the emotion underlying her anger.  It’s loss of control.  In childhood, Christa endured rampant sexual abuse by her father, brother, uncles, “pretend uncles,” and anyone else to whom her family made her available.  It started at an age before she knew it was wrong.  There was no protection for Christa.  And no control.

Christa drags feelings about loss of control from her childhood like chains wrapped around her ankles into her present situations.  “It’s all connected,” she lamented wearily when examining the origins of her recent anger.  Indeed, it is a worthy lament.

We all do that.  Whenever anger flares, the source of the flame is rarely the immediate situation.  The present situation is merely a spark igniting something that was already there deep within us.  Unresolved hurts from our past – feelings of betrayal, abandonment, humiliation, or shame—lurk within us like invisible explosive gas.  For me it’s hurt pride—feeling put down, belittled, or disrespected.  Even being ignored can be felt as a form of disrespect.

We may think we’re hiding our feelings or that we have reconciled ourselves to past misfortunes.  Here’s the test.  If a seemingly innocuous situation can send us into a fiery fit of anger, then something lies unresolved within.  And we drag that tinderbox of past emotions into every new encounter.  Christa protested, “But forgiveness is hard.”  For someone with her past, I honestly cannot fathom how hard.  Nonetheless, forgiveness remains the only way I know to free us, once and for all, from the chains of painful pasts.

Join the conversation.  When your anger flares, what underlying emotions fuel the fire?

Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit

6 thoughts on “Prisoners of the Past

  1. We can’t run from ourselves or our past, can we? Eventually it catches up with us and usually in the most negative of ways, for example anger, drug addiction, promiscuity, crime, lies etc.

    For me when my anger flares it’s usually about no one is going to hurt me or get over on me, or disrespect me ever again as was done in the past. So it’s about what others did to me not about the present person or situation.

    My anger also tends to flare when my feelings have been hurt, it seems easier to express anger rather than hurt because that would be weak.

    I have to work on this all of the time as I respond so automatically without thinking, but that’s what I have to do take step back, breathe and think.

    • Thanks a bunch for your honest feedback and wise comments. I observe many of the same things in myself, particularly anger giving the illusion of feeling strong or in control when actually it’s one of those unthinking reactions. I do think it takes courage to face one’s true emotions, especially for those of us conditioned not to trust our feelings. It’s all a work in progress! Many thanks for stopping by.

      • Let’s keep the encouragement line open, I’m interested in what you have to share. It’s amazing how meaningful, inspiring, and motivational sharing our stories is. I exhale after every post I read and when others respond to my posts because it reminds me that I am not alone. Thank you and keep in touch.

  2. Pingback: Feeling Yourself Again | Across Traditions Blog

  3. When my anger flares it is about past abuse and fear, feeling unprotected as a child, it’s about the girl who felt neglected, abandoned and rejected and definitely hurt pride. I made a decision years ago that no one will ever make me feel so hurt and vulnerable ever again and I felt that my angry rages protected me. I still struggle with displaying appropriate anger that is about the present not the past. I struggle with acknowledging and expressing that my feelings are hurt and I instead I express anger. I am aware of it however so I can work on it every chance I get.

    • I couldn’t agree more that awareness is a very helpful first step! I learned not to trust my feelings as a child, so being able to express feelings honestly (without blame, anger or other baggage) is something I work on, too. Your comments always give me something to think about and are appreciated! Thank you.

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