A surprising item on my son’s Christmas List this year was a lava lamp. I’d expect this from a teenager’s list, but not from one still watching Paw Patrol. He was riveted one day by its mystery, hoping with all his might Santa’s elves knew how to build one for him. Santa, of course, was relieved to discover how easy they were to buy. It has been plugged in, and watched with great delight for 2 months now.
When I have a moment to watch it myself, I’m reminding of a theme that comes up in my work.
A question I often hear is about ‘old stuff.’ “When should I address that old problem from my teens? … This bad thing happened to me years ago – it doesn’t bother me too much, but I’m told I should talk about it.”
I find this fascinating.
We do often feel that old painful experiences need to be talked about. Sometimes this is very true. However, sometimes it may not be needed, or it might not be the right time to address it. How do we know the difference?
Emotions can often be a great thermometer for how we’re doing. And, a good measurement of healthy emotion can be proportion. For example, I might snap at my kids about leaving sharp little Lego pieces out on the carpet, hurting my feet, or I could scream about it. Snapping an “Ouch!” might be proportionate to that moment. Screaming, however, might show that there are more issues or feelings in that moment being clustered and blurted out. Conflict from work, marriage dissatisfaction, a parent’s illness, debt, or feelings of helplessness may also be hiding in that scream. What is proportionate, and can I hear it when it’s out of proportion?
Let me come back to that Lava Lamp. I use this as a metaphor to talk about old issues. If you had of those funky lamps growing up, you quickly learned that they take some getting used to. They don’t work immediately when you take them out of the box. It takes 1-3 hours for it to warm up. When the colourful oil becomes heated by a bright light bulb, it becomes malleable and begins its mesmerising float to the top. It then cools, and falls down again.
My experience has been that issues that have long been dormant will occasionally ‘heat up.’ They might become relevant again, stirred up, and need to be talked about. We may find that our snapping turns into a scream.
Those old issues, or clustered issues, once ‘heated up,’ feel relevant and we may feel motivated to dig in and work through the issue in a constructive way. Other times, those issues can lie quite quietly and peacefully. Many professionals would say that if old issues are not bothering you, they may be old scar tissue rather than open wounds, and as long as they are not impacting how we function, we can live with them well. Like a healed scar.
Of course, the trick is to know when old issues are activated. We might not notice our own disproportional reactions, or ‘heated up’ issues, and may need to rely on those close to us to help us name them. Those moments of pause, when we can gaze at the lamp and notice it’s flow, can be so helpful.
Jennifer Bowen, M.Div., RMFT, is the Clinical Director of Shalem Mental Health Network’s Counselling Services.