Here is an example: I had a traumatic experience in a swimming pool as a child - in fact my earliest memory involves a fear of the water. And I happen to be particularly risk-averse. One day when I was examining my panicky reaction when contemplating a major life change, I thought “huh, it feels sort of like drowning”. Like being tossed about in the uncertainty of change with nothing solid to hold onto or to be grounded in. I can look back and think of several times in my life when I let a promising opportunity go by, and I always had a reason I gave myself for not pursuing it, but really I was just valuing solidity - stability, certainty, and familiarity over opportunity.
You can see kids misattribute their emotions a lot. One of the things that surprised me about parenting was that one of my jobs was to know my kids better than they knew themselves. Most of the time they have absolutely no idea why they are upset! I had one child who would just give me an endless string of unrelated circumstances when asked why he was feeling that way; it was clear he was just latching on to whatever happened to be present before him, when really he was tired or hungry or etc.
Well, it turns out that it is not just children who do this. Most adults at most times have no idea why they are feeling what they are feeling. This is not an exaggeration. But adults are usually very good at providing justifications for why the present situation warrants their full emotional response, and such justifications are strongly persuasive to oneself. After all, we have a powerful motivation for believing them - otherwise we would have to admit that the torrent inside us, sometimes unleashed on another person, was ultimately the result of our history and not the fault of the person or circumstance which happened to push a particular button.
These emotional memories have a magnifying effect. They can turn some provocation which could legitimately be moderately distressing into the end of the f’ing world. This is why relationship conflict can go sideways so quickly; two people are arguing about the present issue with emotional responses imported from much deeper sources which fuel the conflict but remain unaddressed. I’ve heard it said that most conflict in marriages stems from an overreaction to an overreaction; emotional memories are where those overreactions come from.
I’ve learned a few strategies for surfacing and addressing these kinds of memories within the context of a committed relationship; I hope they can be useful to you as they have been to me.
The first strategy is to realize that your emotions are your own responsibility. Completely. No one can make you feel a certain way, no one is at fault or to blame for the way that you are feeling. You own your emotional response. This is the sort of thing that sounded obviously true to me when I first read it, but it seemed very difficult to apply because identifying an external cause for my emotions was such an ingrained habit.
The second strategy is to do some introspection about your own emotions. When frustrated or upset at work, home, church, etc. take some focussed time to examine the way you are feeling. Bring it before your conscious awareness and ask yourself “when in my life have I felt this way before?” Weaker emotions are easier, so start with “the guy who annoys me at work” over “the thing my spouse does that infuriates me”. You won’t always be able to identify a time, and even if you can’t it doesn’t mean there isn’t one, but if you are consistent with examining yourself in this way you’ll make some surprising discoveries about yourself.
The third strategy is to use a 1-10 scale as a way to find the deeper emotions lying behind a conflict. Use the scale as a measure of distress, with 1 being mildly annoyed and 10 being someone is about to die! Just asking your spouse where they are on the scale can be really illuminating. For example, “On a scale from 1-10, how important is it to you that I put the peanut butter back in the refrigerator after I use it?”. If the answer is “8”, stop talking about the peanut butter.
In case it is not obvious: this kind of knowledge is not for justifying your own behavior and explaining why you cannot change. Exactly the opposite! We tend to take our brokennesses, even when we recognize them, as givens and expect others to accommodate them. Now, to love another person and to see them for who they are, the good with the bad, really does require making allowances for the other’s faults. But often we communicate “I require you to change because I cannot” which is neither true nor helpful. Instead, walk together. You take a step toward me, and I’ll take a step toward you, and let us continue to love each other even when we fall down and to see in each other not only the depth of our brokenness but also the bravery of our tiny steps.