I’ve been meaning to write this article for years but suffer a bout of resistance each time I try. Why? Because it’s a tough love piece that I know will rub some people the wrong way.

The inspiration for it comes from years of listening to and reading various spiritual author/speaker luminaries’ teachings about dealing with tough, emotional scars.

What were those teachings?

My DC therapist’s auto-response

I’ll illustrate this through an anecdote from my life. Back in my mid-20s, I saw a therapist in Washington, D.C., where I lived. Most of it was centered around why I freaked out when things started to get rolling in a romantic relationship. Yes, the old “commitment” issue.

Maybe someday I’ll write about the particulars of my relationship pathology, but that’s not what’s relevant to this article.

What is pertinent is what this therapist used to do time and again. We’d talk about my previous relationships, what it was like growing up in the Gerken family, yada, yada, yada. I’d bring up some tough situations from my past. This was inevitably followed by:

Therapist: “That must have really hurt.”

Me: “Uhh. Yeah, it did.”

And then we’d move on until the next time she said the same thing. Sometimes, I wondered if she was even listening. Maybe she was just throwing in a “That must have really hurt” every few minutes so she could go back to deciding where she was going to have lunch after our appointment.

In retrospect, I should have tried to trick her by putting on a sad face and saying:

Me: “So I won the Powerball Lottery. Fifty million bucks. Also, I got that job I really wanted. Oh, and that terrible cancer thing with my dad? It was benign.”

Therapist: “That must really hurt.”

Me: “Try Au Bon Pain for lunch. They have a great soup and half-sandwich combo.”

Therapist: “So painful. I’m sorry you had to go through that.”

Alright, back to the matter at hand.

The point is that all she and so many of the spiritual luminaries out there do in response to hearing about emotional pain is empathize. Am I saying there’s something wrong with empathizing with others’ pain?


Of course not. What I am saying, and it’s the point of this article, is that these teachers need to go one step further after empathizing. All teachers?

Mickey Singer and Past Emotional Pain

No. That’s where Mickey Singer comes in. Mickey teaches that, yes, we’ve all endured emotional pain in our past. Nobody escapes that.

Maybe we had severe acne in our teens. Or our parents went through an ugly divorce. Or we were fat, too thin, too tall, too short, not pretty, not smart, an athletic klutz. We all have something from our past that plagues us later in life.

But here’s what Mickey teaches. Umpteen times, I’ve heard him say something along the lines of:

“I get it. Your parents’ divorce was incredibly traumatic for you. You were only twelve and it left all kinds of scars. It’s awful and I’m sorry you had to go through that. But it was forty years ago! You’re telling me that you’re letting something that happened forty years ago ruin your life today? Come on. You need to let it go. Will that be hard? And painful? You bet it will. It went in with pain and it will come out with pain. But what’s the alternative? Keep letting it drag you down?”

There it is. That one scenario captures the essence of this article.

The point is that too many teachers stop at,

“Wow, that must really hurt. You don’t feel seen. You don’t feel worthy of a relationship/job/success/happiness. It has to be deeply painful for you.”

Wallowing doesn’t help.

It’s always felt to me that these teachers and my therapist back in the 1990s are encouraging people to wallow. To simmer in their sad stew of emotional injuries.

I know that might sound cruel, but it’s not. I absolutely, wholeheartedly believe in not only empathizing with those suffering from past emotional trauma but also encouraging them to empathize with themselves. These insecurities, traumas, and scars hurt at the deepest level and can haunt us for decades. Recognizing those traumas is an essential part of the healing process.

But unless we add Mickey’s second step — letting go — those scars will remain trapped inside us and continue to damage our lives.

How to Let Go

How do we let go? First, the split second you notice that a painful feeling has arisen, RELAX.All over. Start in your head, then move down to your neck, shoulders, chest, and belly.

Then, second, imagine yourself LEANING AWAY from the feeling. What we’re doing here is giving the feeling some space so that it can break free and rise up.

Third, simply WATCH the feeling from that distance you’ve created by leaning away.

The key is to not jump in and fight, engage, or resist the feeling, which is what we normally do. Rather, we place our full attention on it without interfering.

That’s how we let go.

My experience with letting go

I’ve written a few times about something I’ve worked hard on letting go of, something I’ve struggled with for many years: Playing in tennis tournaments.

Now if I’m you, my first reaction would be,

Really? Tennis? That sounds like small potatoes compared to parents divorcing at age twelve.”

Yes, it is small potatoes in one sense. But if we peel back this potato, we’ll see that it’s similar to most childhood emotional scars. How?

The knots I get in my stomach during these tournaments aren’t fun. They’re painful.

Tracing the roots of our pain is critical

But the key is tracing their roots. They come from back when I was around 8–12 years old. Formative years, no doubt.

I’m the youngest of six kids and my siblings were all uber successful. Great grades in school, good athletes and on down the line.

So from a pyschological standpoint, my doing well in tennis was way more than just winning or losing. Somewhere, in the deep recesses of my still forming psyche, it was about life or death.

Losing was more than losing

Win and I’ll be loved and accepted by my family. Lose and I’ll be shunted aside.

Of course, that wasn’t remotely the case. My family was great to me.

But when you’re young, none of that matters. What matters is what your scared, immature self believes.

That scenario explains the painful feelings I experience today around competitive tennis. Because 59 year old me is not generating those feelings; ten year old me is.

The scars stay until we let them go

I’ve held onto those scars for darn near fifty years. They’ve just been sitting there, waiting to arise again the next time I compete on the court.

Here’s the point of all this: I have two options when these feelings arise today. One, I can acknowledge that they’re there and empathize with myself.

Or two, I can empathize and THEN use the situation as an opportunity to let go of them. Which is exactly what I’ve been doing. And I have to say that with each tournament I play, those knots have decreased.

The Takeaway

True healing begins with the courage to release the burdens of the past and embrace the liberating path toward emotional freedom.

Why does it take courage? Because releasing those burdens is difficult and often painful. But in no area of life is this old adage more true: No pain, no gain.

Bottom line on all of this: If you or someone close to you struggles with emotional scars from the past, I hope you’ll be mindful of that second step of letting go.