“If it’s hysterical*, it’s historical.”

In the course of our everyday lives, we all experience things that upset us and cause us to experience painful, unpleasant feelings.  Most of the time these feelings are not overwhelming, and we are able to deal with them & carry on with our day relatively easily.

But, sometimes something happens that gets a really big painful emotional reaction out of you.  A response that is so out of proportion to the stimulus that it’s “hysterical” because you’re it seems way out of proportion to the trigger.  The saying, “If it’s hysterical it’s historical” means that, in this instance, the trigger could be based on something historical from your past.

For example, let’s say that you’re at the grocery store looking for a favorite food of yours.  As you’re walking down the aisle, someone grabs the last box of that food and walks off with it. You’re no longer able to get your favorite food. For most people that would be disappointing, frustrating, and/or annoying.  But all of a sudden you become incredibly sad, really hurt, and grief washes over you. In your mind you might be saying, “It’s just this box of food…it’s not a big deal,” but emotionally, you’re having a big reaction that is out of proportion to the store being out of your favorite favorite food.

In this case, “If it’s hysterical it’s historical” could apply. If you started to do a little bit of inner work and exploration around these big feelings you’re having, you might realize that you’re not really upset that they’re out of your favorite food. It might actually be about a childhood pattern of being denied things that you enjoy. It might be about a past depression when you couldn’t experience pleasure in food or in anything else. It might be unprocessed teen anger about denied things that you have a right to. It’s not about food, it’s about the emotional connection to the past that your brain is making in relation to the present day situation.

So if it’s hysterical – if you’re having a lot of big feelings about something that maybe don’t necessarily require them – it might be worth investigating if it is indeed historical.

You can start that investigation by asking yourself, “Does this situation remind me of anything from my past?  When was the last time I felt all these big painful feelings coming up? Is there a parallel between those situations and this one?”  It could be something that happened once before or maybe something that happened repeatedly.  If you’re able to remember something, you will likely experience a reduction in those present day painful feelings.  You will know that this isn’t about what just happened, it’s about a past issue that needs to be processed and worked through.  You now have an avenue to do that, and hopefully similar triggers in the future won’t create such a painful emotional response for you.

However, if nothing is coming to mind, you might want to explore and see if there’s anything that you can find on an inner child level.  This is worth exploring because children have big, raw feelings.  If you’re having those big raw feelings and you can’t identify where they are coming from, there’s a chance they might be related to something from early childhood. You can do this by getting something to write in and asking yourself, “What age is this coming from, these big feelings, all this big hurt? What age is this coming from?” 

If you get an answer, you can ask that inner child inside of you, “What’s this about? What are you upset about? What’s going on?” Don’t ask in a shaming or accusatory way but in a kind, curious way. Then write whatever comes to mind. Remember, kids have big feelings, so sometimes you’ll be writing something like, “Ouch! Pain! I hate this! Angry at Mom!”  That’s ok, you’re in touch with the kid version of you, not the adult.

Finally, you can ask your younger self, “What can I do for you? How can I help you with these feelings?” Don’t ask, “How can I make you stop feeling them?”, or “How can I fix it?”, but “How can I help you? Do you just need me to listen? What do you want me to do?”  Asking yourself these questions if you’re having these big hysterical and possibly historical feelings can be a good way to discover what’s going on inside of you so you can prevent such big painful feelings from popping up every time this trigger comes into your life. Figuring out if your “hysteria” is historical can lead to a much less emotionally reactive future.

*I’m not a fan of the word “hysterical.” It comes from the word “hysteria” which, in Western patriarchal societies, has been used for centuries to belittle, subjugate, and control women.  It doesn’t have that meaning in this context, but there’s just so much baggage around the word that I prefer not to use it whenever possible.  But, this saying does have a nice alliterative touch to it that makes it easy to remember, which is why I use it here.