Our strong reactions come when triggers (outside stimuli) hit our buttons. Buttons are sensitive spots left from unhealed prior wounds. If we can determine what those hurts are and heal them, we will no longer have the same, big reactions. We will have disconnected the button, or at least reduced its size and the reaction it causes. Identifying and healing these hurts is vital for lasting change. Otherwise, we’ll continue to react to the same triggers over and over again. These wounds are often buried deep inside of our subconscious and show themselves in all kinds of different situations. This is why we call them core hurts.
Our core and how it gets hurt
We arrive in this world with an inborn need to feel valuable and lovable. As children, we form opinions or core beliefs about our value and lovability based on verbal and nonverbal messages we get from the important people in our lives –parents especially, but also teachers, coaches, friends, and peers. If we mostly hear and are shown that they are proud of us, see good in us, believe we are capable, and that we are worthy of their care, attention, and affection, we believe we are valuable and lovable. On the other hand, if the messages we hear are critical, devaluing, or tell us that we don’t measure up, we are unlikely to develop a positive opinion about ourselves. These negative messages have the effect of wounding our core beliefs.
Wounds can be caused by a big, single, traumatic experience, but they can also be the result of smaller experiences that accumulate over time. Taking a step with a rock in your shoe hurts a little but does not have to be a big deal. Walking miles with the rock in your shoe, however, will leave a festering blister. We used the example on the Buttons page of a boy who was frequently criticized by a parent. If his parents criticize him just one time, it might temporarily cause him to wonder about his value and lovability, but this self-doubt could be easily offset by other positive messages. Repeated exposure to criticism, however, creates a wound that will remain until healed.
By the way, this is not about blaming your parents for your hurts or the problems they cause. Chances are they did the best they could. They, too, are/were imperfect people, carrying around their own issues. We only bring the subject up because understanding how our cores were hurt to begin with can be an important starting place for our healing. In fact, this isn’t about blaming at all. Regardless of what has happened to us, it is now our job to fix it and make it better. No one else can do that for us.
Everyone receives a mix of positive and negative messages. Both are necessary: positive messages tell us we are good people, while occasional negative messages can encourage us to improve. The core beliefs we have about ourselves depend on the mix of those messages. If we grow up in a healthy environment, we won’t need to constantly hear or experience positive messages as adults because we’ll have already internalized them. Simply put, we believe we are valuable and lovable. But if we did not get a good mix of messages as a child, we will be compelled to continue to search for evidence of our value and lovability.
An example is helpful to illustrate how this works. Continuing with the boy who was frequently criticized by a parent, we said that as a man, he may now have a very strong negative reaction when his wife criticizes him. While no one likes criticism, getting feedback, including negative feedback, is part of a healthy intimate relationship. We need to be able to hear it without having a big reaction to be successful in a relationship. Otherwise, our partner is likely to shut down and pull away because she won’t feel like she’s being heard.
In this case, if the man reacts strongly to criticism from his wife, much of the power of his reaction is coming from subconsciously associating it with criticism from his parent (time tunneling). The wound he sustained from being criticized as a boy is unhealed. The trigger is his wife’s complaint, his button is his sensitivity to criticism, and the button is there because, at his core, he wonders if he is valuable and lovable. His interpretation of his wife’s criticism is that he is not valuable and lovable, which is extremely painful. It hurts us at the core.
The man reacts to try to stop that message from hurting him so much. If he had a solid belief about his value and lovability, the criticism would feel like bump on his shoulder in a crowded room. But with the unhealed wound, the criticism feels like a bump on his shoulder in a crowded room when he just broke his collarbone. The problem is his wounded core beliefs and not his wife’s criticism.
Identifying core hurts
To heal a core hurt, you need to know exactly what the wound is. Doubts about one’s value and lovability, like we used in the example, are common. Start by asking yourself a series of questions about situations when you became angry or enraged. Journaling will help you clarify your thoughts. Think of these questions like they are coming from a preschooler who has a continuous stream of “why” questions, regardless of the answers you give them:
- Why were you angry?
- Why did you feel the way you did?
- Was the story you told yourself really true?
- If it was true, what does that mean for you?
- If it wasn’t true, why did you tell yourself that story?
Again, an example might be instructive. Here’s some dialogue our founder had with a counselor about one of his rage incidents. The process helped him identify his core issue:
- Counselor: When Michelle went to exercise without you, how did you feel?
- Michael: I was angry.
- C: What else did you feel, keeping in mind the common feelings that we often mask by anger?
- M: I felt… hurt, and probably sad that I did not get to spend that time with her. I was looking forward to it.
- C: That makes sense that you might feel sad. Why do you think you felt hurt?
- M: I felt like she did not want to be with me.
- C: That could be true or maybe it was not. So what if it was true? What would that mean?
- M: (Requiring much thought) I guess… that would mean… she did not like or love me.
- C: Again, I’m not saying that it is true, but what if it is true that your wife does not love you? What would that mean for you?
- M: I don’t know. I’d wonder if I am lovable. Am I lovable?
This is how Michael discovered that his core hurt is the unanswered question, “Am I lovable?”
Healing core hurts
Physical wounds tend to heal themselves. Our body is designed to automatically repair damaged tissue. This is where the saying, “Time heals all wounds” comes from. The same is not true with emotional wounds, however. Time does not heal them–we have to be intentional about their healing. We need to expose an emotional wound to the light, so to speak.
It often helps to understand where the wound came from, because there is often a lie in the messages that caused the original wound. Many of our wounds are from childhood, when we were forming our sense of self and relied on reflections we saw from others, especially our caregivers. For example, if your parent tells you as a child, “You’re never going to amount to anything,” their statement was likely the result of their own insecurities and feelings of failing as a parent rather than a prediction about your future, which would be impossible to make. Once the lie is exposed, you don’t have to believe it anymore.
That’s the key–you get to determine what you believe about yourself. Since “Am I valuable?” and “Am I lovable?” are common core hurts, let us share a couple of ways to think about this question:
- Lovable babies. Are babies lovable? Of course they are. Despite the fact they have done nothing to earn our love, and despite the fact that they cry and need their diapers changed, we still love babies. We’d say they are inherently lovable–they are just born that way. If lovability is an in-born trait and not an earned one, when does that change? Since you were a baby at one time, when did that change for you? (Hint: it did not.)
- Craftsman. If a craftsman creates a project, plans how it is going to look, intentionally makes it to function a certain way, and makes it for his own use, can anyone say the piece is not valuable to him? And if it is valuable to him, then isn’t it valuable? Similarly, if a creator created you, planned how you look, intentionally made you to function a certain way, and created you for his own purpose, can anyone say you are not valuable to him? And if you are valuable to him, then aren’t you valuable? (Of course the answer is yes.) You can explore more about this is The God Factor section.
Life after healing
We’ve introduced a lot of pretty deep subject material in this site and on this page in particular. This process of discovering your core hurts, learning where they came from, understanding how they affect you, and especially healing them takes considerable time. One read-through, or even several, is unlikely to do the trick. Self-reflection is difficult and can often be painful. None of us can see ourselves objectively, so having an outside observer, especially a professional, to provide feedback is really valuable.
We encourage you to find a coach that can not only help you understand these concepts, but also understand how they affect you personally. If you were training for an Ironman triathlon, you wouldn’t think twice about hiring a trainer. The event is difficult enough without getting all the help you can. This transformation is perhaps harder than a triathlon because most of us know less about how our minds work than how our legs and arms work. We’ve included some information about counselors and links for finding one on our Counseling page.