When I was in a group therapy, we talked a lot about the concept of “getting little.” It happens in reaction to stress or fear, and it means that, emotionally, you’ve just regressed to a very young age. Sometimes just being around certain people, or even people who remind you of certain people, or events, can trigger it. It’s related to, perhaps even a version of, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and is almost always accompanied by intense shame. It’s a common stress reaction for people, particularly women, who grew up in invalidating or abusive environments. In fact, it’s so common, it’s surprising how many people don’t know what it is, much less when they’re experiencing it.
All of us in the group were familiar with “getting little,” although none of us had a name for it before we got there. Giving it a name made it easier to talk about and went a long way toward eliminating the shame that accompanied it. In fact, I think learning to deal with “getting little” was one of the most useful concepts I took away from therapy.
When you “get little,” you are literally unable to think or reason as your adult self. Your fear, anger, or shame—or some combination of all three—becomes so overwhelming that you can’t see past it. You’ve switched into survival mode, fight or flight; your logic and reason are not accessible. On some level, you feel your life is in danger, however irrational that may be. For example, if when you were small your father’s anger usually led to physical abuse, you may become irrationally afraid when someone you’re close to in the present gets angry. Intellectually you know that it doesn’t make sense, you know that your emotional reaction is “too big” for the situation, but every time it happens, you feel that familiar, overpowering sense of panic taking over, and you feel absolutely powerless to stop it.
It’s a terrible feeling. But that’s not even the worst part. When it happens, you can say or do things that you would not normally say or do. Afterwards, the shame from being out of control can be crippling, and it can be incredibly difficult to forgive yourself and get on with your life, much less connect with the people you’re closest to. This can be true even if your overreaction is to shut down rather than lash out; either way, the shame kicks in. Getting little can be a vicious cycle of impulsivity, shame, and remorse that can take a long, long time to break free of.
Recognizing it when it happens is the first step. When you find yourself feeling terrified, panicked, rageful, shut down, unable to think clearly, or otherwise powerless over your emotions, you have “gotten little.” Here are some suggestions for dealing with it:
- Have a plan ahead of time. You won’t be able to think rationally when you are in the throes of “littleness.” This is why understanding what it is and why it’s happening is so important. During a time of calmness, make a plan to recognize it and know what to do when it happens. The following steps are what a plan might look like.
- Honor the feelings. We have a tendency to be hard on ourselves when we get into this dark place, to dismiss the feelings because they’re irrational, and chastise ourselves for having them. This is not helpful. Instead, you have to understand that the feelings are there for a reason. Something very old and primitive inside you needs to heal, and it’s trying to get your attention. When it takes over, you must address it. The more you try to shove it aside and minimize its importance, the more demands it will make of you. This cycle of repression/denial is physically and emotionally draining, and takes its toll in all sorts of seemingly unrelated ways: anxiety, irritation, and physical symptoms of stress such as stomach problems, rashes, and getting sick a lot. So remember that above all, the feelings are real and you have to take them seriously if you want to get past them.
- Immediately stop engaging in whatever is going on. Attempts to carry on a rational, adult conversation when you’re in this place are futile, and you know from experience that they rarely go well. Instead, you must step back and address what’s going on internally: What is the feeling? Why does it feel so big? What does it remind you of? What do you think triggered it? If the person you are with is safe, then tell him what’s happening—if you’ve included him in your plan, then he will be able to help you with your process. If the person is not safe, then simply excuse yourself and say you’ll finish the conversation later: do not allow yourself to be sucked back in. You could do some journaling at this point, or call someone who can help you work through your big feelings. Only when you’re calm and rational should you continue with what triggered the regression in the first place.
- Deal with the shame. Shame makes us feel less-than; like we don’t matter and aren’t lovable or worth much of anything to anyone. This feeling is a lie, and the quickest way to get past it is to connect with a person who understands that. So connect with someone as quickly as you can and talk about what happened. But make sure it is a safe person. Don’t go to someone who will require an explanation or worse, a justification, of what’s going on. You should have two or three people on your call list who can fulfill this purpose (and you for them). This is in addition to the person you’re in conflict with, even if he is safe.
I stress “safe” people because when we have issues like this, it’s usually because we were raised in unsafe environments and never learned how to take care of ourselves very well emotionally. If we don’t consciously address the issue of unsafe people in our lives, we will often go to the very people who created the problem in the first place for comfort. It sounds crazy, but unless we teach ourselves not to, we often keep going back to the source hoping it will be different. Maybe someday it will be, but that is not helpful in dealing with your shame in the present. Being “unsafe” doesn’t necessarily mean our parents and siblings are bad people. It merely means that they are not able to understand our issues in a helpful way. So it’s generally a good idea to make a rule not to go to a family member for help. Find support people who understand the issues and speak the language of shame; that’s what I mean by “safe” people.
We all get little sometimes; nobody is immune to it, and it doesn’t mean everybody automatically needs therapy. But if it happens often, and if the accompanying shame makes it hard to forgive yourself, then you might want to get some help dealing with it. Having an intellectual understanding of getting little is essential to taking care of yourself when it’s happening, and perhaps more importantly, dealing with the accompanying shame.
Categorised as: Shame