Understanding your psychological “raw spots” can help you make sense of your emotional reactions. Understanding other people’s raw spots (e.g. partners’ raw spots) can help you make sense of their emotional reactions.
How to Recognize When a Psychological Raw Spot is being Activated
In the book Hold Me Tight, Professor of Clinical Psychology Dr Sue Johnson gives two great tips for recognizing when a raw spot is being rubbed. (Hold Me Tight is about couple relationships but the concept of psychological raw spots is useful in other domains of life too e.g. work, friendships, and family relationships.)
If either of the following happens, it suggests a possible raw spot.
1. On face value, your emotional reaction is out of proportion to what has happened.
2. There’s a big shift in your emotions that happens all of a sudden. You go from feeling “fine” to feeling “not fine” in an instant.
Psychological raw spots can be directly related to when an important psychological need is being thwarted or ignored, or can occur when something in the present (usually subconsciously) reminds you of something psychologically difficult from the past.
For example you might associate being spoken to in a particular tone of voice with negative past experiences. Or something in the present might remind you of times in the past when someone didn’t see your emotional reactions as valid (i.e. you got the message that you shouldn’t feel the way you did or that your emotions were unreasonable).
To find your raw spots you need to notice times when they’re triggered and then try to figure out what about the situation is triggering a raw spot. This might not be easy. You might be able to do it yourself or you might want to work with a clinical psychology PhD to figure it out together. The following list contains examples of what types of situations might trigger raw spot reactions.
Examples of Raw Spot Triggers
1. When you’re being excluded from a group
2. When someone isn’t valuing you or the work you do
3. When you’ve got an important ambition/dream that other people aren’t interested in or seem to doubt your ability to achieve
4. When a conversation partner is misunderstanding what you’re try to say, or not acknowledging the point you’re making
5. When someone turns away from you physically (e.g doesn’t respond to your touch, doesn’t give you their full attention while you’re trying to talk)
6. Criticism, jokes, or mocking about something that’s fundamental to who you are as a person
7. When someone tells your feelings aren’t valid or that your feelings are unreasonable
8. When you feel only “conditionally accepted” (as opposed to unconditionally accepted)
9. When you think someone dislikes you or views you negatively
10. When you communicate a need to someone you trust and it gets ignored, minimized, mocked, or criticized e.g. you signal that you need comforting or support and don’t get it
11. When you think someone is judging you as not good enough, worthless, or not as good as someone else
12. When you think someone is trying to control you
13. When you want to explore/take risks and can’t
14. When someone doesn’t appreciate your skills, is not giving you enough autonomy or won’t let you use the skills you have
15. When someone is trying to change you or make you into something you’re not
16. When you’re not believed. When you’re unsure “Will you believe me if I tell you something?”
17. When you’re unsure about whether someone will you protect you from harm or defend you to other people
18. You think someone is telling you don’t deserve something
All of the above are general areas of emotional raw spots. Try to identify the specific trigger situations that activate a particular raw spot.
Raw Spot Emotional Responses
What specific emotions do you feel when your raw spot gets triggered?
Sadness? Anger? Shame? Fear? A combination of these?
It will help you deal with your raw spots if you can identify all the emotions you’re having when your raw spot is triggered rather than only recognizing the strongest emotion or not recognizing emotions that are difficult for you to acknowledge.
How do Raw Spots Develop
Often raw spots develop out of a pattern of previous hurts and unmet needs. Ask yourself – what times in the past did I have similar emotions? What times in the past were my psychological needs (those related to your raw spot) not met? Often these memories will relate to times when parents or past relationship partners couldn’t meet your psychological/emotional needs. I don’t mean this in a blaming way. The reality is that everybody has probably experienced some of these times.
How to Deal with Raw Spots
1. Once you know your raw spots you’ll be able to recognize when the strength of your reaction is based on things from the past as well as what’s happening in the present. This can help you have more reasonable expectations in the present because you can remind yourself to separate present/past issues and work on solving the current issue.
2. Raw spot activation can cause very high levels of physiological arousal. Beyond a certain level when people’s emotions are very stirred up they can’t process information or reason effectively. Get some space from the person or situation triggering the raw spot until the intensity of your emotions subsides. Your emotions will naturally subside (emotions are designed to be temporary) and when they do you’ll be able to get better perspective on the situation and be better able to talk through the issue without being emotionally overwhelmed.
3. Keep trying to communicate the psychological/emotional need underlying your raw spot. Try different ways of communicating and different avenues to get that psychological need met. Try not to take it too personally if someone isn’t meeting one of your psychological needs. It might not mean they don’t care. It might be more related to them not having the psychological/emotional skills to respond to you.
4. See a psychology PhD if you need help understanding/emotionally processing a raw spot. Seek couples treatment if you and your partner need to work on understanding/responding to each others’ raw spots.
Part of good relationships is that they help people overcome past hurts (e.g. resolve past trust issues). When partners can do this for each other, it helps relationship closeness. However, people don’t automatically come with the skills to do this. It’s important to get help.
The audio version of Hold Me Tight by Dr Sue Johnson is available using this offer from Audible – free psychology audio books.