Blog Short #63: The past is in the past unless it’s in your present.
Welcome to Monday Blog Shorts – ideas to make even Monday a good day! Every Monday, I share a short article with you about a strategy you can use, or new facts or info that informs you, or a new idea that inspires you. My wish is to give you something to think about in the week ahead. Let’s dig in!
Photo by andresr, Courtesy of iStock Photo
A question that often comes up in therapy is this:
Is it necessary for me to go back through my history and drag everything up that ever happened to me? Can’t I just deal with the present and be done with it? Isn’t the past in the past?
My response is always the same.
The past is in the past unless it’s in your present.
If you’re still plagued by dysfunctional thought and behavior patterns, or emotional reactivity to triggers from your history, then you’ve carried these things into your present and they still exert control over you.
You can’t just think them away. You have to sift through them and pull them out by the roots.
How do I know if something’s been resolved or not?
There are several tip-offs:
- You’re still emotionally reactive to events, experiences, or relationships you had that caused you pain or created dysfunction.
- You’re unable to change behavior patterns you know are harmful to you.
- These patterns prevent you from having healthy relationships, pursuing goals, or creating the life you want.
When you’ve successfully resolved something from your history, you can think of it without feeling bogged down or controlled by it. It’s an experience you’ve had, but it feels more like a distant chapter you’ve moved past and learned from. You’ve found a place for it.
But, when these patterns still persist in your present, you have to address them.
What all this means for you.
Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean.
It doesn’t mean that you need to crawl back into your history and review every event you can remember. That’s not necessary and isn’t productive.
What it does mean is that you can identify what still needs to be worked out by reviewing your present.
The issues that currently plague you likely have their roots in your history. By acknowledging these patterns and reviewing them, you can begin to unravel them and make changes in your present. Once you work them through, you can let them go because they no longer hold power over you.
Since we’re approaching a New Year, this is a great time to take a psychological inventory and focus on what needs your attention.
I would go at it this way.
Take some time to identify a single issue that’s keeping you stuck.
It’s good to start with just one. Pick the one that’s the loudest and causing you the most distress. Examples might be poor relationship choices, ineffective communication styles, self-destructive behaviors, inability to handle money, work performance problems, and so on.
Next, examine the issue with these questions.
1) How does it play out in my life right now?
Get specific about what it looks like. If it’s self-destructive behavior, what exactly do you do? When and under what circumstances? With whom? Be honest and don’t defend.
2) Where did it originate or come from?
Here’s where the past comes in. If you’re awful with money, is this something you learned growing up? Were your parents awful with money? What were the beliefs around it? In my family, most all my siblings have been terrible with money, as were our parents. We all just continued the same denial about overspending that we learned, and all got into debt. It took really looking at how this behavior developed to get on top of it.
3) What feelings or emotional reactions does this issue bring up?
Sometimes there are hidden hurts or pain that need to be felt, and by letting them come up, you can come to terms with them and eventually let them go. Suppressing them actually gives them more power.
4) What are the distorted beliefs that are driving the problem?
For example, if you feel insecure and not good enough much of the time, what beliefs about who you are did you learn growing up? These assumptions are usually quite distorted and require diligent correcting before changing how you feel in the present.
Now list the assets you have.
By assets, I mean emotional, psychological, and social assets. What patterns would you say are healthy and have helped you navigate your life? What are your strengths? Who’s in your corner? Who can you turn to or talk to that could help? In other words, what’s good, and what do you already have to help you meet these challenges?
The last step is to come up with actions you can take to work on your selected issue and then decide how you’re going to do that. There are many possibilities such as reading up, taking online courses, engaging in therapy or seeking help from an expert, watching TED talks, or all of them. What’s important is to do something! Do what gives you a sense of momentum.
Things to watch out for.
Experiencing emotional triggers.
When you begin going through this exercise, you will naturally run through experiences in your mind from your history and, in the process, experience emotional reactions to them. That’s fine and necessary.
One caveat: This exercise is not meant to get mired in blaming family members, parents, bosses, or whoever is involved in your history. It’s to help you better understand who you are and how your history has helped shape you.
Recognize where you are right now.
Even though the past asserts itself in your present, you’re not still back there. You’re not that child who lived through those experiences. You’re an adult and what you feel now are memories, not your current reality.
You can review them and feel them, but you have the power to work them out and not be controlled by them. You can build on your good memories as well and feel some gratitude for experiences you had that have contributed to your assets.
Don’t fall “victim” to “victim consciousness.”
If you’ve had a particularly traumatic childhood, or have been victimized, you can get pulled into seeing yourself as a victim and holding on to that status as your current identity.
Your sense of self becomes someone who has and will be victimized to the exclusion of all else. This is dangerous and easy to fall into if your experiences were particularly painful. Always see yourself outside of “victim status.” It’s an experience you had, not a definition of who you are. That distinction is important.
Avoid being overly critical of yourself for current issues.
The habits and behaviors you learned and formulated were instilled in you at the early stages of your life when you were developing. For instance, your brain isn’t fully developed until you’re 25, so what you learned at the age of 10 was learned when you were in a highly developmental state of cognitive growth. The same goes for the development of your emotions, your sense of self and basic ego structure, and moral character.
When we’re developing, we adopt behavior patterns to adapt to the circumstances of our lives. You might develop the habit of hiding behaviors you’re afraid will bring on a harsh response from a parent, and you now find yourself hiding behaviors from your partner, even though the threat of abuse is not there.
This gets into something called the “emotional home.” It would be good to read this article while doing the exercises. It helps explain why some behavior patterns are so stubborn and difficult to overthrow.
A Last Thought
If you like to read, I have a list of books you might find helpful. You can find them on my website. They’re listed by category. If you don’t have time to read or don’t enjoy it, I would suggest TED talks. You can almost always find a TED talk provided by the authors of most psychology and personal development books. That’s a quick way to get the information you need and can use.
That’s all for today. Happy New Year!
All my best,