There is tremendous good in thinking about the past, so don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say. We look back to learn…learning wouldn’t even be possible without building on previous experience and knowledge of what we just did or what others have done. We look back to remember, to honor and to acknowledge where we come from. We can’t ignore the past.
The problem comes when we look back in a way that keeps us from the present and from moving forward. There are a few broad categories that can cause past-paralysis.
First, you may be unable to get past a previous hurt. A betrayal. Grief. Loss. Mistakes. Trauma. The list of things that can cause lasting mental and emotional damage is overwhelming. I get it. A lot of bad stuff can happen and it can be really really hard to let go of those things. It takes a lot of courage to deal with them.
Or, you may be more interested in reliving a past success than dealing with the present or future. Maybe you had an awesome senior season on your high school football team. Maybe you were the height of popularity as a college coed. Maybe you had a thrilling and successful career. Maybe you were blissful when your children were young. But, maybe life didn’t turn out as planned and you don’t think anything else can live up to those past experiences. Or, your disillusionment with the present or fear of the future is making it much easier to spend all your emotional energy reliving those past experiences.
But maybe you neither have trauma you can’t get over or you’ve not living in past glory-days. Think this topic doesn’t apply to you? This is where I landed the last few days. I don’t really fall into either of the categories I mentioned. Not that there hasn’t been trauma in my life, but I don’t think I’m mired down there. And I firmly believe that the best is yet to come.
But, as I’ve been thinking about it, there’s a third category. And it’s a big one. Our past shapes us. And it often forms habits, beliefs, patterns and stories that we carry with us for years, if not our whole lives.
My son once came through a doorway muttering at himself, saying, “I’m so irresponsible.” I was stunned. “What!” I said, “You’re one of the most responsible kids I know! Why would you say that?!” This was before puberty killed those responsible brain cells. He looked at me with surprise. This was inner monologue making it’s way public. I don’t think he realized anyone would hear him. His face lit up. “Really?” he said. I assured him that yes, he’s not irresponsible. He acted for a moment like a weight had been lifted.
Why did he think that? Something his father said had sunk into his consciousness and became a belief, a story about who he is. Careless words are so easy to say and can have such a big impact. Luckily, I caught this story before it was too ingrained and was able to expose it as false. How many more untrue, negative and damaging stories will I miss?
How many untrue, negative and damaging stories have settled into your soul and live there today?
I realized a year or so ago that I was holding some beliefs that were no longer true. Here’s one. Whenever I thought about my fitness, my health, my looks, my weight and my body, I held myself up against a physical standard that was ridiculous. I believed that I should ideally look and be as fit as I was as a competitive swimmer in high school. It seems ridiculous to say it out loud. To think that my 50 year old self should look or feel or be able to do what I did at 16.
But, that’s what I was using as a comparison. As a goal. I can do quite a bit. And I’m more flexible and perhaps even stronger in some ways than I was at 16. But, friends. I will never have that 16 year old body again. I’ve had a baby since then. I’ve walked, paddled, run, cycled, climbed and hiked. I’ve been through injuries and illness. Several different jobs and a failed marriage. Of course my body doesn’t look like it did at 16; I’ve been through 35 years of living since then! What I look like now reflects my journey. But, that story lived on in my head and heart as a standard. Until I realized that’s what I was doing and that this was an outdated relic of the past I needed to leave behind.
You might have behaviors, relationship patterns, fears, assumptions, beliefs or habits that formed in your past and are not serving you well now. They may never have served you well. They may be unhealthy. They may be untrue. They may be useless. They may be damaging. I’m willing to bet that we all allow our past too much control over our present in some of these ways.
Where does that leave us? What can we do about it?
First, I’m not a therapist and I didn’t even sleep at a Holiday Inn Express last night, so if you’re dealing with serious hurt and trauma, I strongly urge you find someone qualified to help you work through it. But, for those of you with non-professional needs, here are a few things to consider.
First, we live in the present. We only live in the present. Your memories of the past are thoughts happening in the present. The emotions the past brings up…you’re experiencing them now. They are still potent, but, it does point to one of the ways you can deal with them. Realize that their power is derived only from how much importance you give them; from your choosing to experience them in the present.
You can change your choice. You can shift your attention to something else. You get to choose what holds your attention, what you focus on at any given time. When you shift your attention, shift your feelings too. What feelings, sensations, thoughts, emotions does this new focus create right now?
What you feed grows and what you starve dies. Feed what you want more of. Choose to starve what you want less of. Give less and less attention, affirmation, time and energy to the stories or trauma that hold you from the past. Deepak Chopra has said, “I use memories, but I will not allow memories to use me.”
Also, make a decision. What’s more important to you, now or then? Can you let the trauma, story, belief or holdover from the past go? What happens if you release it? Not that you will forget (probably not possible), but are you really interested in being free of its effect on you?
What happens if you take responsibility for your thoughts, your feelings and the way you experience the present moment? Because you can, you know. You’re the hero or heroine of your own story, while at the same time, you’re the author. No matter what your circumstances are or have been, you are the one writing the story. You can change the storyline at any time. You can start over now. And now. And again, now if you need to.
It’s Spring at the moment, but the art this week is about Autumn. Trees are experts at letting go of things that are likely to damage them. Leaves of deciduous trees are relatively tender and susceptible to damage from cold winter weather. If leaves stayed on a tree permanently and they were damaged by winter (as they are likely to be), they would be unable to make food for the tree the following Spring and over time, as more leaves are damaged, this would starve and kill the tree. It’s much safer to start over each Spring with a fresh kitchen crew, or set of new leaves ready to feed the tree in the warmer months.
As winter draws closer, the days get shorter, and the leaves slow the production of food for the tree. Have you ever wondered why leaves fall? It’s not that in the Autumn the leaves are weaker and the wind stronger and eventually, the tree is bare. The tree actually produces a layer of cells to give the leaf a shove off. Abscission cells begin to form a line between the tree branch and the leaf stem that little by little separate the two. A breeze might finish the job, but the tree is protecting its health by actively letting go of that which has been feeding it.
You have to power to do so as well. And while winter may be more difficult for a season, you will have the potential to emerge healthy and ready to grow when Spring comes.
Want to process the ideas in this podcast further? Download the Coffee Talk Worksheet or put this week’s art on your phone: Episode 29 Downloads