Facing the Past
despite its wrenching pain,
cannot be unlived,
but if faced with courage,
doesn’t need to be
~ Maya Angelou
Everyone, to one degree or another, has lived through painful experiences in their lives. Some people have suffered unimaginable pain in their families, relationships, neighborhoods or war/refugee histories. Others have been fortunate enough to have had basically trauma-free lives; yet even these individuals have experienced the smaller traumas of daily life like not being understood, seen or acknowledged sufficiently that have affected their sense of self and created some shame or self-doubt.
As Maya Angelou says, we cannot change or erase our histories; they are the unique stories and experiences that make us who we are. Yet so often, they are relived again and again in present time. Most people see and experience the world and other people not as they are but through the lens of their past experience which impacts their current expectations.
The key to not being doomed to continually re-experience ( think of the movie Ground Hog Day) the same relationships, traumas, misunderstandings, etc is to courageously turn and face them. It's similar to a familiar dream scenario where an individual is being chased or pursued and is always running away from the perceived danger. What might happen in the dream if instead of running, the dreamer turned and confronted the pursuer?
Similarly, the only way to be able to live a different life today, one free of the dysfunctional patterns of the past, free of the paralyzing fears or worries about what happened previously, is to truly face the past. Re-experience the pain as an adult who can metabolize it in a way a child couldn't when it was occurring, feeling the sadness, the anger, the pain and whatever else there is to feel fully. Grieving what was and what wasn't. Learning to differentiate what is going on now from the past. Letting go of repetitive unhealthy patterns, creating new habits and new neural pathways. Embracing mindfulness, an awareness of what is right now in this moment. Not easy, but well worth the effort!
Peggy Handler, MFT, is a psychotherapist in San Francisco's Noe Valley