Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

The Past: Don't Dwell on It, Revision It! Part 2

Improve your self-image by "rewriting your history."

Productively Revisioning the Past

Revisiting bygone times to revision them differs dramatically from simply dwelling on them. For the process of revisioning the past is mostly about reperceiving it in a way that helps correct present deficiencies in your self-concept. It really has nothing to do with vain attempts to relive the past as such. And done properly, it doesn't put you at risk for getting mired or entrapped in yesteryear either.

Rather, it's about asserting your adult prerogative to interpret anew the various things that happened to you when you were much younger--to correct the faulty understandings that eventuated in negative ideas you still have about yourself. Given your level of cognitive development back then, you couldn't possibly have understood accurately the deepest import of what your eyes and ears seemed to be telling you. It's also likely that, beholding reality with a child's egocentricity, you couldn't help but ascribe detrimental meanings to yourself in connection with negative events that may in fact have had little (or nothing) to do with you.

To give but one example, suppose when you were young you witnessed the painful divorce of your parents. And let's say that before they separated, they fought constantly--and many times when they were engaged in fierce battle, you heard your name come up. Scared, despondent, and unable to resist feeling somehow "implicated" in their domestic warfare, you concluded that their horrible animosity must in some way be your fault; and that, finally, they had to go their separate ways because you were so bad. If neither parent (succumbing to their own highly-charged emotions) made efforts to reassure you that their splitting up had nothing to do with you, then even as a grown-up you might harbor irrational feelings about causing trouble, or not being good enough . . . maybe even about being shameful, defective, or unforgivable.

In such a scenario, it should be obvious that (1) reviewing your past to discover just where such self-defeating, self-invalidating beliefs originated, and (2) realizing that it was your parents themselves--not you--that caused their break-up, could be enormously helpful in enabling you to modify what earlier may have felt like a burden of self-doubt you were destined to haul around for the rest of your life. What you mistakenly thought was your fault you can now recognize as totally their responsibility. For it was they who couldn't reconcile their differences, and your behavior--whatever it was--probably existed only at the periphery of their conflicts.

It's certainly common today to hear about individuals' "rewriting history." And the connotations of their doing so are generally quite cynical, as in their distorting facts simply to justify themselves, or make themselves look superior to others. But there's another kind of "history rewrite" that I can't but view as wholly positive--and completely warranted. And as I've just illustrated, that involves revisiting the past to correct (or "revision") the unfavorable conclusions you came to about yourself, either as a result of specific parental shortcomings, or being subject to an abusive environment generally.

Here you're not so much rewriting your history as amending the flawed, self-disparaging interpretations you felt obliged to make of it at the time. If, overall, you're saddled with a negative self-concept, have you seriously asked yourself where exactly it stems from? If you do, you'll likely discover that any deep sense you have of not being good enough derives from adverse--and erroneous--messages you received about yourself in the past. It hardly matters whether such messages were overt or covert, intentional or inadvertent. If you felt obliged to accept the authority of those who "delivered" them, you would have ended up defining yourself on that pernicious basis.

So if you're hard on--or harsh with--yourself, it could be extremely valuable to mentally return to your childhood and ask yourself whether your caretakers were overly critical of you, whether they held you to unrealistically high, or exaggerated, standards. Once you become fully conscious of the emotionally abusive things they may have said or done to you, you can begin to reduce your negative self-judgments and stop following in their denigrating footsteps. When you realize that you no longer have to abide by their unjustified expectations, you can finally exhale and begin to cut yourself more slack. You can stop putting yourself down for falling short of what may have become your own unrealistic expectations of yourself. After all, now that you have a choice in the matter, why in the world would you opt to validate their distorted "teachings" by adopting the same discouraging, disapproving, or disparaging standards they may once have imposed upon you?!

With greater insight and awareness, you can begin revising your negative, unsupportive self-beliefs, which as a child or adolescent may, unfortunately, have made perfect sense to you. You can now see these derogatory notions of self more accurately--as arbitrary, illogical, and even (well) silly. And you can recognize how having held onto such ideas has hindered you from advancing in life as you've wanted. How it's prevented you from becoming all that, potentially, it's been in you to become . . . how, in short, it's kept you from being as happy as otherwise you might have been.

So chronic doubts about your competence, attractiveness, worth, or essential goodness may desperately require reassessment and revision in light of all the knowledge and experience you've gained since childhood. Without doing such "remedial" work, it's almost inevitable that your behavior will continue to be governed by distorted, deprecating messages you received about yourself (or at least thought you received) earlier.

To the degree that any of your present-day behaviors are maladaptive, it's safe to assume that they continue to be "backed by" biases against yourself that are both unfavorable and out-of-date. So, again, the key objective in revisiting your past is to reevaluate the grievous conclusions you may have come to when--compelled to wrest some pragmatic meaning from your experience--you could do so only in ways that (though age-appropriate) were severely limited, or fallacious.

Remember, as an adult you need no longer be bound by programs that constrained you as a child. Back then, you may have had little choice but to go along with what your family required of you. Teeming as you were with dependency needs necessitated your seeking out whatever succor and security was available. And, assuming that acceptance from your family was conditional, you may have been all too willing to "forfeit" parts of yourself to win their validation and support. To quell inner anxiety, you may have needed to disown whatever parts of yourself seemed to get disapproved of--and even to align yourself with (or acquiesce to) your caretakers' negative evaluations. And if the particular objects of your desire were linked to their disapproval, you may have had to flat out deny them, too (or declare yourself unworthy of them).

But now that you're older, it's time to free yourself from such past constraints. So, for instance, if you've been sabotaging your chances of success because you grew up with dysfunctional parents who literally found ways of punishing you whenever you did something better than they could, it only makes sense to revisit your childhood to review how and when you decided that--for you, personally--success signified failure . . . such that, unconsciously, you've been tripping yourself up ever since. If this is the case, can you take the present opportunity to realize that it's now you who are your (inner) child's parent? That your original mother or father can no longer hurt or humiliate you? And that it's now safe to achieve your personal best in whatever endeavor you choose to engage in? Especially, you want to remind yourself that you definitely deserve a box seat in your own cheering section.

Another form of self-sabotage that harks back to past abuse is habitually rehearsing disadvantageous, self-fulfilling prophecies. If you have a tendency to predict your own failure, you need to ask yourself what the source is for your routinely anticipating negative outcomes. What in the past gave rise to such a self-defeating program? Once your locate the origins(s) for your deeply embedded disbelief in yourself, it's time to tell yourself that the present only need repeat the past if the self-assumptions rooted in the past remain unchallenged. As soon as you remind yourself that you've got a lot more resources today than you had earlier, you can set about implementing them. Which will make present-day success far more likely--despite any past failures you may have overgeneralized, or (unwittingly) "immortalized."

Beyond resolving issues of self-disparagement and self-sabotage, there are several other reasons to return to--and revision--your earlier life. And in different ways they all pertain to getting much-needed closure on the past.

For instance, feelings of anger, guilt, shame, and regret may all need to be reconciled. And the single best way to accomplish this is to review what once happened to you as something that had to happen, given your--and others'--level of development/evolution at the time. It may well be a platitude to say that everyone does the best they can. Still, I'm convinced that taking such a benign perspective toward humanity is not only charitable, but reasonable as well. To compassionately understand our collective weaknesses and defenses--as well as the limits in our sensitivity, knowledge, understanding, and moral development--is, finally, to accept our common frailties in a manner that allows us to move beyond poisonous feelings of gloom, resentment, hatred, or vengefulness. So if you can adopt such a forgiving position both toward yourself and those in the past who caused you pain, you can begin the healthy process of letting go of earlier hurts and disappointments.

Regarding your past differently--that is, revisioning it--enables you to make final peace with it. Only then can your future truly hold the promise that till now may have eluded you. As I've said, fully accepting what can never be changed helps you exonerate yourself (and everybody else) for whatever went wrong while you were growing up. Whatever impulsive actions, inconsiderate behaviors, or rash decisions you made back then can now be chalked up primarily to immaturity and lack of experience.

Doubtless, undertaking such a course of "letting go" won't be without a certain grief. But this may also be something that's long overdue. Remember, however bad your earlier years may have been, you couldn't grieve them while they were still going on--while they continued, in fact, to be your present. And once you grew up, you probably tried mostly to forget them, never giving yourself the opportunity--precisely through grieving--to say farewell to past miseries once and for all. So in revisioning times gone by you have an ideal opportunity to mourn past abuses and deprivations, even as you promise yourself that in the here-and-now you'll give yourself the support, validation, and caring you never received enough of during your youth.

It's vital that you tell yourself--over and over till the message finally sinks into the deepest recesses of your being--that you unquestionably deserved the non-judgmental nurturing that your parents may have withheld from you. And also that you can start treating yourself in ways that are much more attentive, respectful, and loving. You need to reassure yourself that now you will provide that unconditional nurturance and acceptance which is fundamental not only for healthy adult self-regard but for warm, fulfilling relationships as well.

Note 1: If you missed part 1, delineating the negatives of revisiting the past only to dwell on it, here's the link.

Note 2: Anyone with a particular interest in the phenomenon of self-sabotage might wish to look at two earlier posts of mine on the subject. The first discusses in detail the sources of such behavior, and the second considers the problem ironically--as acts of passive-aggression against the self.

Note 3: Any of you who qualify as people-pleasers might wish to look at how your childhood may have contributed to this problem of giving yourself up to others. Here are links to parts 1, 2, and 3 of a series of posts I've done on the subject. Its general title is "From Parent-Pleasing to People-Pleasing: The Journey Away from Self . . . and the Way Back."

Note 4: Finally, readers who were deprived of basic nurturing might want to explore my post, "Bonding vs. Bondage: What We Learn from Our Parents."

‭© ‬2011‭ ‬Leon F.‭ ‬Seltzer,‭ ‬Ph.D.‭ ‬All Rights Reserved.

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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